The Blackmun sisters -- Nancy, Sally and Susie -- sit on the floor in the retirement suite of their father, the late Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, counting marbles.
It is 1999, six months after the death of Blackmun at age 90. His official paraphernalia has been taken care of; now it's time to choose personal mementos.
There are more than 400 marbles, all told. Marbles that Blackmun played with as a boy and hoarded the rest of his life. The sisters decide to share them.
Sally, ever efficient, scoops the bright toys into three equal-looking piles. Then, figuring the marbles will pass to the justice's five grandchildren some day, rearranges them into five piles.
That's fine with Nancy. Just pack hers up and ship them out with her other stuff, she tells her sisters. She has a train to catch.
But that's not good enough for Susie, who admits she has a tendency to "hyperfocus." Her sister's sorting method seems too random. She wants first to sort the marbles by type -- glazed clay, black with stripes, clear cat's-eyes -- and then divide each type by five.
Three hours later, the task is finally completed.
For the Blackmun sisters, the marbles are a connection to their father, a vivid reminder of the man whom each woman, in her own way, grew to love, respect and admire -- though it wasn't always easy.
The sisters, who grew up in Rochester, Minn., are very different -- as were their relationships with their high-profile father. But all have inherited his intelligence, integrity and empathy for the underdog.
Sally, 57, is a lawyer like her dad. She's the dependable one, organized and down-to-earth -- the one who most regularly visits their ailing mother, Dorothy "Dottie" Blackmun, 92, who lives in Winter Park, Fla.
Susie, 55, a freelance writer, photographer and nature lover, is the adventurous free spirit.
Both live in Orlando.
Their older sister, Nancy, 60, who lives in Boston, is a clinical psychologist and accomplished violinist. She declined to be interviewed for this story, but her sisters were happy to talk about their lives -- and each other.
"I'm the born rebel," says Susie. "Sally was born to please and do her duty. She probably would have made a good royal."
"We all march to different drummers," says Sally. "Susie always knew how to push Dad's buttons. I'm more like him -- less confrontational, more disciplined. I didn't make waves."
From Possums to People
On the patio of her home, a baby possum draped around her neck, Susie scatters freeze-dried crickets among her tropical plants as a half-dozen other possums toddle after the goodies.
The first thing you notice -- after the possum nuzzling her cheek -- is Susie's large, round, ice-blue eyes. Her father's eyes. Sally has them, too.
Then you notice the blond hair, petite frame and embroidered lavender shift. And you think: This fragile-looking woman crewed professionally on sailboats in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and South China Sea for seven years?
You notice the diffident manner. You wonder: Could this be the hippie student whose rebellious behavior caused a decades-long estrangement from her esteemed father?
She's one and the same, though mellower. In some ways, she's a typical suburban homemaker, involved with 16-year-old daughter Kaia's school activities and with community-outreach programs through St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Orlando.
But she also freelances articles for medical publications on subjects ranging from dermatology to obstetrics to psychiatry, and toys with the idea of writing a book about her sailing adventures.
Using the experience gained when her English-born husband immigrated to the United States, she sometimes takes young immigrant women under her wing, guiding them through the red tape that so confuses newcomers.
"Susie catches and cares for needy creatures like me," says Yulia Patterson, 27, who is from Russia. "When I needed money to file my papers, she gave it to me -- but made it look like a present. I come to her house, and it feels like my home."
And, in addition to mothering two schnauzers, two guinea pigs and three cats, she fosters orphaned possums and squirrels for a local animal shelter.
Caring for waifs and strays must be an inherited trait. "Mom was always bringing home sick animals or runaway kids," she recalls.
That Justice Blackmun was her father "is the least interesting thing about Susie," says Jaine Garfinkle LaFay, a teacher at Olympia High School and a former carpool buddy. "She's incredibly bright, intuitive and well-read."
Beyond the Love Beads
"Coffee?" calls Susie's husband, William Hay Brown, a real estate salesman. Minutes later, he emerges from the kitchen with fresh-brewed java in cat-shaped mugs.
He and Susie met during Antigua Race Week in the Caribbean in 1983. They clicked right away, and she soon followed him to his home in Hong Kong. It was a move that confounded her conservative father -- although by this time he was starting to reconcile himself to her impulsive ways.
"He sent me off with his blessing," she says. It was a turning point in their relationship.
Susie and her father had been at odds since she was a child. When she reached puberty, her mother joined in the fray.
"I was a disorganized child growing up in an organized household. They didn't know how to cope," she says. "The more they tried to clamp down on me, the more I struck out."
No one realized she was suffering from ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), a condition that wasn't diagnosed until she was in her forties.
When she graduated from DePauw University, a small liberal arts school in Indiana, in 1971, "I was opposing the war in Vietnam, hating [President] Nixon," she says, "but I was supposed to go home and look and act like Julie and Tricia Nixon." Not easy for a young woman whose graduation outfit included jeans, a crochet vest and love beads.
Ironically, it was the despised Nixon who, a year earlier, had appointed her father to the Supreme Court. "I was totally confused and conflicted when that happened," she says.
After college, while working as a research psychologist at the Naval Medical Research Institute in Bethesda, she and three female colleagues filed a class-action suit against the Navy, claiming sexual discrimination. The case dragged through the courts for four years. Two of the women settled out of court, another went to trial and lost. Susie, angry and disillusioned, gave up the fight and ran away to sea.
It was a daring move that stunned her father. "But in the end, I think he was proud of me," she says. "He admired my spunk, and maybe was even a little envious of my adventures."
She now realizes she didn't understand the pressures her father was under. While she was sailing away from her troubles, he was researching and writing Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion -- and made him the target of protests and death threats for the rest of his life.
After crisscrossing 80,000 miles of ocean, Susie finally returned home. "Dad and I reconciled over the years. We slowly came to accept each other," she says.
"Now I see Dad was a great champion of free speech and privacy and individual rights, especially for minorities and women. He's the person I most admire and respect."
Mementos of her father are stashed haphazardly in her crowded study: his family Bible, his dictionary stand, the flag that flew over the Capitol while he was lying in state before his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. And about 80 marbles.
Bird's-Eye View of History
Sally Blackmun's marble collection is displayed in a Steuben crystal vase, inside an heirloom, cherry-wood cabinet that once occupied Justice Blackmun's chambers.
The cabinet now stands against a plum-colored wall in the Winter Park home she shares with her husband, attorney Michael Elsberry, and daughters Lauren, 21, and Lisa, 19.
Justice Blackmun selected his take-charge middle daughter as executor of his estate -- a mammoth task. "It took six months just to inventory all his things. He was a world-class pack rat," Sally says.
Framed photographs of the Supreme Court justices dominate the walls of her spacious office in the headquarters of Darden Restaurants, where she is senior associate general counsel.
"I was probably closer to Dad than either of my sisters," she says, pulling a chair up to her round conference table. She has a warm smile, a short, no-nonsense hairstyle and her father's broad forehead.
"Dad was a straight arrow, serious, critical. He was also gentle and kind, a wonderful father -- even if he was missing in action a lot of the time. But he worked extremely hard. I understood. I didn't resent it," she says -- unlike Susie, who still feels hurt that her father spent more time with his law clerks than with his daughters.
Sally learned early to find ways to be with her father. "I went with him to professional sports matches, to the cemetery on Memorial Day, to visit my grandmother in the nursing home. It gave me special time with Dad," she says.
She graduated from Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., in 1972, followed her parents to Washington and took a job as an executive assistant at the Nixon White House -- much to Susie's horror.
"Through Dad, I had a bird's-eye view of the court that most people don't have," says Sally. "His position opened doors to meeting such interesting people." Among them were all the Supreme Court justices, musicians whom her father invited to play at the courthouse, and in later years, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Several years later, she attended law school at Emory University in Atlanta and opened a private practice. "But finally I turned 40, had a midlife crisis and ran away to Disney World," she says with a chuckle.
The opportunity to join Darden prompted her and her family to move to Orlando in 1987.
It was here, through her volunteer work as a court-appointed guardian to abandoned and abused children and drug-addicted babies, that she became involved with Planned Parenthood.
In Her Dad's Footsteps
"I saw what happens to unwanted children," says Sally. "It made me appreciate how critical is the need to provide people with birth-control information."
She had another motivation for supporting Planned Parenthood: As a single, 19-year-old college sophomore, she had become pregnant herself.
Shocked and upset, she left college and married her 20-year-old boyfriend. Three weeks after the wedding, she had a miscarriage. The marriage ended six years later.
Until about five years ago, she never spoke of that pregnancy -- not even to her own daughters.
"I'm not proud of it, but it's part of my life," she says. "It messed up my education plans. It disappointed my parents. But I made it through."
She details her experience in the introduction she wrote to "The War on Choice," the new book by Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
As the newly elected president of Planned Parenthood of Greater Orlando, Sally's mission is twofold: to provide birth-control and sexual-health information, and to raise $3 million for a new headquarters building in Orlando.
Mara Levitt, a Planned Parenthood board member, says Sally brings legal expertise and "a sense of history" to the organization.
"With her comes her father's legacy to reproductive rights, individual freedom and women's rights," says Levitt.
Sally is aware that Planned Parenthood is identified with abortion services, even though they are not offered at the Orlando clinic.
"Like most pro-choice people, we believe if we provide proper sex education and means of contraception, there will be fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions," she explains.
All the same, like her father, she supports a woman's right to choose.
Neither sister trades on their famous father's name. "I never bring it up," says Sally.
But she and Susie agree he was the major influence in their lives, even though they took different paths. Most important to them is their father's moral legacy: his maverick spirit, his sense of justice, his community involvement.
"He really cared about people, especially 'the little people,' as he called them -- people who have little money or education," says Sally.
"I feel privileged and lucky to be his daughter."