“Glory, Glory, Glory” is what Katherine wrote on the days of her monthly calendar—except for the last three. A neighbor found her two weeks later, dead on the kitchen floor. Except for rigueur, the old girl seemed perfectly preserved, as if a mummy. If impressive in death, she was even more so in life.
In her eighties, standing barefoot as was her usual custom, all five feet or so of her was crowned with thick, fiery, copper colored hair sometimes worn down to her waist or piled up like the Gibson showgirl her mother had been.
On her down days, she let her eyebrows go white, but very few saw that side of her. With virtually wrinkle free, artic peach complexion and intense ice blue eyes she was a beauty at any age. She had the odd habit, however, of sticking twigs of flowering blooms in her hair and forgetting to remove them when they faded.
She was one of those women for whom were written songs like “Down by the water, she served tea and oranges that came all the way from China.“ If Colette had never lived, Katherine might have assumed her charisma. But then, she was unique, and one of those personalities who inspired pantomimes and grand imitative gestures in others.
Carrying the genes of fiercely individual English stock, she somehow remembered the details of her Hubbard family origins in Jamestown. A Daughter of the Republic, don’t you know, as if it were anyone’s business. She never mentioned it much, except when ladled unctuous flattery by tea drinking Church ladies hustling donations and politely avoiding her gin breath and double olive hiccups.
Fleeing five ex-husbands (two deceased), two brat sons, one a gambling hustler, the other a tight-assed corporate lawyer, she ended up living in a university town I once called home. Tucked away on the top of a hill in a small two story Victorian Gothic cottage, Katherine created Pan’s Labyrinth.
The early years there were probably the best. She loved gardening, but raised in an old world way with an army of gardeners on her father’s estate, she never quite got the practical hang of order and maintenance, such was the immediacy of her escalading infatuation with each flora or fauna in its brief moment of joyful appreciation.
Thus, The Adams House, as her intimates called it, resembled Grey Gardens from the outside. Its jumble of growth bore few weeds, unless accepted as attractive, as every square inch was given over to each season’s variety of possibility. Spring was certainly the most magical. Overgrown lilacs, apple, crab, and peach trees showered umbrellas of musky scented blossoms of pink and white, beneath which a brocade of violets, dandelions, tulips, daffodils, bloodroot, trillium, and cilia carpeted the surround in a riot of delicate color. And then came, my favorites—- magnificent poppies and peonies as blood red as the rubies Katherine wore on occasion over her rumpled tee shirt of the moment.
Inside was every bit as profuse as its garden mantle. The formal parlor particularly struck one as proud, defiant and faded. Its walls were draped in striped, pink and cream silk that might have once been delicate, but seemed dipped in tea—- Katherine smoked cigars in that room. Perhaps in honor of her Father, The Captain.
Generations of accumulated treasures filled her Aladdin’s cave of a cottage, most refugees passed along to the boarding of the last collateral line. Tiffany and Faberge coexisted alongside an enthusiasm for paint-by-number New England farm scenes perched on a dusty Biedermeier credenza, crowded with sepia photos of tennis dandies and a dazzling beauty with bobbed hair posing before a rented chateau and a Dusenberg. A rare Louis the XIV chair sat in one corner with a pile of original Nancy Drew mysteries and National Geographics stacked high with neglected intent.
Most of the furniture was French empire and as elegant as an old court trollop could take for granted. Shreds of cat scratched brocade hung at every corner. Lalique, Waterford, or Stuben broken by tumbling dogs Napoleon and Josephine were tossed out the backdoor to decorate the gardens. It was truly amazing what one could find out there. Said dogs also regularly decorated the Aubusson carpets, not that one could tell because of the cigars or the occasional bottle of champagne that went awry at a celebratory opening.
Then came the years when Katherine withdrew. The place grew wilder, she grew quieter. The rare sherry ‘stop by’ happened now and then. She stopped playing Satie on her baby grand, with its garish baroque carvings and according to the neighbors, starting playing the pilgrim hymns of her ancestors. Her languages got mixed up, French one context, Castellian the next; all summed up in a concise end with Swiss boarding school English. Yet, for all of it, absolutely charming as always.
We sensed it was all changing at one point when she announced she had been baptized and confirmed all in one secret million dollar gesture to the neighboring city’s Cathedral. She probably took her own name as her Saint’s name. Katherine was a magnificent example for a Catherine.
Months went by, the gardens faded, neighbors called to report that she was wandering through the rooms, up and down the stairs, singing ‘Amazing Grace‘ in that full throated soprano voice of hers. It made me sad, because in the glory days of gin and olives she had a range like Ima Sumac from the Bronx, warbling out Cole Porter at the drop of a diamond.
A month before her end, she called me one rainy October eve to report that Napoleon was acting funny and wouldn‘t eat, probably because Josephine had died earlier in the week. So I went over to check things out. Napoleon was stiff as a board and had probably been dead for days. She gave her permission to take Napoleon for a walk, so I did—-down to a local bar, wrapped in a garbage bag where I bought him a beer before talking him home for burial. The drink was free. Most folks knew Katherine and Napoleon.
Sometime in those last days and hours before she fell silent on her kitchen floor Katherine was filled with glory. God, did I ever love that woman.