The Conversation

August 8, 2003

In the dictionary under “writer,” it should say “see also eavesdropper.” In restaurants especially, I delight in catching bits of conversation, the words “Eli Whitney” over dinner in Chagrin Falls, for example, or three women in the same restaurant discussing how to move wealth to grandchildren without a tax penalty.

But for me, the best of all time was a conversation in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1982. Laurie and I were on our second honeymoon, lunching in Christina Campbell’s Tavern, happy to be with each other and really not looking for distractions. But at the next table, a man in a sport coat was holding forth, and short of putting bread in our ears there was no way to avoid hearing every word. His table held a party of four, the man and his companion, who confined his responses to nodding, and two maiden or widowed aunts.

The first sentence that stopped our spoons over the soup was, “Everyone should have a little nest egg, you know, a hundred thousand dollars or so, something to fall back on.” Our eyebrows went up.

From little nest eggs, the topic was steered to a nephew who had become involved with a woman beneath his station. “But what of her family?” one aunt asked. “She has no family,” the man said. The aunts said, “Oh.”

“Now,” the man continued after buttering his roll, “they may be thinking of living together.” A dramatic pause. “Should we approve?”

“Oh, no,” the aunts chorused.

“But wait,” the man said. “If they were to marry it would be a dreadful mistake. Perhaps, if they live together, he will realize this before they marry. I think we should give our approval.”

“Oh,” the aunts said, a bit shocked but nodding. By this point, Laurie and I had given up on having our own conversation, and were chewing quietly so as not to miss a thing.

The man had made his point, and was now just adding the occasional flourish. And as he worked, the chilling nature of his plotting became more and more apparent. He had spoken about the nephew making a “mistake.” But the man in the sport coat was not really worried about the nephew’s happiness. He was sweating his own inheritance, the real money looming in the shadows beyond the little nest eggs, the money controlled by the aunts he was treating to lunch.

If the nephew married, the unspeakable might happen: an heir, heirs even, a boy to carry on the family name, little nieces named for their great-aunts, the river of wealth diverted, the man’s share dwindling with every birth announcement, every happy family visit. Right now, he was the heir apparent, the eldest male in the line, but this younger nephew could marry and slowly but surely ease him into the shadows, a bachelor uncle collecting only a token amount.

And so, from rolls to dessert, he softly, subtly poisoned the well, disparaging the young man and his chosen young lady. Laurie and I often wonder what the young couple was really like, if they knew about this luncheon where another sought to manipulate their future, how it all turned out, and who got the money.

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