Aubergine and Verbena: a love story

Color Cube Color GridOh Charles, you absolutely must meet this woman!  You’ll love her. She’s painted her kitchen aubergine…”

During our initial meeting, Charles Lester manged to be sparkling, poetic, thoughtful, theatrical, erudite, charming, and ever the attentive host. Daniel was still small enough to lay across his father’s knees and act shy when paid too much attention or when offered too many strawberries. He was languid, malleable, bored. Mid-afternoon of a wintry day. It had been years since he’d shown himself, and they were amazed at how he had grown.

Nick was nowhere in sight, and we had dropped by his Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Montclair. Daniel had perhaps not anticipated that it would be only grownups, and he was on his best behavior, if a bit trapped-and-restless-seeming.

Every minute counts photo of El Jefe, 2008

Will Nick be there, Dad?

It was before we’d hidden the (ahem, well, more about that later) surprise. Long before. Though it was long after Mrs. Lee had helped resuscitate his Daddy after that awful incident when they stuffed him in a linen closet for several days at Highland Hospital after a sudden collapse, and he needed looking after once he performed a self checkout from the place, when Nick was still a baby in General Lee’s daily care.

We had gone to visit Charles and Midge Lester. I had never met either of them, but had heard a number stories of Charles and Midge as well as of Auntie Go, who was visiting them in Montclair that day. I think we may have dropped in unannounced in search of Peter and Nick. They were very gracious to us.

We much admired their cozy home. Charles acted as host. Midge was recovering from an eye surgery and sporting a bit of pirate’s eye protection at a jaunty angle.  This was obviously their sanctuary, and clear to anyone paying attention that he doted on her. They were very close, these sisters. It was a warm three friends who ushered us in for a tour and visit.

We saw Katie Westerhout‘s photographic rendering of an inside view of the old Ford plant on the wall. We witnessed Charles’ pungent imitation of the voluptuous undulations of Isadora Duncan during the mention of evoking the effects of the Temple of the Wings with his clever linen draped skylight covering.  Dramatic acceptance of obscure compliments. I remember another work that looked like a painted Colonial-era triptych over … the piano? A desk? Oh, well… under another skylight. We sat close to it during our visit. I kept looking at it, wanting to ask about it, but I had asked too many questions already.

Charles asked me some, including where I went to school. I suppose he was determining whether I was a suitable match for Rufus. Smith College, the Rhode Island School of Design, the whole boring litany leading up to Mills. He listened well. Sharp guy. It seemed we had a connection outside of blonde family members and much beloveds. Midge had gone to one of the Seven Sisters. So it seemed, had her sister.

Charles related the romantic beginnings of his meeting and courting of Midge, a sparkling-eyed Radcliffe woman now grinning from the catbird seat at the thought of it. A woman with charms extending far beyond a penchant for unusually colored kitchen walls. An original. She was his treasure. Her sister smiled agreement to the facts, still a rich story – though they all lived through it so many years ago.

Charles then learned that my birthplace (Alta Bates) had been a pink stucco building when I arrived, and that my Dad had worked in educational television and broadcasting. KRON, KQED. He learned quickly, this one. He had many complimentary things to say about every subject we touched on. He knew how to be charming, and was.

Charles alluded lightly to his line of business (design) and the politics of many of his clients (conservative) while we discussed his decor. He was a Chi Phi (is that right?), and Rufus first met him at the Cal house when he was roommates with Peter, Charles’ son. Charles visited them there, occasionally as I heard it camping out on their floor. I imagine it as all being quite chummy. I have no idea how they all managed to sleep.

Those were the days of playing rugby for Hastings and lingering over winter break to the occasional surprise of his frat-mates. Rufus once acted as the cook during a break – the previous incumbents having been somehow dismissed for nefarious reasons. That’s saying a lot for a fraternity house cook, n’est pas? Rufus cooked for a week of break, but more often was likely found downstairs programming the computer or doing things Charles would never be so gauche as to bring up in the presence of an impressionable child and some Ivy league ladies.

Aubergine! I shall never forget it. The man was a raconteur.

Charles, Midge, her sister (aka Auntie Go), and company went with us to see Colley Cibber‘s splendidly remodeled Restoration Play at Cal Shakes a season later, accompanied by Screamin’ Joe and Denise Hawkins. Toward the end of the evening, both and the company were cloaked in blankets, sitting in a rolling theatrical summer fog.

We had a picnic early that afternoon, before the performance. It was a perfect summer evening. There was a little wine, some pate and brie, and some general carrying on over the cornichons and baguette, as I recall. We talked politics and Charles teased us. At one point I think he even made Joe blush. I can’t recall what it was about.

Lord Foppington, you were also one of a kind. Your costumes, your acting, your je ne sais quos. Such a production.

But Charles is now gone. We only learned it this year when I insisted on seeing him again, and getting him to come with us and show Daniel how to shoot pool with his Uncles. He passed in August. I am too late.

Another great personage has left the stage, one he oh so lightly tread during the brief time I knew him — gone this past year. One of his favorite restaurants was Verbena, downtown. Is it still there?

I wish I had gotten more of a chance to know them. They were one of a kind. That mixture of ebullience, wit, and talent, that kind of passionate personality comes along so rarely. We are much the poorer for their loss.

Rest in peace, Charles and Midge Lester.


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