Mary Martin, aged 22, St. Louis, Missouri (circa 1967)
Mistress Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Old English nursery rhyme
“Contrary” could have been my sister Mary’s middle name. From the beginning to the tragic end of her tumultuous life, she marched to her own drummer, and what a march it was.
There’s a photo of Mary, taken when she was a few months old, with a cloud of soft dark hair and a red-gummed smile showing two little white teeth at the bottom. The soft dark hair fell out, as baby hair usually does, and what grew back in was abundant platinum blonde hair, the same shade as that of our young father. He was 24 when Mary, the second of his daughters, was born in December 1946. I had come along earlier, in March 1944. Both Mary’s eyes and my own were shaped like the eyes of our beautiful mother: however, my eyes turned out to be greenish-gray. Mary’s were brown, like Mother’s eyes.
When our father, Edward, was posted to Tokyo to edit the Pacific edition of The Stars and Stripes (the Army newspaper), Japan was under American occupation. Mary, then about two, quickly learned to speak Japanese as she spent a great deal of time with our two maids. “When we went out as a family,” my mother Anne recalled years later, “Mary was our interpreter. It was funny to see plump little three-year-old Mary, bowing solemnly to an old Japanese man who bowed in return, translating what he had to say so we could understand.” The combination of Mary’s blonde hair and brown eyes elicited amazement and admiration from Japanese people when we went out in public.
Despite her outward brashness, Mary had a peculiar vulnerability that made authority figures punish only her, when all around her were people behaving the same way. It began in primary school in Singapore, with the result that Anne had to tutor her at home, using the Calvert System.
It happened in junior high, when the girls in her set daringly wore their skirts an inch above their knees—but only Mary was sent to the principal’s office.
It happened at Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa, with the result that she was sent to live with our aunt and uncle in Lubbock. She stayed only six months, however. Eventually she earned a G.E.D.
As teenagers, while we still lived at home with our parents, Mary and I took turns producing dinner. Her ideas of dinner were most peculiar: no one who tasted her “Frito salad,” which consisted of Fritos arranged on a pyramid of French fries, or her scrambled eggs, layered between concentric slices of apple and stuck together with toothpicks, could ever forget them. Another “dinner” consisted of pork chops and a bowl of apples and oranges.
When my mother decided to accept a promotion with the federal government in Washington, DC, she and Mary traveled up to the capital by Greyhound, arriving in April 1965. Edward’s brother Okie and his wife, who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, gave them some furniture for their empty apartment in Arlington, Virginia, in those days a bedroom suburb of Washington. The furniture consisted of a card table, a folding chair, and a rocking chair with the rockers cut off.
I was still in London at the time, but I came to Washington in July 1965 to join my mother and sister. We slept on air mattresses that quietly lost their air during the night, so we woke up on the floor. We were so poor that Mother had to make coffee in a saucepan and Texas-style biscuits from scratch for breakfast. However, we always had money for beer. Our entertainments were reading books from the library, conversation, and listening to the radio. One morning, the trash collector, picking up our trash and glancing up at the row of library books ranged neatly on the windowsill, muttered to a colleague, “For people who read, they sure do booze a lot.”
As our financial circumstances improved, Mary, who had been drawing since childhood, bought oils, an easel, and canvases, and resumed her avocation of painting. She painted a portrait of John Barrymore as Hamlet so magnetic that it seemed to fill the room.
Mary had been working quite successfully at the false ponytail kiosk at Woodward & Lothrop for several months when the supervisors finally got around to giving her a color blindness test. Discovering with horror that she was extremely colorblind, they switched her to Top Gear, a line of trendy dresses geared to young women.
In August 1967, deciding she wanted to give a party, she pushed all the furniture out of the living room of our apartment and bought black lights and a lot of records. (Our mother was on her honeymoon with her second husband.) Mary asked me to buy two cases of beer, as she was a few months shy of her 21st birthday. She went with me to buy it from the drugstore and we wheeled it home in a shopping cart. Men in passing cars yelled out the window, “I want to come to that party!” She made 240 tacos for her gathering, which I heard was highly successful. Her friends from the store danced to music in our tiny living room, ate the tacos, and drank the beer, happy as could be.
Mary married Dougal, a man she’d met among my husband’s friends. Although she eschewed a wedding, she did enjoy dressing up in a bridal gown and veil for the civil ceremony. When she and my mother arrived at the Arlington County Courthouse, a man walked by, saw Mary dressed as a bride, held out his arms and screeched, “For me?” She did look beautiful, with her long blonde hair, form-fitting white gown, and perfect makeup.
Mercurial as always, Mary separated from her husband, Dougal, before her first child, Crispin, was born. Our mother accompanied her to the labor and delivery room of the hospital. Once there, Mary spent her time putting on makeup so she’d look beautiful the first time she met her baby. (In those days, no one knew the gender before the birth). Her little son inherited her blond hair and his father’s pale Irish skin and blue eyes. “He’s a football player,” my mother announced, awed, when she called to tell me the news. “Wide shoulders!” Mary promptly set about writing birth announcements to everyone, including President Gerald Ford.
When they were ten years old she dressed up her son Crispin and my younger son, Timothy, both much of an age, as Boy George clones during the Kulture Klub’s heyday. We still have the photograph somewhere.
Mary changed jobs the way she changed clothes. Before her short career in retail, she attended what was then known as “beauty school.”
She was enjoying a career as a realtor when she and several colleagues boarded a flight for a conference in Los Angeles. They were all startled, then terrified, when the pilot announced, “The president has declared a national emergency. We will land at the nearest airport, which is Kansas City.” It was September 11, 2001. The realtors rented a car at the airport and drove back to Washington, DC.
Years later she was working in furniture sales for a national company. Dispatched to Florida for a furniture show, she and many others were caught up in Hurricane Wilma. For days they were unable to get a plane out, so had to line up in the hotel lobby for crackers and water.
All her life she was to apply her artistic talents to makeup. She could be very kind, cheering up people she thought needed it. She would give a bed-bound friend a pedicure. She’d give a makeover to anyone who asked. “This is how I remember fun Mary,” one of our cousins recalled. “I’ll never forget her giving my mom a makeover. Forgot how old I was but when I saw Mom she looked so different I cried! Makes me laugh now because Mary made my mom look so glamorous.”
She painted unusual pictures. One hangs on the wall of my office. Titled “Mr. and Mrs. Greensnake,” it shows a woman with green skin, short blonde hair, and a green snake curling about her amid some flowers. Another depicted a solitary fisherman in a rowboat, rocking on blue waves. It wasn’t until you looked at the background that you really saw the faucet dripping and the tiles behind. My aunt owns the painting Mary did of Marilyn Monroe; the picture she painted of me when I was twenty-two hangs on my bedroom wall.
She wrote an epistolary novel called Beauty Advice from Lanelle Schmidt, that being the most ordinary name she could imagine. It’s full of her personality, blunt, snarky and amusing, but it palls after a while.
“Weird she was,” as Yoda might have put it. How many people would have bought a statue of a cobra with its hood spread and put a tiny Santa Claus hat on its head? Mary did. Then she piled Christmas presents around the snake’s body, which she placed on the credenza.
Mary and I had profoundly divergent personalities, and often enough we quarreled. There were times when we got on well, however. We had our own highly allusive, elliptical language, which no one but we two understood. It was made up of John Lennon-isms, silly bits from our father’s stories, phrases from books or popular songs that we had mocked, and so on. We could make each other rock with laughter by uttering one sentence: “Hallo, schools, this is Radio Malaya. Plop!” We heard this on the wireless when we were children in Singapore, and thought it terribly funny for reasons that are now lost in time.
One Christmas season, seized by a sudden fit of penuriousness, Mother, Mary, and I decided to meet at Anne’s house to make Christmas goodies to give to our friends. We laughed and reminisced so much that we forgot to put the marshmallow crème in the fudge, forgot to put the garlic in the cheese, celery and garlic bread, and left out the sherry in the sherry cupcakes. Mary enjoyed it so much that several years later she asked for a reprise of that occasion instead of a Christmas present, but alas, it was not as good the second time around.
It was Mary who introduced me to the Howard Dean campaign for president. She dragged me to my first meetup at Tyson’s Corner, and thereafter accompanied me to meetups, rallies, and yard sales, at all of which we raised money for the campaign. However, when Dean decided to accept small donor money rather than relying strictly on government campaign funds, Mary turned against him. Thereafter she went over to the dark side, so to speak—as we later found out, she went to the Drudge Report every morning on her laptop, posted on Q-Anon, and refused to get a Covid vaccine.
“We lost her to a cult,” her daughter-in-law Delphine mourned.
After my husband and I returned from our journey to Beijing, Singapore, and Australia in 2012, Mary stopped responding to email and phone calls.
We asked ourselves repeatedly, how could she cut herself off from us? From me, her sister, who was the one person in the world who shared her background from birth?
How could she cut herself off from her son Crispin, who of all Edward’s grandchildren, was the most like him? Crispin always loved reading and writing. At age 10, he was making little books of his own writings and binding them. All on his own, with no help from family money or influence (there wasn’t any), he took courses and rose through the ranks at his company to Senior Manager. The next promotion may well bring him to Vice-President.
How could Mary cut herself off from Selena, her longed-for, much-adored daughter, who needed her as all girls need their mothers? “She arrived with a bill for all the services she’d received in heaven,” Mary announced proudly when Selena was born. “Nails done, hair curled, lips colored rose.” She was so proud of Selena as she grew, a sweet little girl with her father’s dark eyes and hair.
How could Mary cut herself off from Delphine, her daughter-in-law who, although bound by ties of kinship rather than blood, shares Mary’s gift for creating a cozy, welcoming atmosphere in her home?
And what of her grandson, young Colum, so like his grandmother in his love for movies, Hollywood, and music? They would have had so much in common, had she chosen to remain in the family.
Crispin said, “I could tell what kind of mood she was in just by the way she said ‘Hello’ when she answered the phone. I could tell whether she was in a good mood, furious, sarcastic, or snarling, just by that one word.”
“My mother Mary was the most glamorous mother I could’ve asked for,” Selena said after Mary died. “If I ever got lost in a Costco, I’d say to someone ‘Have you seen my mom? She looks like Marilyn Monroe.’ I refuse to remember her any other way but this.”
The last time I ever saw Mary was in January 2014. Delphine, Selena, and I decided on the spur of the moment to go to Mary’s apartment. We’d been visiting a friend in the neighborhood and as we were so near, I thought, “Why not?” Delphine elected to stay in the car with baby Colum, but Selena and I got out. We knew Mary would ignore knocks on the front door but thought she might respond to a knock on the sliding glass door that gave on to a small patio at the back of her ground floor apartment. There was a curtain covering the door, but we knocked on the glass.
The curtain was drawn aside to reveal Mary standing behind a row of potted plants. (She was always better at growing plants than I was.) She smiled at us briefly, then immediately drew the curtain again. Poor Selena was shaking and in tears. As we walked away, Selena sobbed and said, “She saw us and laughed! She bent over, the way she does when she’s secretly laughing about something. I’ve seen her do that before.”
I later apologized to Selena for subjecting her to such a shattering experience. “You don’t have to apologize to me,” Selena said. “It’s just going to be the last memory I have of my mom until she snaps out of whatever funk she is in.”
Only once in those 11 years of estrangement did I receive a communication from Mary. In November 2017, I received a handwritten note from her in the mail, informing us that her husband Miguel had died in hospice care in October. We were all in floods of tears, especially Selena, Miguel’s daughter. If only Mary had let us know, so we could have said goodbye! I was fond of my kind-hearted, temperamental Cuban brother-in-law. Every Christmas I gave him a box of Brandy Beans from Trader Joe’s, and to this day my eyes fill with tears when I see them offered for sale during the Yule season.
For some months in late 2022 I had a feeling of impending doom, and I couldn’t understand why. (My last feeling of impending doom was in 2011, when Northern Virginia suffered an earthquake.) This feeling was puzzling because as far as I knew, my husband, children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephew were fine. It finally drove me to have my cards read by an intuitive Tarot reader who said the cards indicated that I would be in High Priestess mode until April. And so it turned out. One of the things a High Priestess does is to give comfort and guidance to those who need it, and this I have attempted to do.
On the Ides of March Mary was discovered to have died of a heart attack, alone in her apartment. Afterwards, by examining her laptop, Crispin and Delphine determined that she must have died on the night of March 6th. The three of us set about doing what was necessary and legal, and her remains were cremated on Tuesday, March 22nd, 2023.
Where are you now, my talented, troubled, contrary sister Mary?
Naught but smoke in the sky.
September 12, 2023