My friend Sherry, who knows how much I loathe Martha Stewart, gave me the latest copy of Martha Stewart Living for my birthday. It’s the holiday edition.
There Martha is, out of her prison stripes and into something white and diaphanous, beaming beatifically from the cover. She’s shyly clutching some kind of artfully decorated gingerbread town, welcoming you — all of us! — to her perfect world.
“I admire Martha,” Sherry always says. “She’s a smart businesswoman. She’s made a fortune. I think we should all admire her.”
I disagree. Totally. I don’t hate many people, but I do hate Martha Stewart. I’ve heartily disliked her for years — long before anybody else disliked her, I like to think. I discovered her one afternoon in the 1990s, when my teenage daughter and I were, for some reason, watching Oprah. Oprah was introducing Martha and Martha was surrounded by a bevy of clones who worshiped her and aspired to live the “Martha lifestyle.” They, too, wanted to be gorgeous and effortless and perfect, doyennes of the house beautiful and the family extremely picturesque.
And my daughter and I? We were transfixed, watching this trashy TV show from an unmade bed. “What’s the Martha lifestyle?” my daughter asked.
I had no idea. I spent my days writing and getting rejected and writing some more and driving carpools and battling our little roach infestation problem and wondering whether I should wear a bag over my head since I needed a haircut so badly and hoping the child protective services wouldn’t be showing up soon since we’d eaten lentil soup four nights in a row and the kids were in a state of mutiny. Some nights, when my husband was out of town and my low standards plummeted even further, I talked the kids into walking to Steve’s Ice Cream down the street, where we could get large ice creams with mixed-in cookies and call it dinner. “Won’t that be fun?” I always asked.
But Martha. She was always whipping up something tasty and nutritious and attractive and she never lost her megawatt smile or her ex-model’s posture or her steely discipline. Would Martha have descended to the low points where I made my life? No way.
Every year, it seemed, one or both of our kids dragged home a request from their grade school. “We’re putting together a school cookbook!” it read. “Share your family’s favorite recipe!”
I didn’t have any favorite recipes. I hated to cook. So I usually composed something breezy like, “Go to store. Buy frozen cookie dough. Pre-heat the oven and don’t burn!”
Or Travel Bear. Martha would have gone everywhere with Travel Bear, the little woebegone stuffed creature my son’s third-grade class sent home when a parent was taking a trip. The Good Parents (like Martha) wrote long, news missives about where Travel Bear had been and the important people he’d met and the sights he’d seen.
And us? We honestly tried. When we were taking the one and only ski trip of our family’s life, we hauled Travel Bear along. Unfortunately, when we got to the airport parking terminal, we had too many bags and too few hands. So we had to leave Travel Bear in the trunk of the car. Sure, my husband and I tried to make up for it. We wrote long, poignant entries about how dark it was for Travel Bear in the car trunk, and how cold. But we had the feeling the third-grade teacher never appreciated our empathy and literary license. (Although, I have to say, we weren’t nearly as remiss as another student’s father, who took Travel Bear to a medical convention and photographed him in very compromising positions involving lit cigarettes and empty bottles of Scotch.)
But back to Martha. I think my dislike of her goes back to high school, sad as that is. Doesn’t everything go back to high school, eventually? Martha was the cheerleader, the pep-squad leader, the class president, the style avatar, the girl whose hair flipped perfectly and whose calendar bulged with dates and activities. I bet she even drove her own sports car. And me? I was in the band. My hair never flipped for more than 35 seconds and I drove my father’s ’57 Plymouth with the passenger door that flew open and the view of the street through the small hole in the floor. I was shy and gawky and, even when I tried, something was always wrong. A hem drooped, a bra strap showed, mascara smeared.
“Don’t you hate women who are perfect?” I asked my friend Joleen once, years ago. She and I were walking into the building where we worked.
“They’re awful,” Joleen agreed. “Nothing every goes wrong with them.” Stepping into the building, her heel picked up a carpet thread that was about 18 inches long. We walked along and she pulled the thread behind her every time she took a step — a scene that would never make it into fiction because it was too perfect and improbable. Just like Martha herself.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)