Episode 3. A Summer in New Jersey
My stepmother, Elizabeth. How can I describe her? In my diary, I call her just that, Elizabeth, but in real life I say Madame Elizabeth, the French way, to make it extra polite and a little sophisticated. I guess that she would like me to call her Mother, but I just cannot do that and I don't want to explain why, so in our conversation we stick to Madame Elizabeth. She calls me "dear boy" or, in formal circumstances, Temple.
Elizabeth could not be more different from my Aunt Sally. Sally laughs, sings, runs after the boys, makes a million pies, muffins, stews, soups, while trotting around in her slippers. Elizabeth is slender and frail, very pretty, every curl in place. She never lifts a finger in the house — I should say in the mansion — but calls upon one of her many servants. She is in poor health, or at least she thinks so, I don't know which. Father adores her and worries constantly about her health; his face darkens every time she coughs.
There is something about Elizabeth that makes me want to stay in whatever room she is: A delicate perfume always floats around her, but it is not always the same. Sometimes lavender, she told me, and sometimes roses. She orders the perfumes from England, and when we sit together in her parlor on a rainy day, we talk all the time about London, the streets and the shops she has not seen in so many years and misses more than ever.
In a secret drawer not far from her mirror she keeps the English tea that we are not supposed to drink because of the non-importation rules. We savor every sip, and feel like accomplices. It's delicious. Above all, I like to look at her dresses, to look at them like the painter I hope to be someday. In Aunt Sally's case, you can always tell whether a dress is blue, green, or yellow, but with Elizabeth the dress hovers between two colors, between blue and green, between pink and lilac, or — my favorite — between peach and apricot.
Now that my paintbox has arrived in the trunk from England, I try to reproduce that color, but her dress is made of silk and it shimmers, so that I never get it right. The dress matches perfectly the color of her hair and Father gasps with admiration when he sees her wearing it, glowing in the candlelight.
And then, there is that rustle when she walks, a sweet, faint sound something like Grandfather's glass armonica, but there would be no point in telling him that because I have already gathered that he is not fond of Elizabeth.
I think he feels that she has too much influence over my father and that the Governor's persistent loyalty to the Crown is due to her Englishness. But my father, I believe, has other reasons for being faithful to King George and his ministers. It is England, after all, that has lifted him from the condition of bastard son — my status — to that of Royal Governor with all the trappings that he enjoys so much. Grandfather's goals are different. He is after something more difficult to pinpoint than trappings.
Time to slide into that fabulous feather bed, the like of which I had never experienced until this luxurious summer.