An Impressionist Portrait of My Mother, Lesley Dorman

The hues of my mother’s life gleamed and glistened in brilliant jewel-toned colors – strong, positive and gleaming colors, resilient, passionate and fiery.

She woke up every morning to her customary Twining’s Earl Grey tea and took out her pen to do the New York Times crossword puzzle which she always finished by conferring with various friends and family to help with some of the clues. Even with her crossword puzzle she had organized system for a positive result. After breakfast, she would get dressed and splash on her ubiquitous dose of Chanel #5, which she had been using since the age of eighteen and set off to work at the State Department. I always used to tell her in her later years not to drive herself so hard, but she would still diligently set off to work for the housing office and was exceptionally pleased with her nickname, “Mother FLO” for the work she had done to create the Family Liaison Office.

Always passionate for and in life, she had a zest and a zing for the unusual and remarkable. Among the objects of her delight were marron glacé, white chocolate, marzipan, lady bugs, African violets, chocolate covered cherries, Miss Fisher and Midsomer TV Mysteries, and Dickensian Christmases.

My mother was a true force of nature, who George Bernard Shaw would have delighted in. She lit up every room and her spirit lives on in the memories of all who knew her.

My mother grew up on a lovely estate in Hertfordshire called Copthorn with her British mother, transplanted American father, her only sibling, Judith, a bevy of dogs, horses and her beloved and life-long friend, Nanny Giles. From my mother’s latticed bedroom window, where Lord Byron had once carved his initials with a diamond pin, she looked out onto an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and stables.

My mother’s fierce determination, sense of purpose, constancy to all things and particularly her fearlessness came from observing my very British grandmother drive race cars and fly planes.

As my grandparents loved to entertain my mother absorbed a great deal of expertise first hand. In addition to frequent dinner parties they also hosted country weekends and had a diverse array of friends including Laurence Olivier, John Mills and Dorothy Padgett (who provided the start-up finances for the spitfire fighter plane, when the British government lacked confidence in the plans). Dorothy was among the many of my grandmother’s free-spirited friends who Mummy as a child overheard wanting to initiate numerous reforms, and with their enormous drive usually succeeded.

She was educated at home and at boarding school to be purposeful and constant in all things and to improve the world wherever possible. During her childhood, my mother would often spend summers at the seaside with her Nanny Giles in the company of other children and their nannies. Some of these children included Christopher Milne aka Christopher Robin, Bernard Tussaud and Tommie Fairfax.

Following boarding school at Battle Abbey in Hastings, Sussex, my mother studied acting with one of Britain’s greatest acting coaches, Kate Roark, and apprenticed at the old Vic. She was to continue her acting and took up directing plays while in Bangkok.

During the war years, mummy proudly served as a WREN and valued her experiences and friends from that time. Among her responsibilities was being an anti-aircraft plotter in London. A favorite wartime memory was a visit she had with Winston Churchill. One of my mother’s friends was Clarissa Spencer-Churchill, who took my mother to 10 Downing Street to have tea with her favorite Uncle Winston.

My mother studied speech pathology at London University after the war and worked with surgeons who were doing facial reconstruction on soldiers and RAF pilots who had been downed in the war. My mother was passionate in her need to help those who were determined to make strong positive changes in their lives. In the summers, between her studies, she loved to sail. One of her fondest memories was sailing the Irish Sea with Sargent Sullivan, the Baird of Bantree.

As I mentioned earlier in this portrait, the actor Laurence Olivier was a frequent houseguest of my grandparents and got to know mummy as she was growing up. Another of her favorite stories concerned this renowned thespian. She and her best friend Janet King decided to try and see Richard III with Laurence Olivier. At the box office, they were dismayed to learn the production had been sold out for weeks. My mother, being ever so resourceful, sent a missive backstage to her parents’ houseguest wishing him good luck on his performance and saying how sorry they were to miss it for want of tickets. While looking at the photographs of the cast, a stagehand came up to them and told them to follow him. Mystified they wandered through the backstage areas of the theater until they found Larry lounging against the doorframe of his dressing room, cigarette in hand, and beckoning them in for a chat. Hearing the 15-minute call to start the play, Olivier ushered them out, but not before giving them tickets to his personal box for that night’s production. He also invited them back to his dressing room for refreshments at intermission, but as my mother told the remainder of the story in her indomitable way, she pointed out to Olivier the arduous nature of the role and suggested he give himself some well-earned rest instead!

My mother met my father, Phil Dorman, at a mutual friend’s birthday party in post-war London. She had never been out on the town with an American boyfriend before and was captivated by my father’s upbringing in Wisconsin, his European wartime experiences and his first overseas foreign service assignment in Moscow. They were married in 1949 and had a glorious honeymoon in Switzerland and the south of France. They returned to live in Chelsea, where I was born in 1951, but not before my mother, always thinking many steps ahead and exhibiting her strong practical nature, had hired a Norwegian au-pair to look after me.

While my mother was waiting for me to appear on the scene, she would with her great positive energy and stamina, queue up in the food lines with her rationing books. At that time, my mother was not yet a world traveler, like my father, and once my parents were married she relished the idea of a foreign service life.

She was a born communicator and enthusiastically engaged with people she had never met before and made them feel as if they were sitting in her home, conversing over cups of tea. This gift was well-exercised during the many years of dad’s postings overseas.

Once my parents arrived in Cairo and were settled in, they played incessant doubles tennis matches which my mother truly loved. Wanting to always be fit for the task ahead, she studied Arabic and brushed up on her French, as the Egyptians she was meeting socially were trilingual. Many foreign embassy officers and members of the international community lived in our apartment building in Gazira, a section of Cairo.

My mother was a born and gifted storyteller embroidering the truth only for comedic and dramatic flavor. She would have delighted many a late-night talk show host and would have entertained millions had she hosted her own. Her tale of the Cairo Christmas is a doozy. A few years after moving there, my parents were hosting a dinner party–ironically at the same exact time that the Norwegian family living several floors below were seating their guests to begin their traditional holiday feast.

All the houseboys or suffragis, as they were called, in my parents’ apartment building knew each other extremely well and would often meet outside for a cigarette or a swig of this or that. That Christmas was an especially jubilant time to have very large swigs to celebrate along with everyone else. In addition to all the decorations my mother festooned, she had the place scoured from top to toe just hours before the guests were due to arrive. The turkey was ceremoniously placed on a beautiful serving platter, loaded down with vegetables and as the houseboy carried it through the door, he skidded on the floor and sailed into the dining room, dropping the platter in front of the guests to the amazement of all. Better yet, imagine the extraordinary surprise on the faces of the Norwegians when they discovered they were the recipients of a Dickensian Christmas turkey and my mother’s astonishment in turn when she saw she and her party would be having a very Norwegian ham!

My parents left Cairo in 1956 with the advent of the Suez crisis at which time my mother became an American citizen. Due to her expecting my brother Tim in 1957, she opted for a posting to Tehran over Kabul as the hospital facilities there were superior.

Once in Tehran my mother took up teaching at the British Embassy school. After meeting General Pakrivan at a cocktail party he requested she give him English conversation sessions over cups of tea and who was to refuse the director of the SAVAK (the secret police) such a request. Those cups of tea were to come in handy years later when my parents were in Lusaka and President Kaunda’s mother would pull up impromptu outside our home in the Presidential Rolls and invite herself in for tea and biscuits.

On returning to Washington in 1959 from Tehran, my parents moved to Glen Carlyn, a suburb in northern Virginia. Here, my mother took off with voting rights and became the president of the Arlington Chapter of the League of Women Voters. Many years later, after my parents’ retirement, my mother worked tirelessly and was proud to be a board member of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the District of Columbia.

After Glen Carlyn came a move to what was then Northern Rhodesia and its Capital Lusaka. I was shuttled off to Peterhouse, a British boarding school located in the bush near the town of Marandellas, 60 miles from Salisbury (now Harare) in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I decided to be confirmed into the Anglican Church while at school and my mother planned a surprise. Even though there was petrol rationing in Lusaka, my mother saved up her coupons and, with a fellow Peterhouse mum, got into a Land Rover and the two of them drove alone all the way to Peterhouse to be there for my confirmation–a very spunky and intrepid thing to do at the time!

My mother had a lifelong fondness for the game of Bridge and was a great player although she really enjoyed what she referred to as “chatty Bridge.” I should know as growing up I was roped in to be her partner on board ocean voyages and anywhere there was a game going on in the absence of my father. Mummy had a great sense of humor and was always saying “let’s go for lunch and a giggle.”

When in Bangkok in the 70’s my parents would annually host a many table New Year’s Eve Bridge party at their home that would go into the wee hours. My mother had flair, panache and a great sense of personal style in her wardrobe, the way she entertained and in interior design She was an exceptional hostess, took great pride in her entertaining prowess and always attracted the best chefs overseas. She excelled at improvising and could summon up delicious repasts at the drop of a hat. Following Bangkok and resettled in Washington, my mother regularly played Bridge once a week with her close friends Lucille Noel, Sally Moore, and Georgie Pratt.

During this time, she was a steadfast supporter of the AAFSW Book Fair, working assiduously on public relations with print, TV and radio media to publicize the event. She sold books there well into her 90’s and I remember receiving many art books from those sales.

My mother was totally committed to the AAFSW housing office, working several days a week well into her 90s. She loved every minute of it, even brown bagging her lunch. Being at the State Department in some capacity became a way of life she lived for. It was serious business and there was “no mucking about.” I know firsthand that my mother loved being program chair and president of AAFSW, because she would always tell me tales of interesting programs and activities and of her many friends whose company she delighted in.

She especially enjoyed being with men and women far younger than herself and kept them close as friends and protégées. She loved what fresh ideas she would receive and what wisdom she could impart. My mother often called on my wife, Susan, who was working at the Congressional Research Service, to investigate legislative issues that concerned AAFSW. My mother had a very sharp and inquiring mind and was always seeing how things could benefit the organization and its membership.

A fierce and loyal friend, my mother was an amazing correspondent and wrote copious letters to all her friends continuously throughout the year. By divine providence, thank you notes arrived the day following an event (usually a luncheon out with friends which was a very regular occurrence).

My mother Lesley Dorman was a steadfast and determined explorer and champion of the human condition and its possibilities for development and enrichment. Wherever and whenever she saw the potential for growth, she fought tirelessly and with great fortitude to make the world a better and more comfortable place for those around her. She was a true crusader in many ways like her mother who had worked ceaselessly for the suffragette moment in England.

With her incredible smile and warmth, she radiated a keen interest in whomever she was speaking to at the time were it a single individual or a large group. She demonstrated an uncanny insight into a person’s character and nature which helped her persuade even the most diehard skeptics to embrace whatever cause she advocated.

“Je ne sais quoi”
“Joie de vivre”
“Esprit de corps”
“Fait accompli”

My mother would often drop these bon mots or use the expression “c’est le mot juste ” to flavor many a turn of phrase and to add “un soupçon ” of the flavor of old world Paris in the 20’s.

She was a loving, caring and devoted mother who was always making helpful
suggestions as to how we could move our lives forward with additional possibility
and improvement. “Have you thought of trying this” or “Why don’t you have a go at
that?” were favorite encouraging words of hers. She always had a higher estimate of
my worth than I ever did, but I loved her for thinking I could accomplish anything
and most importantly had the potential. We will all truly miss her and her spirit,
but know that our individual fond remembrances of her will always be with us.

My mother stopped counting her age after 75 and appreciated all those who agreed
with this decision. On November 17th of this year, my mother would have been 96
years young.

~ Words and photo by Mark Dorman