After his death when we were preschoolers, my cousins and I heard nothing but loving tales about “Papa.” According to lore Papa adored us girls, bought us glazed and sugar donuts, sat us on his knee and let us dunk them in his coffee. He kept colorful wrapped candies in a round glass jar and a daily newspaper to read us “the funnies.” On special occasions Papa drove us around in his land yacht, a 1948 Plymouth, the three of us standing, holding on behind the front seat bench. His job as conductor made every train we saw “Papa’s train,” and kept Papa away from home in his younger years.
Grandma was a different story. Instead of an endearing pet name like they gave their father, they referred to her only as “Mabel.” My memories of her are scant, unmoved by scenes from old photos. I don’t remember ever hugging her, though that seems impossible. She was an old-looking 69 when she died. I was 11. My only real memory of Mabel is what she left behind in her bedroom.
Her single bed was covered by a floral spread, and pushed into the corner of the gabled roof line by the time we went “through her things.” Papa had been dead for years. Grey light whispered into two small windows and we were hit with the sweet smell of cold cream and bath powder. I remember some vague tension among the adults downstairs.
Our inspection of Mabel’s built-in tile vanity required a boost from her padded brocade bench. Our hungry fingers found the grey plastic organizer with its bobbie pins in one section, jeweled clip-on earrings and pieces in another, perfume bottles, buttons, two old garters. The clip-ons were too big for our little ears.
Her connecting bathroom was rectangular, with a waist-to-ceiling cupboard in the corner, at the head of the bathtub, its shelves as deep as we were tall. When there were no adults near, we climbed from the edge of the tub around into the cupboard, little monkeys looking for treasures; instead we found towels, toilet tissue, and some weird women things made of a soft pink plastic, well-beyond our understanding. When we played hide-and-go-seek during the week of Mabel’s estate liquidation, one of us inevitably chose the cupboard filled with Mabel’s sweet, powdery fragrance as our hiding place.
According to my Mom and Aunt, Mabel was sick a lot when they were growing up. No one ever talked about illness, so they didn’t know why she often stayed in bed. They just remember, with Mabel in bed and Papa at work, the eight of them grew up on their own, taking care of each other, with the explicit expectation that their actions made Papa proud.
“Pack your things; I gave you to Mrs. Kinney,” Mabel is supposed to have told my Mom when she was 15. The only backing for this claim is my Aunt’s sworn testimony. I can imagine my mother being a handful as a teenager. “Smart mouth,” I’ve heard my aunt say.
By the time my Mom and Aunt were in high school Mabel worked at a downtown hotel. One time they found Papa setting a trap for her with some elaborate toilet paper web attached to the front door, designed to expose her clandestine comings and goings with a rip of a sheet; an event that launched their campaign to discredit their mother and finally expose her as a “floozy.”
Many years later they even dug up an old man alleged to have been one of her boyfriends, a poor sap they called “Old Dad Tom”; who was as I recall, an incoherent old guy unable or unwilling to give them any dirt on Mabel. But it didn’t stop them from forever teasing their youngest sister that she was Old Dad Tom’s love child.
Considering these opinionated, depression-era women are not easily detracted by facts, we are left with only revisionist history. But legend remains, and as inheritors of the legacy, my cousins and I have been known to take advantage of a toddy-too-many at holiday celebrations to incite yet another rendition of their favorite story, the one about following Mabel downtown on the bus. “She’d throw that fox stole of hers around her shoulder and strut off to the bus stop, her hips swaying, bouncing the head and feet of that long-dead fox, her nose in the air, like she was somethin’ special. And then we followed her,” they’d cackle.
I had no idea the great depths of the feud with their mother, however, until I agreed to chauffeur them to their annual ritual of grave decorating almost fifty years after Mabel’s demise.
My aunt cradled flowers wrapped in paper as she climbed into my back seat. With Mom in the front, the three of us set out across town to the mausoleum where Papa and Mabel are buried. I vaguely remembered a macabre place, hall after hall, row after row of floor-to-ceiling marble tombs simply engraved with names, birth and death dates, and brackets holding vases-in-waiting. I remembered halls almost too dark to navigate and filled with a rotting smell.
As it turned out the place wasn’t as bad as I remembered, in fact, some exterior lighting had been coaxed inside by strategically placed stained-glass windows spilling color onto the walls and floor. Ahead of me the two of them descended the two flights of circular stairs, zeroing into the catacomb like homing pigeons. My Aunt beat us into the prep room at the end of the hall where families fashion garlands for loved ones. She emerged as we approached with the long handled “vase fetcher” and said something to my Mom like, “Neener, neener,” as if it had been a long-standing competition.
She pushed one of the two bouquets at me, directed us into the prep area and set the other bundle by the second sink. I obeyed. My Mom ignored her and headed off. I removed the wrapper and placed the paper and band into the under-counter garbage and noticed the clippers chained to each faucet. My Aunt returned in a flash, plunked a container in the holder above my sink and left again. I took this as a signal and pulled apart the stems as she called my Mom back from a chat with Papa in which she was conversing about the status of my uncle, the latest arrival to the “pearly gates.”
When she reappeared, my Aunt directed her to the sink closest to the door. They stuffed posies with the gentleness of garbage haulers. It’s about here I realized the bunch I was trimming and carefully placing were old and decrepit. I figured she had saved some money by buying day-old (whose gonna see ‘em, right) and said nothing.
At the same moment my Mom wailed, “Aren’t the flowers beautiful?” I figured she either couldn’t see well without her glasses or was doing an overboard gush when I looked and saw, in fact, it was big and gorgeous with bright and colorful lilies, daisies, carnations and a couple of red roses. They scurried out with the abundant gift to the tomb of their beloved father, while I attempted to make a decent arrangement—out of junk.
One of the stems of yellow lilies was translucent, wrinkled and brown on the edges. The bent petals on the two gerbera daisies alternated forward and backward like a plastic Hawaiian lei just unpacked. The two stems of white mums were acceptable and at least took up some real estate in the large jug. But the two Queen Anne’s lace were bent like candy canes and wilted like carrot tops left in the sun. They curled pathetically over the edge. Luckily there were three of those leafed stems used as filler, but because the finished work looked so empty and sad looking I told my Aunt when she returned to transport my contribution, “The red ones go in front.” She scooped up the bedraggled offering and disappeared—to Mabel’s grave.
I cleaned up the room and made my way to Papa’s side in the well-lit large hall where they had placed the remembrance, adding a small American flag for homage. They followed and stood beaming at their Father.
“Where’s Mabel?” I asked. A scan of the names around Papa didn’t include her. I followed them to the left and then right, down a lesser corridor to a dark corner where, above our heads, next to a fake window with a velvet drape, she rests behind a tomb decorated with tired old posies.
“Why aren’t Papa and Mabel together?” I asked no one in particular.
“We didn’t want her next to him because she wasn’t very good to him. She had boyfriends, you know,” my Aunt hissed.