Inside Miss Pettibone’s black leather pocketbook, which was lined in shiny black satin, were these things: a packet of facial tissues, a needlepoint case for glasses (with a spare pair of glasses inside), a red leather coin purse, a dusty pink compact, a tarnished silver lipstick case, a ballpoint pen, a bottle of prescription pills and a small ring with two keys, one for the door and the other for the post box. It was the pocketbook of an old woman because Miss Pettibone was, in fact, very old.
Miss Pettibone was old but far from frail or feeble-minded. She was, also in fact, the very picture of competence and utility, always outfitted neatly for work in a plain black dress protected by a short-sleeved, white uniform coat, the kind worn in hospitals or restaurant kitchens. Her modest dress came to just below her knees, long enough to cover the tops of her compression hosiery, which kept her ankles from swelling above her sturdy, heavy, lace-up shoes.
Everything about Miss Pettibone was the same from one day to the next: her simple black dress, her unflattering top and shoes, her thick hose. The only variations were stains that came and went, as such things do. And the only color in Miss Pettibone’s otherwise black and white palette was red: a dot of rouge on each cheek, a neat application of red lipstick on her lips, and a uniform wash of red on her hair, making it precisely the same color from root to tip, front to back.
But for all her severe-seeming uniformity, Miss Pettibone was soft in every way, even the faint and not unpleasant scent of Pond’s cold cream that trailed behind when she walked. Her pale skin was velvety, down to the folds of it that gathered at her elbows, just under the short sleeve of her top. Her body was cushiony, though not overly plump. Her manner was calm and unflappable, making her an equally comfortable companion when in a rocking chair, reading Wynken, Blynken and Nod (for the 100th time), or in the downstairs half-bathroom administering syrup of ipecac to remedy consumption of an entire bottle of sweet, orange-flavored baby aspirin.
She did not drive, either by choice or by lack of instruction (the outcome being the same, either way); so Miss Pettibone had to be picked up from the small, tidy bungalow where she lived the quiet life of a spinster. She would open the front door (she’d been waiting for the knock) and usher in her visitors (Miss Pettibone would not have dreamed of waiting on the stoop outside; who would?) to wait, just a minute, while she gathered her things and put on her coat.
Her living room was that of an old person who lived alone. It was impeccably tidy and tastefully decorated from an age gone by, filled with dark mahogany Art Deco furniture – a sofa and chairs and side tables and a cabinet. She lived all alone, she said, because Mr. Pettibone (taken to mean her father) had met an unfortunate end, coming unexpectedly face-to-face with a streetcar. He was hard of hearing and unaccustomed to looking out for anything other than horses (which could be felt as much as heard); so one day he walked into the street entirely unprepared for what hit him, quite literally. And that was the end of that.
All of this had happened a very long time ago; and, from the appearance of things in her living room, very little had transpired since, other than Miss Pettibone’s growing quite old, the kind of old distinguished by the fragrance of cold cream and careful shuffling of crepe-soled orthotics.
And the catalog of a lifetime of stories. Miss Pettibone was chock full of stories – tales of Ireland and oceans and children and sea shells and treasure, antidotes to Wilhemina W. Witchiepoo, told in the safety of the chaise lounge, small head snuggled against soft body, interrupted only occasionally by a hard lump under the surface of the uniform coat.
On her chest of her dress, you see, perched above her ample bosom, under her uniform top, Miss Pettibone wore a large sparkling brooch with two other smaller, similar pins beside it, all of which were taken to be paste, because why on earth would an old woman in a plain, dark dress and an unfashionable uniform coat possibly wear – or even own – fancy jewelry?
But wear diamond jewelry she did, though she kept it hidden from sight when she was working. When Mr. Pettibone died, you see, Miss Pettibone, who was actually Mrs. Pettibone, received a settlement of money. And she took that settlement of money to Mr. Brodnax, who exchanged the money for diamonds, rather a number of them, which Mrs. Pettibone wore, always, high on the chest of her dress, close to her heart, under that white uniform top.
All of which surely sounds an incredible fiction, as the true stories of completely ordinary people often do. Just like this one, the story of Madeline Pettibone, née Howell, child of Irish immigrants, born in 1892 in Somerville, Massachusetts, mysteriously transplanted to Memphis where she lived for decades and decades, from the 1920s to the 1970s, at 706 South Belvedere Boulevard.
Though I haven’t the faintest notion who lives there now, 706 South Belvedere Boulevard is still a tidy little bungalow at the far end of a tree-lined street, a street filled mostly with grand houses on a grand scale, sprinkled with a few more modest ones like this particular one where we drove, once upon a time, my mother and I, to pick up Mrs. Pettibone, who often stayed with me when I was little while my mother ran errands or went to school or hosted a dinner party.
I pass Mrs. Pettibone’s house nearly every single day when I walk. It’s not too many blocks from the house where my parents and I lived a very long time ago, when I was small. It’s even fewer blocks from the house where my own family and I live now that I am older – though not yet as old as Mrs. Pettibone.
I walk by her door and think about her wrinkled elbows and clunky shoes and gentle voice. And her story, which has stayed with me, always, and which I’ve now told you here, almost all of it true. I would tell you which part is true and which isn’t, except surely you understand (how could you not?): a lady keeps the contents of her pocketbook to herself.
Food | Week of May 16, 2016
Mexican Burrito Bowls
(could use chicken instead of pork carnitas – or just skip the meat)
Roasted Spring Vegetables with Burrata
(our came from Plated; here’s a similar recipe from Something New for Dinner)
Crab Cake Sliders | Oven Fries (or potato chips)
Scrambled Egg Sandwiches | Fresh Berries
(we like our eggs scrambled soft, with a bit of cream cheese stirred in, served on brioche)