My mother was not a fancy woman. She wore flannel pajamas in winter and scuffie house slippers that she bought at Woolworth's. She owned cloth coats because she couldn't imagine the extravagance of fur.Her glamorous sister Babe lived in a section of Los Angeles skirting Hollywood. Babe loved to drape mink around her shoulders even when it was 70 degrees. She and my mother talked across the continent every week for years _ my mother from her sensible black telephone in Chicago and Babe from an ornate gold one in L.A. They rejoiced over good events and consoled one another in sad moments.
Babe had been a fashion model in Chicago as a very young woman, and according to my mother, had all the men dizzy after her. She had silk stockings during the Depression while my mother shaded her legs with tanning cream. She made dates with more than one man for the same evening. My mother had to go to the door and say that her sister wasn't home.
Eventually, after a disastrous marriage to a stunt flier, Babe married a pharmacist. They moved to California, had children, settled down. Babe always remained glamorous. She's a bottle blond to this day, and she has a large palette of eye shadow on her bathroom counter, so she can match her eyelids to her outfit. She walks around in 3-inch heels even in her apartment _ the muscles of her feet and legs have conformed to spike heels for so long, they can't adapt to anything lower. And she has her minks, full length, and vests for a sporty look.
My mother did have a few small vanities. She enjoyed sipping Grand Marnier from a liqueur glass _ she nearly fainted in horror when we were at a restaurant and she heard a man order it on the rocks. And she owned two pieces of jewelry that I always remember her having, that she cherished and I worshipped. One was a gold necklace watch made in Switzerland. The back of it displays a miniature enamel painting. The last thing she would do before she went out for the evening was wind the watch with a tiny gold key. The watch had one idiosyncrasy: It ran for only eight hours. That didn't seem to bother either of us. It was the splendor of the watch that was important.
The other piece of jewelry was a gold pin studded with garnets, the shape and size of a Monarch butterfly. When my mother chose this pin to wear for an evening out, I knew she was feeling particularly good about herself. I loved when she wore it. Even now I associate it with perfume and silk scarves and her long hair done up with a tortoise shell comb. When she pinned on the butterfly, she always told me that someday it would be mine. I basked in her promise, wanting the pin not because of its beauty or monetary value, but because it was hers, and it represented a side of her that I didn't often see.
In her later years my mother's lungs were clogged with emphysema. Over time she offered me mementos: a piece of cut glass, a limited edition of a D.
H. Lawrence story called The Sun and even her gold Swiss watch.
Then during a phone conversation, she said she wanted me to have the garnet butterfly pin. When she offered it to me, I reacted in silent shock. To me it signaled that she was giving up on life. She must have considered herself too ill or too weary to dress up anymore.
I thanked her but urged her to enjoy it awhile longer. A few weeks later she mentioned to me that since I hadn't wanted the pin, she had mailed it to Babe in California.
"Garnet is her birthstone," she told me.
I felt the very fabric of my life unravel with her news. I expressed only surprise and perhaps moderate disappointment, but secretly I was crushed. My mother had misinterpreted my refusal, and I hadn't realized how much she wanted me to take the pin. Now it belonged to someone else.
For weeks I mourned the loss of the connection that I had longed to have with this magical, ethereal side of my mother, the side that she showed briefly when she wore the pin. One thing I was able to rejoice in: She had given the pin to someone she deeply loved.
I wasn't upset with Aunt Babe. Circumstances and a misunderstanding had caused the situation, not my aunt who had been my mother's closest confidante over the years. After my mother's death I came to be glad that Babe had the pin, that someone I trusted and loved kept my mother's memory alive by wearing the garnet butterfly.
Babe and I have been in close touch, talking every couple of weeks since my mother's death several years ago. We've gotten to know each other well over the telephone. This last November, my husband, David, and I were in California, and we drove from San Diego to Los Angeles to see her. The visit was chaotic _ by happy coincidence, a cousin of mine from Chicago, her husband and newly adopted son were there, and there was much milling around, laughing and crying.
As we were getting ready to go out to lunch, I noticed something flashing in my aunt's hand. Suddenly, she came up to me and put her arm around my shoulders.
"I want everyone to see this," she said. Everyone stopped talking for a moment, as she pressed the garnet butterly into my palm and said she was giving it to me. I closed my eyes and hugged her. She insisted I wear it that instant, and she supervised the pinning of the butterfly. I was wearing a cotton T-shirt under a jumper, not exactly the right duds for the garnet butterfly, but I didn't protest.
Since the visit I've searched unsuccessfully through albums for a picture of my mother wearing the butterfly. Then today I was going through some old files and came across a clip from the Chicago Tribune. A sculptor friend of my mother's was featured showing how she was creating a small bust of me at age 4. I'm in one of the pictures, as is my mother. She and her friend Margot are standing by a kiln. My mother has on a sundress, and the shape of a butterfly appears on one strap. I always took it to be the design of the dress, but this time I looked more closely. The butterfly is a little crooked, and yes, it is the garnet butterfly pin.
I was thrilled to identify the image in this picture, which I've had for years. My mother, so long ago, while dressing for this event, took care to look her best, and chose the butterfly pin, her amulet, which mysteriously revealed her inner beauty.
Karen Loeb is a writer who lives in Eau Claire, Wis. She recently was awarded a $5,000 artist's fellowship from the Wisconsin Arts Board. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.