CLASS CAN BE defined as rank, tribe, costume, grooming, culture, acculturation, education, manners, and taste. Class also includes attitudes and assumptions. It is an implicit and explicit source of identity.
Joey was as different from me as dark to light. He was upper class, eloquent, and always tastefully dressed. He was educated at the best schools available, including a short stint at Yale, while I was gratuitously passed with benefit of remedial classes by my high school. He was brilliant and articulate, while I stammered incomplete sentences and mispronounced basic words.
His table manners were impeccable. Once, at dinner, he delicately dissected an artichoke, a vegetable that I had never laid eyes on and would not have known how to begin to eat. I watched, mesmerized, as he drew each artichoke leaf through his teeth before placing the remains in a perfect circle around the edges of his hors d’oeuvre plate. I, on the other hand, less brave with the unfamiliar, would always eat something with the word “chicken” in the menu description. I was, after all, familiar with chickens. Unsure of which fork to use first, or where to place my napkin, I would just hold them in my hand until I saw how others managed these things.
He dressed in linen shirts, tailored slacks, and loafers with tassels. Lacking any degree of fashion sensibilities, I wore whatever ill-fitting outfits I had purchased from the Goodwill store. Throughout high school, I had mostly worn borrowed clothes from kind neighborhood girlfriends willing to share their wardrobe.
I don’t think Joey really meant to look down on me, but one cannot be educated without eventually cringing at the mispronunciation of even simple words. I frequently said things like, “Joey, I don’t got no clothes to wear.”
Marilyn was reported to have said, “A man can’t love a woman for whom he feels contempt,” explaining, “He can’t love her if his mind is ashamed of her.”
I’m quite sure that, like myself, there were times when Marilyn wanted to shrivel up and hide from the assumptions, even jokes, about her purported “dumbness.” She is also reported to have said: “I suddenly knew myself. How clumsy, empty, uncultured I was, a sullen orphan with a goose egg for a head.” She emphasized this belief in her last interview before her death—she begged reporters, “Please, don’t make me a joke.”
Shortly after our marriage, Joey introduced me to his cousin, Betty, and her husband, Bud. Betty was the daughter of Joe Sr.’s sister, Marie, with whom he was living in San Francisco. When I stepped into the foyer of Betty’s home for the first time, my eyes got as wide as saucers. I was overwhelmed by the massive crystal chandelier and the large, winding staircase with shining wooden banisters. My inability to know how to behave was apparent. I was panicked by what I should do, might do, or might say, and my immediate reaction was to turn and hide in the restroom. The home itself alarmed me. How can one even think of stepping on such magnificent, flawless floors or sitting on such elegant furniture with a body that has never before done so?
Had it not been for the loving graciousness of Betty, I may never have come out of the bathroom. At dinner everyone had their own little sterling silver set of salt and pepper shakers. Then there was the silverware to contend with. I was a nervous wreck as I tried to secretly watch what everyone else did. I kept mixing things up and dropping the silverware. To make things worse, I stuttered. I always did this more when I was anxious, which further embarrassed Joey.
I tried to cover up my awkwardness by talking. I said to Betty, “Joey tells me that you just got back from a trip to Germany?”
Betty replied, “Yes, we just returned home last Sunday. It was a wonderful vacation.”
“Oh, that sounds fabulous,” I replied. “Have you ever been to Europe?” I saw everyone look at one another, but I didn’t understand why. The sinking feeling in my stomach told me that I had just made a mistake, but I couldn’t identify what it was. I had that old familiar sense that someone had opened a little door on the top of my head and was pouring a gallon of ice water through me. I felt mortified by the reaction in the room. Someone thankfully changed the subject, but I wanted to crawl under the table. Kind Betty tried to keep me in the conversation with more questions.
Betty said, “So, Dawn, Joey tells me that the two of you spent a weekend at my Uncle Joe’s house in San Francisco, and that you had a little ‘upset’ with my mother, Marie.”
I replied in my usual poor grammatical style, “Yes! I just thought that it was pretty weird that Marie wanted me and Joey to sleep in separate bedrooms since we’d got married already.”
Betty replied, “Well, it’s not weird if you know my mother, but that sure sounds like her Catholic righteousness stuff. Anything else about your visit with my Uncle Joe and my mother seem weird to you?”
“Well, it seemed kind of strange to me that so many things in the house had ‘Joe DiMaggio’ written on it. His name was on the table- cloths, the pillow cases, the bathroom towels, the kitchen towels, and even on the coffee cups and sugar bowl. Didn’t he know his name already? Oh yeah, and the living room furniture all had little claw feet that reminded me of little animals. That was really strange. I never saw nothing like that before.”
Joey rolled his eyes at my comments, and I could tell that he was getting irritated and that he wanted me to shut up. It wouldn’t be long before I understood that a big part of his irritation was my profound ignorance on all topics, especially my poor grammar. In this case, he hated my ignorance regarding antique furniture, crystal, china, and other things presented to his father as gifts that were considered good taste in decorating.
Sweet Betty ignored the looks between Joey and Bud and continued engaging me. Gently chuckling, she explained, “That antique living room furniture is really ugly; it would scare the pants off a saint! When Marilyn lived in that house, she tried in vain to get my Uncle Joe to allow her to remodel the place, but Joe wouldn’t have it. That’s exactly the way the house looked when his parents were alive. Joe absolutely refused to change a single thing about it, which was a point of contention between him and Marilyn. I sure don’t blame her for not wanting to live there. Uncle Joe and my mother keep that place like a shrine and it is truly depressing. But then, my mother is depressing, the way she makes Joe her whole life, like he’s a king or something. She never did have much time for me when I was growing up, because everything was about her ‘beloved famous brother, Joe.’ The Joe DiMaggio. Why, she waits on him hand and foot, and it still makes me sick to think about it.”
Betty’s husband, Bud, rolled his eyes as he shook his head, then suggested with a big sigh, “C’mon, Joey, the 49ers are playing; let’s go watch them.”
I let out a long breath as Betty smiled warmly, lighting up another cigarette while offering me one as well. My shoulders slowly uncoiled away from my ears as I inhaled deeply. I smiled back at Betty as we began clearing the table. I thought how much I liked this lovely woman.