By: Josh Adair
Helen frittered her later years committing intentionally artless theft; she pilfered in protest of the squelched promise of her youth.
The prettiest child in her family and a beauty by anyone’s standards, at eighteen she married my equally hunky grandfather in 1941 at the height of the erotic frenzy aroused by WW II. She conceived about a year later – his departure being somewhat less imminent than the mania of lust had suggested – and Barbara, her very own Barbie, appeared in September 1943. The heady glamor of a wartime romance coupled with the joy of marriage, then motherhood, overwhelmed Helen. She felt certain hers was to be a golden path with a gorgeous husband, charming child, and her own lovely looks, of course.
Living with her parents during Gerald’s deployment, she confidently awaited a wondrous life that would demonstrate to her dowdy, overachieving siblings – a self-important pack given to patronizing and underestimating her – that her winsome beauty would ultimately translate into an equally comely life thanks to the undeniable appeal of her new family.
She could not have been more mistaken.
Helen’s prettiness started to dim – ever so faintly – before Gerald even deployed. I see this each time I pore over her photo booth strip-shots I safekeep in our family archive. She bulks up after Barbara’s birth; her hair gets shorter. She’s still appealing but the photographs document her fraying throughout the forties, when she was still in her twenties.
During his service, Helen titillated Gerry, as she called him, with homemade pin-up shots, including one sporting only his flannel shirt, panties, high-heels, and, inexplicably, wire-rimmed glasses. She had taken the film to Charlie Merrill’s studio for developing – making his day, if not his entire week week – into a luxurious 5×7 she shipped to France via Air Mail, no doubt enlivening the censors and reviving Gerald, just as she had Charlie.
When he returned from France, her plumpness revolted him; he found little to inspire nostalgia for their love. His severely spoilt child – desperately unhappy to make her stranger father’s acquaintance – did little to sweeten the reunion.
He had hardened — and in the least seductive of ways. As a punishment – unintentional or otherwise – Gerald relocated Helena and Barbie to a tenant farm some ten miles from their home in town. A resident of Monmouth, IL, all her life, Helen found the “wilderness” unimaginable. She agonized over how to would manage childcare singlehandedly while battling the loneliness of being without her forever-besting siblings.
Gerald had cultivated a calculated callousness in France that calcified into a seamless shell when he beheld her transformation; fury became his sole emotional response henceforth. He secured a farm with a house constructed around 1900 – its best feature being brand-new electricity – several outbuildings, a barn, and an outhouse. Save the electricity, it boasted the worst features of what had been normal nineteenth-century life. Gravestones razed to make additional rooms for fields paved the path to the back door.
Helen failed to foresee that those headstones as the harbingers of unhappiness they were. In no time, her life became drudgery, isolation, and longing. She yearned endlessly — for her extended family whom she saw infrequently; for a husband that burned for her; for a beautiful home. Instead, she got chamber pots wanting emptying; a partner purposely avoiding home life; siblings excelling at nursing and law school.
Everyone, it seemed, expected Helen to clean up the shit, literally and figuratively, and shut up about it.
Over time, she transformed into a kind of dilatory June Cleaver, forever laboring to become, but never quite mastering the illusion. Her cooking consistently trumped anyone else’s; over twenty years after her death even the best cooks in my family still bemoan the loss of her apple pies and blackberry pies. She engineered three elaborate meals each day, often delivering at least one directly to the fields. She hated cleaning up the detritus, though, so the house usually suffered. Who could blame her? I often wonder why she didn’t “accidentally” incinerate the whole mess with her propane-fueled range and walk away – the gravestones were already in situ, so she could have called it a monument and moved on, perhaps lighting a cigarette from the flames as she went.
She didn’t though. She endured. She had another daughter, my mother, and grew fatter from her cooking and overpowering disappointment. She was rewarded with thumbs crushed in her electric wringer as she toiled over Gerald’s overalls; legs lathered in molten peach jam lava; a knee wrenched by an errant plum peel, permanently altering her gait.
She also successfully maneuvered an endless barrage of family tragedy. Her father succumbed in 1950, leaving her mother penniless and homeless shortly thereafter. Countless other aunts and uncles also expired with Helen always among the first to arrive with succor and salad – potato, usually – hoping to help others as she wished to be helped herself. Then came her nephew’s death – murder or suicide, depending on who you ask – and his mother’s subsequent suicide attempts and later psychiatric hospital commitment. Then her mother’s lost battle with ovarian cancer a few days before Christmas, 1960. In ’61, Barbara came home pregnant and announced her impending nuptials that would immediately precede her high school commencement.
All the while, Helen continued to launder manually; to raise, kill, and cook chickens; to plant, raise, and preserve a field-size garden; to raise children; to volunteer at church; to empty chamber pots and dream, ironically, of her enviable wartime life.
As everyone’s point-person for trauma, as well as their go-to butt of jokes, Helen had arrived at her tipping-point by the time Kennedy took office. She had had enough of not having enough – of anything. Her pride and joy coming home pregnant put her over the edge. No one, she realized, was going to save her or care for her. She was trapped in a houseful of people with no proper plumbing and she didn’t intend to put up with anything else. Helen had to have something for herself.
At thirty-seven or thirty-eight, Helen found freedom working as a maid.
It happened serendipitously enough; she dropped the rent check by her landlord’s one winter afternoon and the old lady offered her a job. She felt Helen didn’t have enough to do and she wanted to help. Though she hated cleaning her own house and usually made her daughters do it, she liked that Addie believed she kept a clean house on her own.So she started driving the few miles over to Addie’s a few days a week to help out.
She had been hired to clean up, and boy did she ever. Addie, a plain patrician, weakly constituted, spent her days “recovering,” from some unknown antecedent. Eternally fatigued by the crushing prospects of wealth in such excess that she couldn’t fathom how to go on not spending it, she lived in perpetual torment. It would be hard to find such a monied martyr today; she was part of the old set who saw saving and suffering as life’s sole service. Helen hated her for that – playing at penury did not appeal to her more grandiose desires.
Addie paid her pennies. Sometimes she actually paid her in pennies.She was, after all, the woman who saw nothing wrong with gravestone sidewalks and outdoor toilets – at least when it came to her rental properties. Her own home boasted many fine objects, though its maintenance left something to be desired. She was the prototypical wealthy Protestant windbag who frittered her days away bemoaning the burden of abundance and prophesying financial ruin over the least expenditure. Her feigned poverty operated as a masturbatory conceit devised to ensnare the emotional bounty of endless streams of sympathy for her plight.
No matter how much Addie claimed to suffer, Helen always silently reminded herself that she did not shit in a shack on subzero January mornings, humming Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” to keep from crying. Tears only invited frostbite, anyway, and she could not afford to see a doctor. Addie, undoubtedly – at least in her own version – had always reclined through much worse.
Helen, heartily unamused at Addie’s tomfoolery, set about securing herself a higher minimum wage – fighting for women’s rights right before it became fashionable – by stealing anything she could smuggle out in her “big red bag.” In the 80s when I knew her, that bag’s appearance announced that she was about to rob you blind, but it was just starting to establish a reputation then. In those early days, the thrill of shopping without paying enlivened her, especially since her thievery passively assaulted her supercilious landlord.
As her stealing grew more sophisticated, she decided that if she didn’t let you know she was “cleaning” you out, there was little point in such protest – but that took her a decade or so to settle. In the meantime, Addie could no longer climb the stairs to second and third stories, so Helen felt liberated to acquire some finery for her plain house from up there. She didn’t ask permission for these permanent loans; she rationalized removing them by reminding herself they were headed from one Miller property to another. In this way, she assumed a curatorial kind of role. She first filched a Currier & Ives lithograph, “The Old Farm House,” which featured a small dwelling oddly reminiscent of her own, though clearly far more idyllic and lacking the cemetery-chic, shit-shack touches.
As she smuggled the lithograph out, she surged with an elation not unlike the spikes of desire that characterized her early trysts with Gerald. Theft felt more clandestine, though, because she could not mention it to anyone and the risk of later displaying these objects thrilled her.
The Currier & Ives went to live in the house’s narrow closed staircase wall, which she had already populated with dozens of cheap prints. Plopping it among them turned it into a kind of “Where’s Waldo?” for the swindling set. Her favorite part of the entire caper came when a visitor – or even her children – would inquire about any given object’s origin. Suddenly she became a world-maker, proffering a provenance par excellence; “that belonged to grandmother Cora Belle,” or “I found that hidden in the barn!” became some of her favorite explanations. Not even the kids bought her ballyhoo, but she didn’t care. Bald-faced lying overcame her with its power. She dared them to contradict her; what did they know about life’s truth?
In a short amount of time, she fell in love with her own audacity. Suddenly her stories afforded her the power she lost with her looks. Everyone knew that she was lying and yet no one could divine how to assail her egotistical effrontery; it was too dumbfounding. She entranced them with her endless yarns about great people and their fine possessions, buoying herself in the process. For the first time ever, she enjoyed being the “smart one” because she dared deliver tales that beggared belief, defying anyone to challenge her assertions of authenticity.
Helen had heard of other coping mechanisms, though they mostly left her with longing. She knew several of her siblings to be conducting adulterous affairs to address their own psychological malaise; others were closet drinkers; one gambled. None of those alleys offered her the succor she so desperately demanded; no, she sought satisfaction in the material because she’d never had much and they’d been weaned on the lore of her once-wealthy ancestors and all their grandness before some fool relative risked – and lost – everything they had enjoyed from the imposing residences to their fine furs.
Her siblings sympathized with her “fallen gentry” sensibility, having ingested their father’s never-ending oratory of objects they forfeited in the great fall which, ironically, plunged them into their own great depression just a half-decade before the rest of the country followed suit. Each of them professed the power of possessions to confer status and incite awe and jealousy and Helen, for one, intended to reclaim everything lost in the great forfeiture of 1923. Her mania wasn’t helped by the fact that the farms her family lost sat in plain view from most of the windows of her rented farmhouse.
In many ways, Helen’s entire was an exercise protracted mourning because of that precise moment when all the grandeur had gone. When she arrived in June of ’23 – Gerald’s sixth birthday – all the Porter money had already gone some six months earlier in mysterious, still-unexplained circumstances. Some of the trappings remained – enough to make an important impression.
Helen’s grandmother, Cora Belle Sterrett Porter, a DAR darling, began fashioning her christening gown out of her mother’s widow’s weeds from the 1890s soon after her birth. Ever the one for a splashy entrance, Helen debuted at 6 months in coal-black taffeta, her name stitched at the neck in orange embroidery floss like some unintentional nod to a Halloween costume or a jaunty jack-o-lantern.
As soon as she could comprehend it, her father indoctrinated her into the cataloging of lost bureaus and rugs sold; bits of pawned 18 kt jewelry; oil paintings auctioned. What flotsam he preserved from the shipwreck of the Porter demise took on iconic status and each of his children vied for their bequest, mythologizing the dining table or tea cart, fabricating stories about how this or that ancestor had hand-fashioned them. What they lost in socioeconomic status, they made up for in sheer dramatic rhetoric, aggrandizing all that they’d been and focusing especially on the role of fine, beautiful objects in that becoming. This recitation of their genealogy of objects is a tradition Helen would harp upon and even today I weave those tales of the Victorian mahogany bedroom suite once discarded in a ditch in a fit of hubris when her grandparents, drunk on their own wealth, found pleasure in wantonly dumping it rather than finding it a new home. Perhaps when one grows up under the auspiciousness of such shocking nonchalance, the idea of stumbling upon finery in a barn or a yard sale doesn’t seem quite as improbable as it always sounded escaping Helen’s lips.
After the Currier & Ives caper, and dozens of other heists from French perfume bottles to quaint personalized Edwardian Christmas cards, Helen persisted in her prowl, but widened its scope considerably. She vociferously collected antique books by “forgetting” to check them out from the local library in those pre-theft sensor days. She also launched her first collection of purloined prescriptions, taking them regardless of their intended purpose when things grew dark.
She nurtured that passion until it eventually triggered a debilitating stroke in 1986. Those first ones were gathered up from her mother’s painkiller stash, amassed during her agonizing final months. It’s hard to say what else she gathered in those days, but everyone knew her collections were expanding at a rate that could not be sustained on the pittance Gerald begrudgingly gave her to maintain the household. Everyone remained largely silent, though, as she grew confident, bold, and aggressive in her disappointment at the cruelty and disparity of life.
Helen’s sense of outrage – and her propensity for sensational emotional explosions – developed fully when Dorothy, her sister, attempted suicide for the first time. Her histrionics had been a work in progress for years, paralleling her development as a dedicated thief.
My mother unwittingly inaugurated this permanent personality shift – she was ten at the time – by making the unfortunate mistake of pointing out that a moth hole blemished the side of Helen’s one remaining “good” black dress. The other had been destroyed a week earlier when Gerald had forced the zipper closed with a pair of pliers and ensnared a prodigious amount of her flesh in its teeth in the process. When she yowled in agony, he rent the zipper despite her protests to let her manage it alone so that the dress might be salvaged.
She had found his filthy-mouthed protestations and flagrant destruction of her dress oddly energizing, so when my mother stuck her finger in the aforementioned moth hole to illustrate her point she completely lost it. She gave herself over to high-pitched shrieking as she shredded the dress to ribbons in front of my mother’s astonished eyes. When she’d finished tearing it from her body, she jumped up and down on its sad remains in just a bra and half slip. It was then that mom started counting the days till high school graduation. Helen had unmoored herself and no one could help anymore.
As the lone housewife in her pack of siblings, it fell to Helen to attend to Dorothy’s needs after her unsuccessful suicide attempt. Dorothy’s had hardly been a life to admire: deeming her choice of husband unsuitable and wishing her to remain as their spinster caretaker, her parents had set her on the path to melancholy at only 21. They refused to let her live with the man she’d married surreptitiously – despite being pregnant. He grew tired of their folderol and abandoned Dorothy for his home state of Virginia, leaving her to care for little Jack on her own.
She only enjoyed about a decade of happiness in her entire adult life, and that was with Shawn Ryan, a widower 22 years her senior. He courted her not as a lover, but as a patient soon to be in need of a nurses’ aide like her – a reality that she purposely overlooked. Regardless of his motives, she loved him and his comfortable upper-middle class life, including his fine home in Oskaloosa, IA brimming with lovely antiques and other beautiful bibelots. Plus, he loved her son and bestowed his surname upon him, a gesture for which the entire family felt grateful.
For a halcyon moment, Dorothy recaptured a version of the storied Porter past in her handsomely appointed home and fine new car. She even flattered herself into thinking that as the plainest of all the five Porter children, she’d finally bested the rest. She didn’t even mind that the rather sizeable diamond engagement and wedding ring – conveniently soldered together some years before – had not been reset since its forfeiture in death by its previous owner, Rynie Ryan.
She expected no more than second-class treatment, and she wasn’t about to criticize that glittering mine-cut diamond since it was larger than anyone’s in the family. If she and Helen had ever been honest about their mutual despair, things might have gone differently; admitting such things, though, revealed a truth that would render their endless competition pointless. Sadly, she concluded her duties as nursemaid rather too quickly when Ryan abruptly died after only ten years of marriage and while he willed her all his wealth, an unscrupulous attorney bilked her of every penny. She fled with the household finery she and her siblings could carry – fighting along the way as they debated whether they ought not be rewarded for their generosity with some trinket or another – including Ryan’s three-stone Deco ring that sported the diamonds he’d been gifted for his long service to the railroads.
Of particular interest in the detritus Ryan abandoned for the next life were those rings with rather large diamonds; several fine antique clocks; china, crystal and quantities of sterling hollowware and flatware. Each of her four Porter siblings girded themselves in the sanctimoniousness of debts owed for their contributions in securing her Oskaloosa escape, though Dorothy knew they’d mostly only come to scavenge objects they might mischaracterize as having belonged to the fabled Porters. Usually one to acquiesce, she held firm and insisted she’d be keeping her lovely possessions as she returned to her parents’ house.
Those objects would become the focus of much obsession in the coming years as Robert, John, Marjorie, and Helen jockeyed for their control, citing the appropriateness of the setting of their respective domiciles as befitting the those fine objects’ stature. The diamonds loomed largest: despite the fact that no one enjoyed even the most tenuous of connections to them. Dorothy wore them proudly, having had Ryan’s “railroad ring” resized to fit the only alluring part of her anatomy: her exceptionally dainty fingers. They shined there, taunting incongruous beacons, advertising their elegance – not to mention worth – on what her siblings considered very low-rent property indeed.
Sadly, her self-estimation came in line with their appraisal in the year after her son died, so she decided to overdose on the pills Helen hadn’t already looted. It didn’t work, though, and she was wearing the diamonds when Helen discovered her hours after the attempt. Shortly thereafter during the pumping of her stomach, one of her nurse friends passed them off to Helen for safekeeping. This, of course, rather resembled handing a fiend some crack to keep in custody.
Helen glimpsed her chance and ran with it; she considered it immaterial that she wouldn’t be able to wear them in public. What public life had she, anyway? If Dorothy didn’t pull through, she’d introduce them to the society of Sugar Tree Grove Presbyterian at her funeral. After all, who cares about crappy dresses if you’re dripping in the diamonds?
At this point it’s tempting to say that only Helen, and none of her siblings, cared about Dorothy, which might be true. Despite enduring numerous tragedies, Dorothy, with her tryingly insipid personality, rarely elicited sympathy. Her demeanor proved too grating, even if one did genuinely feel for her. In spite of that, Helen cared for Dorothy for years; supported her ceaselessly through her son’s death; invited her into her home – permanently, if need be. She continued to look after her in various capacities until Dorothy’s death in ’84, so it’s more complex, at least in her case, than wanting the diamonds more than her sister. That’s not to suggest, however, that she didn’t ache equally for those “goddamn diamonds,” as Gerald dubbed them.
And so she had them; well, she hid them. At first they were Scotch-taped to the back of a Victorian painted plate hanging in her dining room. She had to be careful where she stowed those purloined pretties because she had publicly disavowed any knowledge of their whereabouts at the hospital, and she couldn’t exactly manufacture an origin story for them since everyone already knew it. Her siblings had no sooner inquired whether Dorothy was “alive,” – never swerving into shades of wellness with qualitative statements or questions – than they were demanding to know the diamonds’ whereabouts.
“Dorothy’s diamonds,” featured foremost in the Porter psyche those days, with both the men and the women setting into motion their respective sugar plums dancing about thinking of how they’d glisten on their hands – after a good cleaning and resizing, naturally.
In her role as prodigious child maid, my mother unexpectedly foiled that witness protection plan when she happened upon the diamonds one day while dusting. When she asked Helen about their peculiar location, she was threatened with mayhem to keep quiet. I like to fantasize that Helen threatened to cut her, but that’s probably just my own mafia-inflected fantasy. In any event, the rings had disappeared when next my mother checked. She wouldn’t know for some time that Helen had safety-pinned them inside her bra for safekeeping.
The questions about their whereabouts continued furiously unabated – both in speed and emotional register – and she lived in terror of losing her advantage in that round of the diamond-domination-game. She sacrificed more than anyone to help her family, she figured, and therefore she intended to claim her recompense. It was only when Dorothy reentered life after her extended hospital stay that those beauties bid farewell to Helen’s breasts so that they might reunite with Dorothy’s notoriously slim digits once more.
Their reunion was regrettably short lived. Just as Helen was finally enjoying a real bathroom in her house – sometime in ’62 – and laboring to forget fifteen years of bathing out of a stock pot of lukewarm water, Dorothy made a second attempt on her life. Like clockwork, the Porter siblings descended upon the hospital inquiring about their jewel. If they had been different people, I would have suggested that the meant Dorothy and her welfare, but they actually used the plural, so it was clearly, once again, about those goddamn diamonds. Helen once again pounced upon the scene first and collected the crumpled Dorothy, offering the rings safe passage among the succor of her plentiful bosoms.
Gerald accompanied her that time and shortly after Marjorie swept in to the waiting room, he caught her ransacking Helen’s handbag trying to capture the diamonds for herself. She had done the same with one of their mother’s cameos after her death. While Gerald tolerated, or at least turned a blind eye, to Helen’s outlandish narratives about stolen items he considered trivial and worthless, he felt utterly appalled that anyone would lift these items of considerable value, particularly given the circumstances.
A force in himself, he laid into Marnie, letting her know in no uncertain terms that these thievery games would stop or else. She took him at his word and relented, at least temporarily. Helen, wise enough not to leave the rings unchaperoned, had wrapped them in tissue and moved them to her underpants, though there was little danger he’d seek them out in their old haunt. She always ascribed to the protective powers of undergarments, though I’ve no idea why. When she returned to the waiting room, her rifled purse failed to flap her and Gerald badgered her as only he could until she surrendered them. They would live at the bottom of his cheap aluminum cigarette case underneath his soft pack of Camel studs for nearly a year.
Once again, serendipitously, mom rooted them out. By that time, however, the diamonds had become the focus of a full-out war in which all combatants pretended detente. Dorothy lay convalescing in a research hospital and everyone knew that Gerald had commandeered them to halt the Porter tomfoolery, so no one dared question the rings’ fate. The siblings mused and plotted among themselves in the meantime, quipping about Helen’s hands being too fat to enjoy wearing them, wondering if she’d hawk them and spend her ill-gotten gains irresponsibly. They were a pack united so long as Helen possessed the spoils, though at heart each knew they’d rob the others blind, Golem-style, to get their precious if the opportunity appeared.
Once Gerald knew mom had discovered his subterfuge, he relented and returned them to Helen. Those were the diamonds’ lost years and we can only postulate about what undergarment she introduced them to during that time, though it may have involved one or more hospital gowns, which she’d grown quite fond of stealing when she visited Dorothy. But then Dorothy emerged once more, Lazarus-like, and reclaimed her treasures, much to everyone’s dismay and Helen was finally forced to admit she’d harbored them all along. I suspect her siblings fell into the most acute ennui in the decade following when Dorothy managed to keep ahold of them even as they continued to wheedle their surrender.
In the meantime, Helen burgled. She gave my mother, an adult by then, a boxful of rare antique family photos that she would secretly spirit away during her next visit, nearly causing mom a nervous breakdown out of guilt thinking she’d lost a great piece of our surviving Porter legacy.
She gave me and my siblings Christmas gifts that she pillaged from our rooms later that day while pretending to nap. She cozened hundreds more library books which she tattooed with “discard” in her own hand and then proudly displayed. Years later, after her death, mom and I were forced to return those to the library book drop under cover of night for fear we’d be levied a mortgage-sized fine.
She gave away a pair of diamond earring studs she’d stolen years earlier only to be unable to wear since her ears weren’t pierced. In order to avoid explaining why she didn’t bestow them to Barbara, she claimed a nine-year-old me had stolen them for my own uses. Most of all, though, she was working as a nursing home night aid, and during those nocturnal hours she pinched countless prescriptions for everything from palpitations to pulmonary disease and popped them with abandon. She took it all, literally and figuratively, and her behavior grew ever more erratic.
When she wasn’t pinching pills, she grabbed gems from patients and then passed them off as part of her self-generating Porter heirloom collection. She knew we disbelieved her; she reveled in the absurdity of such entertaining lies as none of us dared blunder into contradicting her for fear of her unhinged response.
She nearly brained me once with a candlestick simply for mentioning that my cousin wished to be willed her gold bracelet, so I can only imagine the bodily destruction I’d have incurred by accusing theft.
When Dorothy entered her last nursing home, she finally surrendered the diamonds to Helen for good, ironically because she knew nursing homes were where patients’ jewelry went to be stolen. The transaction occurred privately, because Dorothy couldn’t brook the imminent protestations of her needlessly greedy siblings. Helen was the only sibling besides her who had remained poor into advanced adulthood and she stood as her only steadfast caregiver all those years. While she certainly wasn’t as flawless as those diamonds, she always showed up, acted in generosity, and did what she could. She deserved the diamonds and Dorothy saw to it that she got them. She even financed their upsizing so that they could be worn, though never in the Porter presence.
Shortly after this bequest, Helen arranged to have a photo taken with her hands specially posed on a dead hunk of tree stump. It was not heavy-handed in the least as she resembled a feral jewel-covered cat recently escaped from the jewelry counter at Tiffany. Close inspection revealed that she brandished not only Dorothy’s diamonds, but also quite a number of other hijacked jewels.
It may have been her crowning moment as it leant tangible evidence to the fact that she was finally covered – encrusted even – in a worth that her family never managed to see, even as she finagled every horrible ordeal from which they predictably fled. She even wore that cameo of her mother’s that she’d stealthily re-appropriated from Marnie’s bedroom after she died of breast cancer in ’69.
She reigned as the queen of intentionally artless theft, reveling in her unwillingness to cover her tracks fully and defiant in her insistence that she deserved more than the world had given her, until Palm Sunday, 1986, when she succumbed to a massive stroke catalyzed by prescription drug abuse, poor diet, and lack of exercise. The doctors, of course, didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about the contributions of heartache, loneliness, and despair, so it’s harder to quantify their impact in her downfall. No one, it seems, wants to study the costs of becoming a housewife.
She never walked again, being rendered paralyzed on the left side by the stroke. She would eventually regain the power of speech after many grueling and heart-rending months, especially for my mother as she labored to care for her combative, near-monstrous parent. Her stroke occurred at a reunion of Gerald’s siblings. Dead two years at that point, she had gone to represent them both because she loved them and still wanted to be valued as part of their family. She’d taken special pains to dress nicely and don her now-garish conglomeration of ill-gotten gems.
When she prepared to slip on Dorothy’s diamonds – who had also been gone several years at that point – she could not find them anywhere. Overcome with certain horror that her brothers and/or their wives – Marjorie had also passed by then – had finally infiltrated her house and captured the stones after protecting them for so long, she felt sick at the realization of the violation which she had paranoiacally anticipated for nearly forty years. The irony was, indeed, lost on her.
It never occurred to her – despite the fact that all her elderly siblings lived hours away – that she probably had finally successfully hidden them from herself. Panicked and near-hysterical, she departed for the reunion sans-stones, lamenting all the way that she could have actually worn them in front of her in-laws who were much too plain a people to attempt their theft.
Ruminating over their whereabouts probably played a larger role in her catastrophe than the pills she’d been ingesting for several decades; those stones sadly emblematized her life’s work to be seen as someone of substance and worth. Losing them meant forfeiting all they symbolized.
Post-stroke, the Porters called frequently about her wellbeing. Polite and concerned, those calls always included a strange pause and then a blurting insistence that everyone be updated about the fate of Dorothy’s goddamn diamonds. They knew she had them! THEY’D ALWAYS KNOWN! – and now her artless, if deft, jig was up and it was only right that they be given to her surviving siblings.
Barbara manifested from across country demanding that she be crowned with them as her mother’s more beautiful daughter. The trouble was, Helen wasn’t speaking, and mom and we three kids could not find them. For a while we inherited Helen’s paranoia, worried that the house would get ransacked and the items of sentiment and/or value would be spirited forever. They intended to redress the years of tension incited by her refusal to acknowledge the diamond-studded elephant in the room, and mom somewhat sympathized with their frustration, having been held-up by Helen for years.
However, as Helen’s caretaker and caregiver – unwillingly emulating her in a number of compassionate ways – she also felt entitled to claim the rings for herself considering that she never received any gratitude or respect for her efforts to preserve and protect a family devoted to material than substance. One day inspiration hit as she cleaned off Helen’s nightmarishly disorganized dresser and she heard a rattling in a box of Avon dusting powder.
For the final time, mom rooted out those goddamn diamonds from their hiding place. If nothing else, she deserved to keep the prize that only she ever managed to find. Helen had hid them in the “Persian Woodmist,” – everyone’s least favorite of all the overpowering, headache-inducing powders she used, for safekeeping and then completely short-circuited when she couldn’t retrace her latest attempts at obscuring them. That’s not to say the short-circuiting wasn’t already afoot, but the timing was conspicuous.
Months later, upon learning we’d recovered them, she unclenched visibly and implored us not to allow anyone else to take them. No one else deserved them, she railed, and all that effort would ultimately be rendered useless if they succeeded in taking her valuable possessions in the end.
Until the ends of all their lives, the remaining Porters would continue to inquire about “the diamonds,” even those who didn’t particularly care about them as they had taken a cult status from which it was hard to distance oneself. They all seemed to await the next maneuver to be made as though we were all embroiled in a decades-long chess match or a high-stakes card game. Mom never surrendered them, though she ultimately sent the “railroad ring” to her sister citing their inappropriate force in all their lives as something in need of defusing.
In retrospect, I wish we’d buried them with Helen, paying homage to her endless craftiness in outmaneuvering her sibling thieves; granting her the prize she’d unquestionably earned, even if her frequently hilarious tactics were incredibly suspect. She deserved at least that, though I wish life could have afforded her a less fraught prize for her many good acts. I think it would have done us all good, too – afforded us a much-needed peace of mind – to be able to say, if not see, exactly where Dorothy’s goddamn diamonds were.
Josh Adair, PhD, is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English and Philosophy and Coordinator for Gender and Diversity Studies at the Murray State University.