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The World of Franyo, Part 23: If I Wasn’t Married…

Nicole Jeffords 3 weeks ago

I had always been under my mother’s thumb. That didn’t change when I reached college age. If she approved of my choices, I felt almost euphoric because it was so damn hard to get positive feedback from her. At the same time, I was keenly aware of how difficult she was. A great painter, yes, but extremely self-absorbed and narcissistic. The world always had to revolve around her. And if she criticized you: oooph! Shattering. You might as well live on the bottom of the ocean. At middle-age she had changed from the nerves-of-steel adventuress who had manipulated her way out of Hitler Germany to a spoiled and somewhat frivolous New York woman.

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At the time, I was sharing an apartment with two other girls up near Columbia. It was finals. I still had another year before graduation.  

I decided that to study effectively for finals, I needed the quiet of my parents’ house. I’d been out partying with my artist friend Sander Witlin the night before, so I slept late and was in the kitchen downing tons of coffee when there was a knock on the front door. Forgetting that I was in curlers and a ratty old bathrobe, I went to answer it. Two men with suitcases stood on the doorstep. It was late May and very warm, but both of them wore black turtlenecks and 1940s era suits. In heavily accented English, they asked for Mrs. Schindler. Ah, I thought. Friends of my mother’s from the old country. I let them in and went back upstairs to my books.

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“Whoever This Is” – Portrait by Sander Witlin

About an hour later, my mother buzzed me on the intercom, insisting I had to come down and meet these men. We argued: I was there to study, nothing else. She pushed till I gave in. “Okay, for five minutes,” I said, pulling out my curlers. All I knew about the men was that they had come to photograph some pieces in my parents’ art collection.

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On my way downstairs, I paused on the second floor balcony overlooking the living room below. One of the men was moving very gracefully around an art piece with a flashgun. His hair winged out, he was lithe as a cat. I had to see him from the front and study his face. I hurried the rest of the way down.

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Neither of the men – who turned out to be brothers – spoke English. They were Czech from Prague (then behind the Iron Curtain). All conversation was in German, which I barely understood. I didn’t care. I was spellbound. I couldn’t stop staring at the one with the flashgun whose name was Werner. He was in his forties with the most handsome, chiseled, interesting face I’d ever seen. The hell with exams. I sat all through lunch gawking at him. My father was away on a business trip at the time, so it was just me and Franyo who seemed to be staring at him a lot, too. After the brothers packed up their photographic equipment and left, my mother turned to me and said, “Wow, I’d put my slippers under his bed anytime.” This was an expression I’d never heard before, and have never heard since. “If I wasn’t married,” she added.

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Werner Forman

 

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**An episode from this memoir is published every Thursday for those following!

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