An Eccentricity Epitomized in Citrus: On Aunt Pearl’s Palette for the Insane


I couldn’t have been more than three or four, when my paternal grandmother, “Kimmy,” as we called her, would bundle me in a red cardigan she herself had knit, slip on my newly polished but inevitably scuffed up saddle shoes, and lead me by the hand, down the hill and around the corner to Aunt Pearl’s very large, orange-brick house on Evergreen Road.

Kimmy and I, around the time we began visiting Aunt Pearl together--

Aunt Pearl’s place was massive by any measure—built for her by her father, my great, great grandfather, just after World War I.  Pearl Riester was, in fact, my grandmother’s aunt, one of several daughters for whom meat-packing mogul William Zoller built houses beside his own at the corner of Evergreen Road and Dewey Avenue, what famously became known in the area as “Kraut Row.”  According to building permits from that era, Zoller spent approximately 18,000 dollars on each house—ones that were designed to epitomize style and emphasize fine finishes.  High-ceilinged and featuring dark wood paneling in the dens and up the winding front stairways, these houses loomed lavish and reeked of wealth and good taste—a smell I later came to associate more with moth balls and furniture polish.

Aunt Pearl was the last of Zoller’s daughters to remain living in these homes, an aged and ailing heiress to a family fortune of many millions.

Kimmy and I visited Aunt Pearl regularly for afternoon tea, but seeing her was extraordinary for me, at age four, because Aunt Pearl created a ritual, following our afternoon arrivals, of taking me to the towering refrigerator in the corner of kitchen, opening the big drawer at the bottom and allowing me to pick my very own orange—which I, in turn ate, while the grown-ups sipped tea from floral cups—an exercise in dainty and delicate, elegant and grand.

As a little girl, pixied and saddle-shoed, I actually had no sense that Aunt Pearl was anything out of the ordinary, though, in fact, she became both more ordinary and more eccentric as she aged, her oddities settled comfortably in the cob-webbed corners of her corniced window coverings—kept less clean and tidy as the family help also aged and moved away.

Aunt Pearl is the family member from whom I, likely, inherited the genetic inclination for mental illness, for, in fact, Aunt Pearl was famously crazy for much of her life.  I don’t know the exact form this insipid insanity took, but I do know the family had the wealth and good taste to hire a nurse, round the clock care, so Aunt Pearl didn’t suffer the disgrace of psychiatric institutions, but rather was tended to quietly at home during decades of otherwise unseemly psychosis.

Surprisingly, I don’t remember Aunt Pearl’s face—only her often ethereal physical presence. I don’t recall her ever being fully dressed—at least not in street clothes—ever.  Instead, I remember her wearing mostly long white nightgowns and smelling vaguely of lilies of the valley—her dressing gowns, eggshell and elegant, floor-length and flowing.

During each visit, however, my focus was more on the orange.  While Kimmy and Aunt Pearl perched like birds on the edges of leather sofas, while they sipped hot tea from china cups, I carefully sectioned and consumed the fancy fruit.  My four-year-old fingers dripping with sticky deliciousness, I was tutored in good taste—perhaps even developed a palette for crazy along with an insane love of sweets.

For, it turns out, Aunt Pearl passed her genetic disposition for mental illness to my grandmother, who more than once required shock treatment, and Kimmy passed the inclination like a baton of the brain directly to me.  Though Daddy had easy access to wealth, a driver at his disposal, and a prep-school education—though he, too, was raised to have good taste—he himself was never mentally ill—never developed a palette for the same insane I ultimately did—one I will forever associate with Aunt Pearl and her oranges, her elegant edge of crazy—an eccentricity epitomized in citrus.

Note:  If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family.  (This post, though not about the mafia specifically, is part of that series.)  To read one of my mafia-related memoir posts,”Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here.  If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at kownroom@yahoo.com  or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.

58 thoughts on “An Eccentricity Epitomized in Citrus: On Aunt Pearl’s Palette for the Insane

  1. “…passed the inclination like a baton of the brain” is a wonderful line, Kathy. And so perfectly sums up your situation, I’d say.

    When I was little I liked to sit on the curb in front of our house in Hawaii and eat lemons. This always freaked my mother out to no extent, but I liked them! To this day I have an appreciation for tart things.

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  2. The ’60’s were such a horrible time for people with mental illness! Truly they gave people shock treatments that didn’t need them and some of their practices were barbaric. I am glad that Aunt Pearl was spared being placed in a mental institution. Genetics would make you, a female child of an adult male who is a carrier of the bipolar gene, more likely to have the disorder than any of your male sibings (if you have any). Odd the way that works……..When I think of your Aunt Pearl I see in my mind a modern day Ms. Havisham, with the white gown and the house steadily becoming more and more untidy. “An eccentricity epitomized in citrus.” Your words never cease to amaze me.

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    • How funny that you mention Miss Havisham, as I thought of her, as I was writing this, but thought that might be an allusion not everyone would recognize. Love it!

      Yes, the 60s were bad. However, Kimmy had issues more in the 40s and 50s and Aunt Pearl even before that–which I presume was even worse. At the same time, I’m amazed that you know about the genetic transmission of bipolar disorder. You never cease to amaze me, Sista! Hugs to you!

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  3. “memories light the corners of my mind…” The way we were.

    not only thought memories by sticky sweet taste of orange and the smell of lilly of the valley, moth balls and furniture polish… amazing discripitions.

    I think I have more to say but it doesn’t wish to present it self now!

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  4. Kathy, I hate to say this, but you can almost make mental illness sound intriguing and interesting, even though I know it has horrible rough edges and suffering and pain, too. Aunt Pearl sounds so interesting and eccentric. (Orange you glad you wrote this post today, lol?)

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    • Ha, Ha!

      I suppose it is intriguing how the the mind works, but, yes, it’s also very, very painful. I wish I could have known Aunt Pearl as an adult. I guess you also have to remember that I was a very little girl when I last saw her, so my memories, I think, are vague and impressionistic. She might have actually been different. I’m only going by my slivers of memory and what I’ve heard.

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  5. I loved how you told her story; “Aunt Pearl” was an engaging personality and you have brought her to life for all of us!

    “Instead, I remember her wearing mostly long white nightgowns and smelling vaguely of lilies of the valley—her dressing gowns, eggshell and elegant, floor-length and flowing.”

    Isn’t it just so interesting that what you remember most are the hints of fragrance and images of her dressing gowns??

    MJ

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    • It is interesting, though I’ve heard that scent is the oldest of the senses–that our earliest retrievable memories are of the things we smelled. I’m noticing now as I write this memoir that the sense of smell is more important than I’d ever imagined.

      I’m so happy to respond to Aunt Pearl!

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  6. Lovelovelove this. Aunt Pearl has all the eerie grace of ladies “kept behind closed doors.” I love that Kimmy kept up regular contact and brought you along (so important for Aunt Pearl). You may have developed your palette for the insane from them, but you also learned not to be afraid of it.

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  7. It’s too bad you inherited something like mental illness from your aunt and grandmother Kathy, but I love everything about this post. The photo, your recollections, the association with oranges, your description of Aunt Pearl’s attire….beautifully written.

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    • I guess it is sad, but, to be honest, so much better for me than it was for them. There has been so much help available to me that did not exist 50 or 60 years ago.

      Thanks for reading, Mun. I’m so pleased this post, and its images, spoke to you.

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  8. I love the way you told this story, the words you chose are so very evocative and transporting…

    My dad always used to tell us how special oranges were when he was growing up – each child in his family only got one a year, for Christmas. These days he suffers from dementia, but I brought him three clementines for Christmas, because they are easier to peel. We had a few wonderfully focused moments together while the festivities went on around us. As he struggled to peel them himself I could see that he was enjoying the sensual pleasures of touch and smell and finally tasting the delicious fruit. He ate two of them and gave me the third one. Even offered to peel it for me! Interesting the special meaning a simple food takes on when our minds are suffering from illness…

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    • What a dear, dear story about your dad! How sweet of you to even think of getting some that would be easier to peel and giving him that sensual and textural experience. I’m so touched, Barbara. Thanks for sharing this!

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  9. You are such an amazing storyteller, Kathy. I really can’t wait to read your book. 🙂

    Loved, loved, loved this: “…her oddities settled comfortably in the cob-webbed corners of her corniced window coverings..”

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  10. I’m new here, Kathy, but what’s this I hear? You’re writing a book? Is it a ‘Memoir” book? Okay, I’ll join the queue….can’t wait to read it!

    Aunt Pearl sounds like a beautiful old character and I’ve enjoy reading your memories of her. 🙂

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  11. It’s funny how big a little thing like an orange can be.

    I love your stories.

    We have crazy in our family too. I’ve often tried to see the path it’s taken through the generations. Some of us hide it better than others. 🙂

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    • God, you are right about the orange metaphor! You got it, my dear! The password is “mother.” It’s not that I’m trying to make those posts totally private–just trying to make them less easy to access for the sake of my mother’s privacy.

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  12. I also liked the line “developed a palette for crazy”

    I haven’t tried to trace my genetic predisposition for crazy back farther than my mother and my father, but I suppose if I did a little digging, I’d surely find several family members who could easily wear the badge. I find it ironic and more than a little odd that no one ever referred to my father as crazy, (scarily intelligent, yes. demonically evil, yes. intolerably cruel, yes). But crazy? Nope. Never.

    In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even thought of him as crazy, and yet, I knew his demons as well as he knew them himself. How strange that I’ve always attributed my crazy to my mother (who was an un-diagnosed bi-polar), when the truth is, I very probably received a double-dose. Not sure what my father would have been diagnosed as, but my guess would be something along the lines of DID or narcissism or even sociopath.

    Gee, if I think about this too much more, I’ll start pasting gold stars to my forehead. It’s amazing that I managed to cling to any non-crazy, really.

    See what you did? You got me to wondering. Everyone has always quietly and with whispered voices referred to my mother as the crazy one, but the truth is, one crazy married another, and from that union was born a whole lotta crazy thereafter. And pain. But some of us are still standing.

    coloring life through our palettes of crazy …

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    • Hell, yes! It’s like my sister says, “It’s amazing we’re walking around human beings.” She insists sometimes even verticallity is an accomplishment–let alone what YOU have acccomplished! Surely your father was crazy. Interesting you mention the DID possibility. That would add an entirely different angle on all of this, wouldn’t it?

      Cant tell you how much I love having you as a reader. You always give so much of yourself. Thank you!

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      • Can’t tell you how much I enjoy having you as a blogging buddy and writer … you give so much of YOURself, too.

        Being able to witness this part of your journey is helping me to uncover some parts of my own story in a way that is less painful. Seen through the lens of the love for your father, I am able to view my trajectory a bit differently, and it helps.

        You see, even though I’m never supposed to say so out loud, and even though people frown and pass judgment every time I speak the truth, the reality is that I also loved my father. I’m just never allowed to say so out loud. But I know you understand.

        You can love someone, without loving their actions, or what they did. Who they are, and what they did, are two different things. You, above anyone else, gets that. Thank God you get it. I’m so relieved.

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