Millicent Whelan lived on Manhattan’s East Side just two blocks from the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion. That auspicious address kept her working steadily, which was a good thing because her husband, Jim, was rather a sluggish provider.
Millicent brought up four children while taking in ironing, catering parties for the privileged, baking for several customers, and serving at fancy dinners on weekend evenings while Jim took the children for ice cream at Acropolis #7.
A small woman packed with more energy than a rocket, Millicent was good-looking with sparkly eyes, a patrician nose, and cheeks that fairly glowed. Her smile was sincere, she chatted happily on when we met, and seldom, if ever took a dim view of her fellow creatures. If they exasperated her, she simply prayed for them. She taught me a lot about the business of living, and how liberating it was to put your trust in God.
As the years evolved and the children became self-reliant, Jim Whelan spent as much time “looking for work” as he did actually doing anything that brought in a salary. Jim worked as a plumber for the city early on, and while he was good at the trade, he was unreliable and often called in sick. It cost him his job and a pension.
But Jim was a charmer, a terrific dancer, and a quick wit. Millicent loved him from the day they met at a Butler, Pennsylvania, social.
Recently, however, she began to be somewhat disenchanted. After all, she had done more than her share throughout her marriage. Not only did Jim put forth little effort in finding work, but yesterday he had gone into a tirade when supper was 20 minutes late. The fact that she had catered an afternoon party for children at a park near the East River, and came home rather undone, seemed to bother Jim little.
True blue Millicent apologized. Then she asked her 20-year-old Mandy to take care of the dishes. Begging exhaustion she slipped into a hot bath, and then hit the pillow. That night it was wet with tears. Jim would never know for he had moved into the spare room the month before, without explanation.
At the time we met, Millicent was quite busy with family in the banking business. Avery Reiner liked throwing parties for his banking associates. His wife, Helen, was a gracious hostess but lacked the energy and physical stamina that frequent entertaining required. Their housekeeper, Annie Pakan, did everything short of going near the stove. She said she knew if she started cooking for the Reiners, who had two teenaged sons and a daughter with a hungry boyfriend, she might as well move in. “Cleaning is a cinch compared to the endless peeling, slicing, and spicing cooking required,” she one opined.
Annie recommended Millicent Whelan to the Reiners. They became her best customers. They were kind and generous and showed their appreciation for her talent, and she felt privileged to be in their employ.
“Milly, can you do dinner and dessert on Saturday evening?” called Helen Reiner on Tuesday morning. “It’s a special occasion, a significant promotion for Cyrus Fischer. We’ll have 20 for sit down. Dessert should be served between music and dancing. It’s black tie.”
“Of course, Mrs. Reiner. I’ll do Pork Forrestiere with all the trimmings, and pecan torte with finger delicacies for dessert” was the immediate response. “… Peach sorbet to clear the palate between courses.”
“That’s just right,” breathed Mrs. Reiner with delight. “Could we have your special marinated ostrich for first course?”
“I would rather do a walnut salmon salad on endive leaf. It’s lighter fare and might compliment the pork far better,” suggested Millicent.
“Oh there you go with yet another surprise! How do you do it?”
“With years of wanting to please my special people and recognizing Mr. Reiner’s fussiness.”
“Thank you Milly. Confidentially, I am fast losing my enthusiasm for Avery’s favorite pastime,” said Helen Reiner with a sudden change of mood. “The sea of faces that have passed these halls have not yielded a single good friend. One can be very lonely even amongst the multitudes.”
What a surprise!
“Well, I have just made two new friends and have no free time to spend with them,” uttered Millicent with a sigh. “The bills come with regularity, Jim’s earning do not, but please forgive me, I didn’t mean to complain. I am so thankful for the work you have given me.”
“Not at all. I quite understand.”
The two women caught in a web they inadvertently helped weave agreed to make Saturday’s event a smashing hit, and afterward put some effort into changing their unsatisfactory lives.
Avery Reiner scored yet another triumph. The compliments were flying off the wall. Millicent took it all in stride and served dessert with her usual ease. Then she heard a voice from across the room exclaim, “Now that’s a piece of cake.” Curious, she came in to check the coffee service and look casually around. Her heart skipped several beats as the gentleman came into view. Suave and self-assured, not crazy-handsome but certainly good looking … wow … she turned giddy as she heard him go on and on about the torte until the lady he was escorting changed the subject.
Shortly afterward they returned to the dance floor and Millicent couldn’t help but notice this gentleman’s ease and gracious manner as he led in a fox trot. She could hardly contain herself. She had difficulty cleaning up before leaving for home.
Millicent walk the 13 blocks home from the imposing brownstone in a daze. No, she actually danced the fox trot with this stranger in her imagination and wanted it to last forever.
“Good morning Milly.” It was Helen Reiner. “I had to call first thing before my Monday gets off the ground to thank you for all your efforts. Avery was simply wild over Saturday’s outcome. And by the way, Walter Merrick wants your phone number. He went wild over your pecan torte and wants to order one.”
“Really? I’d be happy to do that,” said Millicent, trying to keep her voice steady while her insides were doing triple somersaults. “I couldn’t help but hearing his comments. Has he attended your parties before?”
“He has been to dinner a couple of times. I needed an escort for Mrs. Neilson and was surprised he accepted.”
“He’s not married then?”
“No, he lost his wife about a year ago. It was very sudden. He’s had a time getting over it.”
“Hello Mrs. Whelan. This is Walter Merrick. That was some piece of cake. I can still taste it,” said the professor excitedly. “Do I dare ask if you would bake one for me?”
“Oh, I would be happy to,” said Millicent tremulously. “I must mention though that it contains expensive ingredients, and is time-consuming to put together. I charge $25 for it.” (If truth be told, she would have made the cake for nothing!)
“Madam, it’s worth at least twice that much. I’d like it for next Wednesday when my sister comes down from Bridgeport.”
“Certainly. What time would you like it, and may I ask where you live?”
“About two in the afternoon. I’m at 506 at 56th near East End Avenue. I’d be happy to pick it up.”
“No, that’s okay. I have a special carrier and deliver desserts all the time. I’ll see you then, and thank you.”
"Thank you! Goodbye.”
Millicent hung up the phone and allowed herself to dance around the room, to plop into her tufted chair and throw her legs up in the air, and get up suddenly to sing in a way she hadn’t done for years. Hoe glorious it was to be in a state of euphoria and completely fascinated by this professor Walter Merrick!
She didn’t even feel guilty when Jim walked through the door bellowing, “What’s with the loud music? Have you gone a bit of the edge?” Clearly irritated, he threw the newspaper on the kitchen table, but before he could say more, Millicent threw her arms around him, gave him a tight hug, and explained that she had a new customer, the bills were all paid, and she was going to afford herself a new dress!
On the surface all was as usual. Supper was served promptly at 6 p.m. and the “devil take hindmost.” Secretly her heart was enjoying its own delight. All evening she kept repeating: I can’t wait to see him again, to see where he lives, and on and on. Wednesday seemed like a world away.
The next day she went to Orhbach’s on 34th Street. She bought a dress and skirt with blouse to match, and brought a pizza home for dinner. She was putting the finishing touches on a green salad when Jim came home.
Disgruntled he said he had found work with the widow Slater and had been hard at it all day. He expected more than a pizza and a salad to sustain him.
“Oh, I lost track of time downtown,” she said, smiling.
Millicent didn’t even realize that she was singing while tidying up afterwards. “I have a book club luncheon at the Bensons’ tomorrow,” she announced, “and have to get a very early start.” With that she simply wished all a good night and retired to her room. She locked the door and took a book out of her purse — a love story she picked up at the library. How titillating life could be!
The professor’s house was a whitestone, sparkling in the sunlight with just enough of a front yard for a miniature shrub and a small mum plant on either side of the doorway.
Millicent’s knees almost buckles when she rang the doorbell. She blushed when Walter Merrick asked her in with the ease of a well bred gentleman.
“Come in,” he said pleasantly, as Millicent handed him the cake carrier. She was flushed, nervous, below his station in her imagination, and who knows what else. But, when she walked into his home she became at once self-assured and serene.
“Can I offer you a cup of tea, Mrs. Whelan? It’s rather blustery out there today,” he offered.
“Oh, I shouldn’t take up your time, sir, with you expecting company…”
“Nonsense,” he interrupted. “I’ll put the kettle on and show you around the house.”
What a nice home he had. Orderly and well appointed with pictures and mementos of trips around the world everywhere.
Over tea he allowed that his wife had passed recently, that he was still teaching economics twice a week at NYU and doing some consulting for financial institutions. He had someone come in weekly to do the cleaning, but he was teaching himself to cook.
“That was a perfect cup of tea,” she said politely. “Thank you. I must be off now.” Millicent didn’t want to leave. She wanted to linger and just gaze at this man who had captured her heart and her imagination.
Within a week, Walter Merrick called again. His cousins were coming down from Hartford, he said. And while he was taking them to dine out, he wondered if he might impose on Millicent for some nice dessert. She suggested her special apple pie, unless he preferred pumpkin, seeing it was close to Halloween.
“I’ll take one of each, please,” he said graciously.
So downtown she trekked on a Saturday before noon in a cloud of absolute craziness, akin to teenage puppy-love. Jim commented that he had never seen her so happy in a long time and wondered if he shouldn’t check this Merrick fellow out.
“This man appreciates my talents,” she quipped, “and I don’t mind the money.”
The following week the professor requested coffee cake with no explanation.
Millicent actually got to 56th Street a bit early. She rang the bell and while waiting at the door she saw Walter coming down the street. He bowed ever so slightly and sheepishly apologized for his delay. It was awesome. He put the kettle on and asked her to join him in a piece of her own coffee cake, filled with almond paste and covered with icing.
“Have you any time to spare today, Mrs. Whelan? I went and bought some pork chops in a sudden act of bravado and realize that I don’t know what to do with them. No doubt you could give me some pointers and we can cook them together,” suggested the professor.
“Okay. That would be fun … and please call me Millicent.”
“I’d love to but only if you call me Walter.”
“Oh my! It’s quite a stretch from professor to Walter. Especially since I just heard about you latest accomplishments from Mrs. Reiner.”
“All in a day’s work, my dear lady. Please call me Walter,” he pleaded.
“Yes, Walter. Now tell me what your sister thought of the pecan torte,” asked Millicent with curiosity.
“She loved it,” he emphasized, “simply loved it. I told her that I recently met a culinary expert who enhanced my sweet tooth for evermore.”
Millicent blushed. She told the professor that it was an old family recipe brought from Vienna by her grandmother.
“Would you share the recipe with me?” asked Walter boldly.
“I hardly know you well enough to do that,” she answered meekly. Secretly, she wanted to throw herself and the recipe at his feet.
“Well then, we’ll have to get to know each other better,” he answered playfully, and let it go at that.
October turned to November. Special desserts and lots of cooking lessons filled many happy hours, and indeed Millicent and Walter were getting to know each other quite well.
Walter was going to spend holidays with his family. Before leaving he presented Millicent with a very generous check. “This is just a small token of thanks,” he said, as he took her hand in his. “It might be the right time to ask you, too, to consider coming to share your life with me. I’ll look for your answer in the New Year.”
Completely flummoxed and reduced to tears, she said between sobs that she had no idea it could come to this. She admitted that she was wild about him from first sight and begged to leave quickly now before she let herself slide into inappropriate behavior.
Millicent was caught short when she came through her door and saw Jim reading a note enclosed in a birthday card. “Good God,” she thought. “I forgot about Jim’s birthday.”
The note was from his cousin Lester and invited Jim and Milly to come down for a weekend during the holidays.
“What luck,” enthused Millicent. “I just got a nice check from the professor paying me for all those cooking lessons, and then some. Would you like a nice weekend in Griggstown for your birthday, my dear?” Jim was all for it.
The next day, the actual birthday date, there was a grand dinner with all the children and nephews present. Jim moved back into their bedroom and hoped he wasn’t too late.
On New Year’s Eve, Millicent, armed with her special Dutch apple pie, appeared at Walter’s door. He welcomed her with open arms. She handed him the dessert in a brand new carrier and said it was his belated Christmas present. At their customary tea, she told him that he had become her living fantasy, that she was floating on air at every thought of seeing him, but she added that she had made a Christian commitment on her wedding day and to dishonor it would cause her to be less of a person. She would wallow in guilt forever, and destroy their lives. “Thank you for giving me the greatest compliment I could ever receive … a simple woman like me elevated to the greatest height imaginable. It breaks my heart to have to decline your request.”
Walter Merrick sadly but fully understood. He took her gently in his arms and kissed her passionately.
Then they simply said “goodbye.”
Retired now, Irene Rose Wildgrube worked as the media director for the Boheme Opera NJ and as reporter and journalist for the Hopewell Valley News and Pennington Post. Writing, gardening, and quilting are her occupations.