My mother-in-law died thirteen years ago.
Ever since then my immediate family has gathered on her birthday to wish her spirit well, reminisce over fond memories and eat whipped cream in her honor.
Betty Lee was a delightful southern belle from Dallas—a true debutante who dedicated herself to seeing the positive in everyone she met.
She could hang with CEOs, leaders of nations or her housekeeper and every one would think she had a vested interest in their success. She gave small, meaningful gifts that reminded the recipient of her expert listening skills. She picked up a magazine or gas station sundry because it reminded her of something from a conversation weeks earlier.
Her favorite food was plain whipped cream—not too sweet and not too heavy. She found it simply delicious and comforting.
As the five of us gather in our kitchen to commemorate the special day, one of the kiddos will surely ask to hear the story behind our ritual. My husband tells this hilarious story which exactly captures his mom’s essence—it’s safe to say that to be in her presence left everyone smiling. We miss her incredibly and usually succumb to belly laughs while wiping away tears. It’s a sad moment, to be sure, but it is wrapped in joy—experiencing this contrast is a gift to the species and makes me glad to be a human being.
The tale begins in the 1970s when my husband was middle-school-aged, the youngest of six. His family was living in London as American expats. On one occasion, his father had to travel to Paris for work and allowed the family to tag along. Betty Lee took her four sons, ranging from pre-adolescent to older teen, museum hopping that first day in the City of Lights.
The boys complained, moped, pouted and bickered the whole time. Their mother led them straight from the museum’s exit down the street and, hoping for a break, into the first restaurant she could find. It happened to be a particularly fine establishment.
The host seated them, handed her a menu and began doling them out to the young men in her party. She abruptly cut him off, glanced at her own and ordered the first things she had seen in print—a pot of hot tea and five avec chantilly. The perplexed waiter began to speak and she, fueled by hunger and fatigue, was uncharacteristically rude. She cut him off again and said sternly, “I would like five (here she held up her fingers to indicate the number) ‘avec chantilly.’ ”
“Oui, madame,” was all the waiter could reply.
He returned with a pot of tea and five (Five!) enormous goblets overflowing with puffy clouds of whipped cream. He and his assistant delivered these delights to everyone at the table and then, as this was an exceedingly posh eatery, took their places at the ends of the table, where they would stand guard and attend to the family’s every need.
The boys were stupefied by their mother’s improbable order but only for an instant. They began a round of not-so-hushed cheering and guffawing that was better suited to a little league game.
Nipping it in the bud, Betty Lee sternly commanded, “No talking. Pick up your spoons and eat.”
And that’s just what they did, five Texas-born Americans in Paris circa 1975.
We can laugh about it now, and we do—at least once a year when we celebrate Betty Lee’s life and the love we still feel from her. My daughters, who live on their own, remain true to this tradition. They call me a couple weeks in advance to plan a time when we all can Skype and have a virtual whipped cream toast in memory of one of our favorite ladies.
We love you, Betty Lee, avec chantilly!
Author: Terese Keehan
Apprentice Editor: Traia Thiel / Editor: Renee Picard
Image: Patrick Q at Flickr