In the early days of my courtship with Sparta, he gave me a photo of him and his work partner, taken at a youth group fundraiser. It showed the two police officers in their blue uniforms, thumbs hooked into their utility belts, smiling broadly in front of a giant hand-painted crescent moon. The photo was enclosed in a smudged paper frame with stars around the edges, a party favor from the event.
At a family gathering that evening, I showed it to my mother. She inspected it at length and then handed it back to me with a slight smile.
“Well . . . he’s not . . . totally repulsive,” she pronounced.
I laughed, taking this for what it was, my mother’s way of showing tentative approval.
I call my mom “The Munchen.” As in the German name for the city of Munich. We were traveling together in Munich over twenty years ago, and I liked saying the word over and over, and it somehow stuck to her. Perhaps it is the authoritative European sound to it. Something about the half “k,” half “sh” sound in Munchen fits my mother. Also, unless I am directly addressing her, she is not “Munchen,” but “The Munchen,” as in “Honey, don’t forget The Munchen is coming over for dinner tonight.”
The Munchen was born in Hungary to an aristocratic mother and a gentleman soldier father. Hungary was essentially a feudal society then — in Hungarian there are at least six ways to say “how are you?” and the proper one depends on a complex calculation of the age, sex and class of both the speaker and the listener. This heritage manifests itself in The Munchen as a deep attraction to formality.
Refugees after the Second World War, The Munchen and her family lived in camps in Austria for six years. They came to the U.S. when The Munchen was 17. They were dirt poor and lived in tenements in New Jersey. The Munchen was driven to succeed. She went to college and then medical school, became a cardiologist, and then became one of the highest-ranking women in the pharmaceutical industry.
The Munchen is opposed to hydrangea. She resents its gaudiness, its ostentation, its commonness. During my youth she refused to set foot in certain stores — Sears, Woolworth’s, Marshall’s. Cloth napkins had to be sent to the dry cleaners, never laundered. For The Munchen, these practices set us apart from the hoi polloi.
The Munchen has an expression she telegraphs me when I am doing something wrong. Almost imperceptible to others, it is something between a shudder and a head-shake. She closes her eyes, firms her lips together, and vibrates her head. I have a transponder on the back of my head that picks up these vibrations, even if The Munchen is miles away. To assert my independence, much of my life I have deliberately tried to trigger the head shudder.
I started out in simple ways. Wipe my nose with toilet paper? Put my socks on the table? Dispense with wearing underwear under my jeans? These tactics worked great for a while. But when I went off to college, they seemed to lose their power. I needed something bigger.
I went to Stanford, and The Munchen approved. I could sense her relish that I would soon be wearing pantyhose, carrying a briefcase, and climbing the corporate ladder. Instead I worked in construction for several years, a period which The Munchen referred to as “Marking Time Until Graduate School.”
When I began dating, The Munchen naturally favored Ivy-League grads. I was not interested in anything so dull, so conventional. I was drawn instead to a handsome brooding former gang leader from Mexico City. What did I care that he had little education, couldn’t speak English, and was illegally in the country? That head-shudder lasted two and a half years.
I was 31 years old when I met Sparta, and beyond rebelling against The Munchen. But it still tickled me that, as a police officer, Sparta was technically working class. That he ate off paper plates, never folded his laundry, and chewed tobacco. That he’d given me a photo of himself smiling in front of a home-made paper moon. I looked forward to setting The Munchen’s head a- shudder by introducing him to the family.
When Sparta met The Munchen, he broke off telling me why I shouldn’t walk my dogs alone at night, just to say “Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He also pulled her chair out for her while forcefully arguing against my idea to put all my money in tech stocks. The whole night went by, and not once did her lips purse! It turned out Sparta and The Munchen were oddly kindred spirits. Sparta doesn’t leave the house without shaving. The Munchen doesn’t leave without pantyhose. He is a military officer, and she is a fiend for decorum. When she visits, they sit around discussing politics or world history, and he never forgets to re-fill her wine glass, or pass her the butter when she needs it.
For old times’ sake I occasionally try to get The Munchen to do the head-shudder at Sparta. I point out that he is licking his fingers at the table, or smoking a smelly cigar, or wearing socks with holes in them. She just smiles like she has a little secret.
Once my 13-year-old dog got in a fight with a Newfoundland at the dog park. My dog disappeared under the black hairy blob. I’d broken up dog fights before and knew that the first thing to do was start yelling as loud as I could. Not to be outdone, Sparta whipped out his pepper spray and sprayed at the head portion of the blob, which did exactly nothing. I charged the blob, kicked it and pulled its collar. This caused a moment’s pause in the rumble, and we pulled the dogs apart.
I told this story to The Munchen at dinner and she said, “Oh, thank goodness Sparta was there.”
I said “PUH!” and spit out my lentils. “What do you mean Sparta? I was the one that broke up the dogfight!”
It was no use. She just firmed her lips, closed her eyes, and shook her head ever so gently.