Jade took me aside and told me in nearly a whisper that Leila, to celebrate and honor the arrival of Maria, is hosting a formal dinner for the two of us that evening at eight, sharp, and that Leila of course expects I will "dress." Lucky that when I packed my bag in Ischia, I decided to include a white shirt and dark blue silk tie, to go with my blazer, kahki slacks and loafers.
I descended the creaking spiral carpeted staircase, took a left. It was dark in the hallway, because The Queen, ever frugal, was intent on saving on the electric bill. I entered the dining room. Leila was in a purple robe-like thing with a tangle of chain-linked gold and silver necklaces and faintly clinking oversized bracelets on both arms, and several rings, one of them bearing a cluster of glinting diamonds.
She sat imperially at the head of a nine-foot-wide and twenty-five-foot-long mahogany dining room table that bore a multitude of lighted candles held by an array of highly polished silver candlebras. Scattered helter-skelter on the polished surface was a gaggle of four-inch-high silver ducks and geese, as well as tiny silver salt dishes, and an assembly of forks, knives, spoons, and elegant crystal glasses, everything glinting and glowing in the warm candlelight.
As I was about to take a seat, Leila impatiently motioned toward her left, indicating I take that seat, most certainly NOT the one on her right, which was reserved for you-know-who, the guest of honor.
Three minutes later Maria entered the room.
"Oh, darling!" Leila said, with a dazzling smile that replaced the mouth-down-turned semi-scowl she'd shown me when I entered. "At last, at last, here you are! I've so much looked forward to finally having you here with me."
Sally the maid served us shallow bowls of soup, each with a dollop of sour cream. Through the various courses, Leila quizzed Maria about her childhood on the island of Ischia, her strict father Ernesto and his vineyards, her dour, disapproving mother, and the whole family emigrating to America when Maria was twelve. Now and again I'd offer a comment, but Leila ignored me.
Maria described each summer going on long boat rides to visit her Nonna on the island of Ponza, and picking vegetables in the garden, and lemons and oranges from the trees in the orchard, and of course daily swimming in the sea.
"Oh, yes, yes, YES!" Leila said. "You must know that 'A Garden By The Sea' is the title of my latest book, which was published just last week!"
She turned to me.
"Go to the den and get a copy," she commanded.
Ever her obedient servant/slave, I rose and headed down the dark hallway. Of course there was no copy of the book in the den. How could there have been? I considered going upstairs to get one from the huge pile of her books in the closet in my room, but I thought no, that would take too much time. I didn't want to risk annoying her royal highness.
"Well then for God's sake go upstairs and get one from the pile of books in the closet in the second guest bedroom!" Leila said, clearly annoyed.
Book finally before her, Leila reached for the little black plastic thing that resembled a TV remote control, and pushed the button. Sally quickly emerged from the kitchen. "Bring me a pen," Leila commanded.
"Leila took the cover photo," I said.
"Oh, it's SO beautiful," Maria said.
And indeed it was. A grassy slope facing the dark blue Long Island Sound, below a light blue sky, a mass of blue flowers behind a tree, and in the foreground lots and lots of yellow flowers, and a bench. A wonderful composition.
"Sally!" Leila shouted.
"Where's the pen?"
"It's right there beside your plate, mum."
"Oh? Yes, there it is."
Leila rapidly scribbled:
"For dear Maria, with much love from the author, Leila Hadley Luce."
She boldly underlined her signature, and I recalled decades ago, when I was her houseguest at 1160 Fifth Avenue, she told me that were I to send my editor at Esquire a note, I should do this. Why? "Because it has a motor effect on the mind of the reader. The royalty in England do it, and for good reason."
Leila handed Maria the book, then leaned back and looked up toward the ceiling. "I got the title from a poem by William Morris, the nineteenth century writer," she said. "It goes...
I know a little garden-close
Set thick with lily and red rose,
Where I would wander if I might
From dewy dawn to dewy night,
And have one with me wandering."
After a pause, she continued.
"I grew up believing that cultivating plants and flowers is an indispensable part of any good life. My grandmother, you know, was a friend of the great British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. I was steeped in the notion that truly beautiful gardens are composed with restraint and harmony. Size and extravagance is never the point. I've cultivated gardens all over the world, from South Africa to California, but one of my favorites remains a little jungle of blue morning glories in terracotta pots on a Manhattan balcony, no larger than a bath mat..."
Maria nodded, and smiled. Was that a little tear welling and glistening in the corner of her eyes?
Sally served desert, a fruit paste encased in a flaky crust, with a small scoop of walnut ice cream. She poured us Columbian coffee from a large silver pot.
"My beautiful garden on Fishers Island," Leila said, "is a form of personal expression. Yes. A most exquisite way of communicating. And of course my need, my passion, my obsession to clearly express myself began in my childhood."
Leila then launched into a detailed, dreamy description of being at the beach when she was a toddler. She ran from her nanny to splash at the sea's edge, and fell down, and got herself trapped beneath a thick rope safety line. As the waves drew back and rolled over her head, she shrieked for help, and swallowed salt water. Her nanny, sitting upright on the clean, white, soft-sugar sand above the wrack line, knitting bag beside her on the striped beach towel, obviously thought little Leila was screaming with delight, waving simply to show off and attract attention…
I looked at Maria. She was entranced, utterly captivated by Leila's narrative, which I recognized as being nearly word for word from her book, "A Journey With Elsa Cloud." This woman, I thought, forgets absolutely nothing. Her memory is photographic. Her mind is a vast labyrinth.
"From that time forward," Leila continued, "words and communication took on an immense significance to me. There are times when I fear that I'll be cut off, unable to communicate, annihilated. My mother used to say that speech is silver, and silence is golden. Of our unspoken words we are masters, but our spoken words are masters of us."
After a few sips of coffee, Leila reached over and put her hand on Maria's. "I understand, darling, that after your brain tumor surgery you experienced episodes of amnesia."
"Yes," Maria replied. "It was very strange. For a while I didn't recognize my family. But I was still ME. I could still speak Italian. I could remember some stuff from my childhood, like going to Ventotene and Ponza. I think it all happened when I found out that my parents had lied to me all my life about who I was, where I came from."
There wasn’t a trace of anger in her voice, she was just directly and clearly answering Leila's questions. How utterly beautiful she looked in the warm, soft candle light.
“Are you artistic?" Leila asked. "Do you paint?”
Maria replied that she likes to sketch, but absolutely loves photography.
"She's got a natural and flawless sense of composition," I said. "Something that can't be taught. You either have it, or you don't."
Leila beamed. "I knew it, I just knew it. You, my darling, are an artist!"