My parents were invited to the Cunninghams' once a year. When I was 9 they dared bring me along. "Don't ask too many questions," my mother instructed.
"How many is too many?"
None! No questions at all; my parents would insist on Good Behavior. Their own behavior would be Extremely Good. They would not be recognizable as the couple who brushed their teeth side by side, amiably spitting across each other's arc.
Dr. and Mrs. Cunningham lived in a brownstone in the oldest part of our New England city. On the ground floor were two professional offices — Dr. Cunningham's and my father's. The men were ophthalmologists. I was the only person in my class who could spell that word, though every one of my irritated classmates now knew what it meant.
The Cunninghams received us in a red parlor. A fire burned in the hearth, underneath the portrait of an Ancestor. The Ancestor wore a white scarf instead of a tie. He had a mouth with no lips.
Mrs. Cunningham sat on a wing chair to the left of the fireplace. Dr. Cunningham came forward to shake hands with my mother, whom he had last seen 52 weeks earlier, and with my father, whom he had last seen yesterday. He shook hands with me, too. His hand was dry and warm.
Mrs. Cunningham merely gazed at me long and hard. I returned the inspection, taking in the pewter bangs, the brown eyes behind glasses, and the dress with its print of tiny flowers. She blinked first (I was class champion at holding stares). "My daughter had curls like yours when she was small," she said.
Does she shave her head now that she's big? Was she an only child? How many questions was she allowed? "Curly hair sometimes gets straight later," I explained to my hostess.
"We have two sons and a daughter, all with straight hair," offered Dr. Cunningham. "They live in other places."