I so remember this picture being taken.
(Me with my brother and sister in Madeira, 1971. I'm on the left.)
We were on holiday in Madeira and had taken a stroll into the town of Funchal to while away the hours before dinner. My mother was on a relentless quest to buy some of the island's famed hand embroidery and my brother, sister and I were dragging our feet about it. Coming into an open square, we passed a man holding a parrot and a baby monkey and stopped to look. Before we knew it, he had thrust the animals upon us. "Don't move!" my father said, whipping out his Leica. "One - two - three - smile!" We did...and waited for what seemed like an eternity while he adjusted and readjusted the camera settings. (Are all fathers the same?) My mother rolled her eyes in exasperation. (There was embroidery to be found!) Even the monkey closed his eyes and slumped forward, grabbing my shoulder for support. At long last, there was a blessed click.
We stayed at Reid's Palace Hotel, a legendary hotel frequented by Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw, perched atop rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Days were spent in our bathing suits and in the evenings we dressed up for dinner downstairs in the enormous white Edwardian dining room. The scene was glamorous (lots of crocheted pantsuits) but the meals felt interminably long to us children, and my parents resorted to playing table games with us to keep us from falling asleep between courses. The waiters came to the rescue too: a napkin would magically transform itself into a dove, utensils became percussive instruments and little wrapped candies would periodically appear in front of us.
(Reid's Palace Hotel, Funchal, Madeira)
Before our trip was over, my mother had found her holy grail of textiles: beautiful sets of linen cocktail napkins embroidered with colorful figures and palm trees.
About five years ago, she gave them all to me, still in pristine condition. "Didn't you ever use them?" I asked. "Not really. Maybe once or twice," she answered. "I always considered them too beautiful."
Well, they are beautiful. For the last 150 years, Madeira hand embroidery has been recognized worldwide as being among the finest in the world. The microscopically precise stitches and elaborate details attest to that. But as I have written about before, to let them languish in a drawer for a lifetime is to fall victim to the tragedy of perfection.
So I use them. For morning coffee, for afternoon tea, for an early evening cocktail, for almost any reason I can dream up. And every time I hold them, I am reminded of a parrot, a monkey and an enchanting family vacation in a legendary cliffside hotel -- once upon a time long, long ago.