It's Never Enough

Joyce Benedict

© Copyright 2021 by Joyce Benedict

Photo of a bowl of strawberries.
A most unusual afternoon luncheon in a New York mansion brings a valuable, life  lesson to a young married woman. 

It was my senior year at college. I was living in an ancient old, stone home converted into a dormitory where an equally ancient, upright piano resided collecting dust in a corner in an antiquated living room. I had been there for months and no one had  ‘tickled the ivories.’

One very cold mid-afternoon day, while chatting with several girls in my room, I heard a beautiful rendition of “The Warsaw Concerto” being played on the old upright. It’s powerful and haunting strains permeated the entire small dormitory. Drawn by the exquisite playing I rushed downstairs. In the dorm’s dilapidated living room, filled with stuffed chairs from a previous century, the old upright was being brought to life by a young man deeply engrossed in his playing. When he finished, I applauded vigorously. Piano concertos being my favorite for years.  We became immediately engrossed in the discussion of classical music. We dated, became engaged, and married after graduation.

Following  several job changes and moves, Fred, my husband, learned the Clark’s, a wealthy family of the Clark Sewing Thread Company, had scholarship funds invested in ample trusts for promoting talented young people.  His mother had been head maid at their summer home in Cooperstown, New York, where Fred had played at numerous, formal dinner parties. His desire to teach and go to graduate school had been formulating for quite a while.  He contacted the head trustee of the Clark estate. “You must see Mrs. Clark first for me to proceed with the formalities,” replied the tall, stiff, elderly, pencil-thin gentleman Fred had seen.   
An appointment was made to not only visit Mrs. Clark in her home in New York City, but an invitation to join her for lunch! On the given day I donned a simple black and white summer maternity dress, white summer hat and gloves for the occasion.  A gorgeously clear, summer’s day greeted us on the big day. We felt this to be a good omen.  Filled with great anticipation, we drove from Cooperstown, where we were living with his parents, to her home in Manhattan in a rusty, old, 2-door Ford. 

We arrived on time. The home was a large, three-storied brownstone building on a quiet, tree-lined street. We parked in front.  Fred rang the door bell and a stately butler welcomed us to enter. An impressive foyer opened into a living room whose ceiling rose to  second-story height. My trained artist’s eye spotted original paintings of Rembrandt, Turner, and  Picasso, as well as many portraits that must have been family ancestors.  It was as though I were in a museum, not someone’s winter home.
Mrs. Clark greeted us in a relaxed and friendly manner talking to Fred as if he were her nephew of long standing. Then she ushered us into the dining room. The butler assisted in adjusting my chair.   Fred sat directly opposite from me and Mrs. Clark sat at the head of the table to my left.  She had gray hair well coifed and lovely pearls cascaded down her attractively ruffled blouse. Matching pearls adorned her ears. A quiet, unassuming, regal bearing surrounded her. I felt very comfortable at once. She was gracious and pleasant and did not have the pompous air one sometimes finds in people who are very wealthy. 
Servants discreetly appeared  bringing glasses of water, soups, and breads all served on exquisite dishes recognizing Lenox China, Waterford Crystal,  with butter and jams served in silver boats.  Fred and Mrs. Clark began discussing his teaching plans making references to people and places in Cooperstown I had not known. A luscious, perfectly poached salmon served on steamed spinach our fare along with tea, milk or coffee as beverage choices. 

Mrs. Clark graciously inquired of my family, what my father did. Learning he had had large sailboats and cruisers she spoke lovingly of her days sailing at Martha’s Vineyard with her family. The meal passed pleasantly as the ghostlike servants drifted in and out doing their duties in silent precision. 

With the luncheon dishes cleared, dessert plates were brought in along with individual silver creamers placed before us. Clean silverware was set beside our dessert plates.  Another servant appeared with a tray and put a small plate on our larger one with two of the largest  strawberries I had ever seen in my life. They were the size of a small apple!  I wondered how to eat them. Following Mrs. Clark’s movements, which I copied discreetly, she poured cream on the berries, picked up her sterling fork and knife cutting one strawberry as you would a steak then directing the piece to her mouth.

“Mrs. Clark, “ I asked softly, “I have never in my life seen such large strawberries!”

Bestowing on me a lovely smile, she said, “Why my dear, we have them flown in fresh from England every Tuesday morning.” Inwardly, I mused that the cost of the berries, the flight, the delivery to her home alone could pay for Fred’s schooling.

Conversation and lunch concluded with finger bowls and damp cloths. She beckoned for us to follow her to the elevator. At the third floor we exited to be greeted by a scene straight from a medieval castle. A huge room dominated by a large dining table that would easily seat thirty-four people.  Great works of art adorned the walls.

We were directed to comfortable seats in front of an extremely impressive fireplace. As I sat down I observed a great wrought iron trimmed double door that led to a magnificent formal garden. I exclaimed, ‘It is breathtaking. One would never know this was in the heart of Manhattan by looking out onto it.” 

“Oh my dear,” she said enthusiastically, “we just love it too. We try to set the scene so we can imagine we are back in the country in Cooperstown. We are especially fond of this garden as members of the Metropolitan Opera come and serenade us Christmas Eve.”  

How does one reply to that while one juggles a sweet cake and tea on one’s pregnant lap? “Oh,” I replied, “how nice.”
Fred and Mrs. Clark, returned to their talk of scholarships, papers that had to be signed, and when the first check would arrive. College fees  were to be  paid directly to Oneonta State Teacher’s College where Fred would study for his master’s degree. We would also receive  an additional  stipend each month to cover our expenses for a year while he completed the courses. I was thrilled. 

Having concluded the business portion of the luncheon, they continued conversing about Cooperstown. We sat quietly to finish our cakes and tea. It provided an opportunity to inquire as to the magnificent  size and detail of the wood carvings on the 
remarkable fireplace I was facing. “Oh my dear,” she proudly exclaimed  “ the wood is from Lord Nelson’s battleship. We had it carved to our exact specifications.”  

“How creative!’ I replied. What else to say with that impressive piece of information?

Memory fades here as to what led to the last statement I was to hear as I sat in that magnificent home. I believe she had learned my family had a  summer home on an island located on the St.Lawrence River between the states and Canada.  She mentioned how she had loved that area and that the Rockefellers had several summer homes there along with fine homes scattered around the United States. 

“ Three homes are all I can afford keeping,” she remarked.  “After all,” and here she emitted a noticeable sigh,  “when you travel in the circles of the Rockefellers, why,” she paused, casting eyes upward and about, “this, is like living in a log cabin in comparison.” 

“Yes, “ I replied as we stood up heading towards the elevator, “ I see your point.” 

We were quiet on our drive back to Cooperstown. Fred lost in his thoughts of the year ahead of intense study while I contemplated her comment about the Rockefellers. To me it was an eye opener to realize that this very wealthy family had  compared their lives to those that had even more than they.

I felt a little kick inside me from the baby who was to be my son, Derek. I wondered who the Rockefellers felt inadequate next to. Probably one of those oil sheiks in Arab country I mused as we turned into the driveway of the quaint little farm house where we were temporarily living.

I realized that compared to the poverty-ridden section of cities I had seen and the bleak, rural southern towns which could have been background fodder for Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, Fred and I were living well.

Perhaps, I mused, Fred would become famous due to one of the books he had started, or become a second Victor Borge as he combined witty, clever humor with his fantastic playing.  Eventually, we also would have a home in Cooperstown on the beautiful ‘glimmer glass’ lake it was famous for. 

Fred completed his Masters program. Another baby followed. He started a teaching job in Kingston at $4900 a year. Our monthly rent was $95, and we thought that high! With much scrimping I got my first washing machine that year. No more lugging kids, diapers, and myself to the laundromat. 
After the washing machine, came the desired dryer. No more  shivering on windy days hanging out the kitchen window to hang the clothes on a line. Next came the long-awaited second car. No more waiting until he came home to stretch my horizons. A raise followed by a move to a larger apartment. 

Then the marriage fell apart. 

My dreams never materialized. No trip to Italy to further my Art Studies, No home on a beautiful lake. Fred wrote three books. They progressed no further than his desk. The beautiful music, the 16 years of lessons, the  playing in a bar, dinner parties, museum and gallery openings never brought fame or fortune. 

Through the years, raising my two sons on my own, I often thought of that three-hour ride to have lunch with Mrs. Clark.  I shall never forget sitting with her in her magnificent home, eating giant strawberries the likes of which I have never seen since and viewing great works of art at every turn.

When did ‘wanting’ end? Was I happier? More content? Life any easier? I had begun to reflect that no matter how much I get, another need or want surfaces like bubbles from an underground water pipe. Just as Mrs. Clark had discovered sitting amongst her Rembrandt, Picasso, Manet, and Monet paintings, with the Metropolitan choir serenading her each Christmas Eve while viewing that awesome fireplace everyday hadn’t been enough. If only she had what the Rockefellers had.

Many moons have passed since this episode in my life. It's lesson, through the years, guided me to live in balance within my modest means as I raised my sons. I currently live in historic Hyde Park, NY, home of my favorite president and first lady, Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose homes I conducted tours to folks from around the world. A love of Nature, admiration for Native Americans and their respect for Mother Earth, alternative healing methods, and writing about events that have deeply touched my life hold my interest still in my senior years.

Contact Joyce

(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Joyce's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher