I have never understood mother-in-law jokes because my mother-in-law, at age 96, is one of the loveliest, most engaging people I know. We don’t always agree—Jenny Lea is a fan of Sarah Palin, and she’s in denial about Tiger Woods. But those matters are small compared to the genuine affection we have for each other.
Jenny Lea has been on my mind lately because after 26 years she is moving from her 2,025-square-foot apartment, which is “Behind the Pink Wall” off Northwest Highway. It is an apartment of another era: crewel-stitched upholstery, brass candlesticks, landscapes in antiqued frames, wall-to-wall carpeting, and potted violets. Like all of Jenny Lea’s decisions, the move to a senior residence was her decision alone. She woke up on a Friday morning and decided it was time to fold her tent. By Monday she was touring various residences, and on Tuesday she signed a lease. She set a move-in date for three weeks hence.
So now it’s time for the great dismantling. I have moved 17 times in my life, and I’m attached to very few places or things. But somehow the prospect of taking apart Jenny Lea’s apartment has hit me hard. There are the obvious reasons—an acceptance that this tower of a lady, who has managed on her own with grace and defiance since the death of her husband some three decades ago, can no longer cook for herself, see well, or drive her 1992 navy Cadillac to Walgreens. Make no mistake, she can still discuss voter turnout in primaries throughout the United States, give you the backstory on Wimbledon contenders, and recite whatever Fox News presented that day almost verbatim. But her days of telling her maid how to polish the silver just so, or tending to her scented geranium on the balcony, or stacking her newspapers neatly for recycling are passing. The times when she came to open the screen door of her kitchen for us, with that astonishing, girlish smile—the smile that always caused us to wonder why we didn’t visit more often—are gone.
Places are just places, and things are just things, but the rooms in Jenny Lea’s apartment have been, for my daughters and me, the one safe and unchanging part of our lives. We publish the most beautiful homes in the city in this magazine, but to me, Jenny Lea’s apartment is the most beautiful of all. We will miss it.