At Radcliffe Miriam eats lunch and studies at the Mt. Vernon Street Tea Room. She choses the leaden-pane window nook on the sunny side; tucks her gloves in a brocade satchel; pulls out a book, looseleaf and a compact; unpins her hat; powders her nose; peers into the mirror; and twists an errant curl into one of the long rolls circling her head like a black crown. The waitress brings Miriam’s usual: cucumber and cream cheese on rye and a pot of tea with lemon.
Unbeknownst to her, Sumner is watching.
He sits at a large table in the center–the Mt. Vernon Street version of the Algonquin Round Table. As his fellow Harvard Law students debate minutiae of the law, Sumner eyes Miriam’s every move.
She is the center of the nook universe: green crockery teapot steams to the east and clouds the window with its breath. Her book is to the west, looseleaf directly in front, and the plate of triangle-cut sandwiches is south; so she sometimes has to flick a bread crumb off the paper with her little finger as she reaches over the looseleaf for another section of the cucumber and cream cheese.
She squints and frowns to read the prices printed on the mirror menu behind the lunch counter (her budget doesn’t include funds for glasses); carefully counts change and leaves it on the table for the waitress; packs herself up; and heads off to class.
For the whole year Sumner studies her, but she’s near-sighted and doesn’t seem to notice. Or so he thinks. This changes on April 19th when Miriam realizes that she is about to be late for a final exam. She lingered too long over her notes and sandwiches and lost track of time.
Frenzied, she gathers her things and bolts from the nook. She casts her eyes around and meets those of my father. She rushes up to him and, without preamble, asks, Do you have 5 dollars for a taxi?
Ignoring his chortling chums, Sumner jumps to his feet, knocks over his chair, reaches for his wallet, pulls out a five, walks her to the door, hails a taxi, helps her in, and sees her off–but not before he gets her name and phone number.
And the rest, as they say, should have been sweet history.
My parents told the How-We-Met story every April 19th; but, as a kid, it confused me because they bickered all the time. Now I think that telling this story was an attempt to find the ends of those ties that had come loose.