My mother was born in 1937 in New Canaan, Connecticut, the second of four daughters. The first, Phyllis, being the most beautiful and the last, Pamela and Penelope, fraternal twins. Sally Edith Chatterton, my mother, set apart from her sisters by more than the first letter of her name.
They lived in a big white house in a good neighborhood. I’ve never gotten confirmation on the secrets I know lived there with them. My grandfather, manic-depressive and his wife, stern in her desperation. The girls, fueled by jealousy, constantly competed against one another for the approval of their parents. The thoroughbred, her father called my mother. Penny was chubby with red hair and freckles, Pammy was plain but perfect and Phyllis, oh, Phyllis,…
She died at thirty, sitting on a couch on New Year’s Eve. She died of a cat scratch, of blood poisoning, Phyllis was an alcoholic, they say. Every story I’ve heard about her is the kind you forget immediately, the details at once jumbled even as you’re crossing the threshold of the room you heard it in. Can you imagine what it must have been like for my mother, in her twenties, to lose a sister? She never said.
My mother went to Rhode Island School of Design, art college in the late 1950’s. She majored in painting, drank martinis with her roommate, Nancy, and giggled at the boys across the alleyway. I’m not sure what kind of future she imagined, what kind of woman she saw past the girl who rushed up Benefit Street with her canvas and brushes. She was blond and loud-mouthed, popular with even the girls.
By senior year, 1960, my grandparent’s marriage was starting to fall apart. During a school vacation my mother ran away from home, took the train to Nancy’s house. When she returned to Rhode Island my grandparents made her move out of her apartment and back into the dorms. She snuck out each night, at first to Nancy’s, then to Gene’s. The first time I heard about Gene I was in high school, really pining over a boy for the first time. As she described him, dark hair and the most intense eyes… almost black they were so deep, she had a look on her face I’d never seen before.
They eloped and moved to Manhattan. The first night there they crashed on Cecil Taylor’s couch. She tells me this when I call her from New York where I’ve gone for the weekend with college friends. We’ve just met Taylor in a jazz bar in the village, my musician friend swooning from across the room. In high school, when drugs come up, she tells me about taking acid with Gene that first year in New York, getting into a motorcycle accident because they saw only green lights.
And then, after my first breakup, at age sixteen, she tells me about coming home to their apartment one afternoon, Gene telling her that it was over. She was sick for months, is still sick thirty years later. Coincidentally, my grandfather had also met another woman, at the New Canaan Playhouse, where he was an active member. Together, my mother and her father fly to Mexico to get divorced. Her sisters, burdened with their mother’s grief, never quite forgave my mother.
As sick as she was over what happened with Gene, she stayed in New York. It was almost the 70’s and things were changing. She lived in a one bedroom on West 37th Street, had an analyst, lots of gay friends. She turned to food, something she’d always loved just as much as art. She combined them, took jobs as a food stylist, painting raw turkeys to look fresh out of the oven. She went to Cape Cod on the weekends to see her mother. Pam and Penny were thick with children, my mother more beautiful and more damaged each year.
She found out she was pregnant, the result of a casual relationship over even before the test came back positive. He wouldn’t return her calls and finally she left a message with his secretary, simply the amount due for the abortion. Days later there was a check in the mail. Shortly after that she married again. A Jewish man named Bob. It didn’t even last a year. And then, on a warm June day in 1975 she met my father. She’d stood him up the night before but he was persistent.
My mother, between Pam & Penny. Circa 1975. (Click to enlarge.)