My mother-in-law, Sandy, passed the heirlooms to me one at a time: Antique china. A mink stole from Marshall Field's. A flawless emerald cut diamond engagement ring that looked exactly like my own, but several carats larger — a coincidence neither I nor my husband was aware of when he proposed. Sandy had no use for them, but her mother wouldn't have wanted such treasures wrapped in boxes, wasted and unseen. Pretty things belonged to her mother in a way Sandy, an adopted daughter, never had.
Martha Purnell had always been her own prettiest thing, and she collected the artifacts of her beauty as if its value, too, would appreciate over time. Every mention of her name in the society pages of the Chicago Tribune was clipped and pressed between plastic pages. "Representative Beauty" of Northwestern University. Chicago's Summer Queen of 1936, sent as a special envoy to the Texas Centennial celebration. A letter from Universal Studios seeking pictures of Martha "in a bathing suit... one that would show your figure to its best advantage."
The papers printed news of her engagement to an insurance executive, detailed the showers at her Glenview mansion, and showcased her formal wedding portrait, the bouquet of lilies blooming wider than her hips. When the couple decided to adopt three children, all from different families, the photographers captured Sandy and her older sister, Marilyn, tottering through gardens and painting Easter eggs, and Martha hoisting the baby, Jeff, pressing her sculpted cheek against his as the shutters clicked once again.
The Christmas after Martha, my husband's grandmother, died, Sandy copied each clipping and made a duplicate scrapbook for me. "Mother would have wanted you to see her this way," she explained when I unwrapped the gift. She asked for a hug — they are, along with stuffed bears and Longaberger baskets, her own favorite collectible — and sat next to me while I turned the pages. "She was a beautiful, elegant woman," Sandy said, "but I grew up feeling that I was not what she wanted." She dropped a finger to an image of Martha's mouth and pressed, as if the force of her touch could quiet her mother's still-familiar words.
Since I'd known her, Sandy shared fragments of her mother over time, carefully parceled anecdotes about misunderstandings and disappointments and rejections. I witnessed a chapter myself, during my first and only meeting with Martha, over lunch at her retirement community in Florida. I noticed the way her face — still lovely in its eightieth year — changed, shifted into poses dark and unflattering, whenever she regarded her middle child. I saw how she stiffened inside Sandy's zealous hugs. I could sense there were thoughts she managed to leave unspoken.
The problem, Sandy decided later, was that she came from "commoners" — a lineage she never explored — and was unable to adapt to the privileged life Martha wished to give them. She wasn't graceful and thin like her sister Marilyn; Sandy's figure couldn't mimic the model genes Martha hadn't passed on. She laughed too loud and too often and never retreated to the bathroom, the way mother had taught her, when she needed to cry.
It became clear, over the years — after her parents retired and moved south, after sister Marilyn died of cancer, after her father, once a booming, forceful presence, finally succumbed to a stroke — that the only way Sandy could please her mother was to help Jeff, always the favorite child, and the most troubled. He crashed his car, served time for drunk driving, lost his license, lost apartments, lost all his teeth. Sandy refused to enable her brother and declined his requests for my husband's and my phone number, knowing each rejection of Jeff only pushed Martha further away. Her mother returned every gift Sandy sent her, but bought her son another car, and he crashed that, too. He moved into his mother's Florida condo, and his ferocious rages sent Martha into hiding for days behind the locked door of her bedroom, waiting for quiet to resume.
It did, finally, one summer morning. A neighbor reported a foul odor outside Martha's apartment, and Sandy got the call from the coroner. Her brother's body had been found beneath a mattress in his bedroom. Martha was okay, albeit scared and confused. She had to move into a local hospital because her home was uninhabitable. Jeff had been dead for a week, maybe more, but trauma and old age had eroded her mother's sense of smell.
Sandy drove from her home in Hillsboro, Wisconsin to Florida. The nurse on duty pointed down the corridor to a room. Sandy peeked in, and saw a woman with a large behind. "That's not my mom," she told the nurse, and tried the next room, where a tiny form lay, barely registering beneath the covers. Martha, without a doubt. Sandy had prayed about what to say, and hoped her mouth would be able to deliver the words God had given her: "I love you, mom, and I want to bring you home with me to live."
Martha sighed. "Like going straight to hell," she answered. But it was decided.
At nine in the morning, Sandy took her mother to get her hair set and styled. Afterward they began the long journey north, the car bulging with silence until Martha grasped Sandy's shoulder.
"I've really been mean to you," she said.
"Yes, you have, Mother," Sandy answered, and her only regret was that she didn't add "all of my life."
Sandy's house was big enough for both of them to hide. She gave up her cat to accommodate her mother's allergies and forced her to eat breakfast every morning. When Martha's life became too elaborate a production for them to handle alone, Sandy moved her to a nursing home up the street. On the admittance form, the 87-year-old wrote "model" next to her name.
During our most recent visit, five years after Martha's death, Sandy noticed I was wearing the identical rings — one from her mother, one from her son — stacked along my finger. I know she feels strangly guilty that her son and mother were never close; the rift between Sandy and Martha was one more thing bequeathed to the next generation. She asked for a hug, then sat down next to me.
She visited her mother, Sandy said, two days before the end. Martha was in a wheelchair, head resting on the knob of her shoulder. Her knitted fingers made a translucent bird's nest in her lap. Sandy talked to her for an hour, and when she ran out of words Martha's arms lifted skyward, a fluid gesture that came from someplace outside of her. The lids closed thinly over her eyes. She held that pose for a good minute, Sandy remembered, and then her mother spoke. "I really do love you," she said, and I understood this was the last piece of her legacy that Sandy would pass on.
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Karen Abbott worked as a journalist on the staffs of Philadelphia magazine and Philadelphia Weekly, and has written for Salon.com and other publications. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives with her husband in Atlanta, where she's at work on her next book. Visit her online at sininthesecondcity.com.
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Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of American Rose and Sin in the Second City. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots who do a mean Ethel Merman. Visit her online at www.karenabbott.net.
Books mentioned in this post
Karen Abbott is the author of American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee