My mother’s first job in Atlanta initiated from a non conventional interview between her, the hiring manager and my father. “Yes, she’s very quick learner, very smart, 10-key pad, no problem. “Whatever she needs to learn, she will do, I give you my word.”
Mr. Folger West, VP of a corporate insurance company, was a tall, handsome, southern cowboy. He was a devout Shriner and Freemason who adorned his home with various plaques from “South’s gonna rise again” to “If you’re here, you’re family”. He had a distinct Bob Hope charm about him, caring with a dash of dry wit and a flirtatious spirit.
As my mother’s interpreter continues his over zealous sales pitch, Mr. West’s shifts his swivel chair towards the petite and quiet potential hiree. “Honey, he ever lets you speak?” My mother looks up with a quick giggle. “I’m just kiddin’, George I tell you what, I like you and I want to hire Ms. Grace, but I got one question and the answer to this will seal the deal”. “ Of course, anything, I can send you, “Grace, you know how to make fried rice?” My father repeats, “Frrried Rice?” and then turns to my mom, “Tsao Fan”, she giggles with both hands cupped over her lips staring up at her funny new boss and nods. “Fantastic, Ms. Grace, you’re hired!”
The first time my mother ever actually made fried rice for Mr. West was when he and his wife Norma Jean invited our family to their home for Thanksgiving dinner. I never really understood why they exclusively invited us to this salient ritual; perhaps they needed a subject for a charitable cause, or perhaps they really, really just liked fried rice. Whatever their reasons were, other than Indians, Pilgrims and the Mayflower, we had no clue about this meal, did I mention that Chinese people don’t eat turkey?
As we entered their beautiful, colonial mansion atop a large mound in a rustic, farm- like neighborhood, the smells of warmed spices filled the main foyer. We passed the gentle glow of candles lit up in every room as we traveled inwards towards the dining room. My sisters and I had never met Norma Jean or Mr. West, but we instantly felt safe, happy, and good.
Norma Jean was a kind woman with soft copper curls, a real Mrs. Claus presence. She was not overly talkative, but never allowed any uncomfortable silences to linger.
She led us towards a tablescape all fancied up with gold linens, flowers and more candles. Each place-setting hosted the shiniest of silverware, an antique, floral china plate and a single, stout goblet. I had my first Shirley Temple from that goblet, of course made by Norma Jean, who also transformed an apple with toothpicks and paper feathers into a mini turkey. She placed him in front of the kids’ side of the table so that we had a fun focal point throughout the meal, this was one of many personal touches that made us feel so embraced.
Mr. West brought in the main attraction, a brown lacquered bird so big, he rolled it out in a cart. All eyes were on this bird, my father wiped away the mouthwatering trickle dripping on the side of his mouth while my sisters and I tapped each other’s arms to ensure that we weren’t dreaming.
Each side dish found its way towards the buffet, wrapped in individual crocheted trivet nests. Norma Jean presented each with great pride, “Now this is corn bread, we make it with pork cracklins. And this here, this is called green bean casserole, see them crunchy things, that’s the best part.” She continued to explain the rest of the dishes, the country dressing, jello mold, gravy, and mashed potato.
We worked our way through the sides, loading our plates up and smiling at each other with sheer joy. My sisters and I forgot about my mother’s fried rice, though she discreetly tried to find it, but it too was wrapped in an individual crocheted trivet nest, sitting comfortably in the center along with the rest of our first Thanksgiving dishes.