The Sisters’ Story

Enter a room with four elderly women–all in their nineties–in various stages of infirmity and alertness. They are sisters, and all of them grew up with my mother in a small town in north Mississippi. This means they were all born within a few years of 1920. They were girls during the Great Depression, young women around the time of World War II. I’m visiting with them just before Thanksgiving. They are having a grand reunion, and I’m grateful to be included for a little while.

I have driven to the family farm on a gorgeous late fall day, caught up in my own memories, a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect. One of the sisters, the one I see frequently and have stayed most connected with over the years, has Alzheimer’s and is declining. I’m relieved to see that the others–Julia, Eleanor, Genevieve (what beautiful names!)–are in fair shape physically, considering their advanced age, and their minds seem reasonably sharp. They all exclaim over me and say I’m the image of my mother.

Eleanor is exactly the age my mother would be. They were very best friends growing up and throughout my mother’s life. With some difficulty Eleanor stands when I walk in the room, comes to me, and hugs me hard. In spite of her age and having suffered a broken hip a few years ago, she stands straight and tall, but she feels fragile in my arms. I can still see the Eleanor of fifty years ago in her features. When we sit on the couch together, she takes my hand and holds on tightly.

Stories

Over the course of the afternoon, Eleanor tells me many times that she and mother walked to school together “from the fourth grade on.” I wonder how that was possible since they lived across town from each other, but I don’t ask. I have brought photos of Eleanor and of my mother and dad, hoping to jog her memory, hoping for stories. She talks about how beautiful my mother was and describes in detail a blouse Mother wore about the time she and my dad married. “It had a beautiful, pleated collar that framed her face,” Eleanor says. Remarkably, she has described the blouse in the photo below. Mother would have worn it around 1940, more than seventy years ago.

My mother, about age twenty
My mother, about age twenty

My mother died in 1985, and I never see Eleanor that she doesn’t tell me that she still misses her. But Eleanor’s stories are changing. She tells me she has letters Mother wrote to her about my dad when they were first dating. The last time I talked with Eleanor, the letters were about Mother’s pregnancy with me. I’ve never seen them. I’m not sure they exist any longer. The topic of letters reminds me that these women went off to college, and my mother did not. I wonder how painful it was for Mother to be left behind. Of course, if she had gone away, she wouldn’t have met my father when she did. They might never have met. She might have had an entirely different life. I wouldn’t exist.

Recognition

One of the other sisters says, “You played at my wedding reception!” It’s true. There’s a photo to prove it: Genevieve in her beautiful wedding dress, standing beside me at the piano. I was ten. Today, she has a lovely, serene face. She chats and smiles. But when it’s time to go to the table, her daughters lift and carry her.

Reception
Reception

During lunch I sit next to Eleanor. There is lively conversation, but she’s quiet. After lunch, a couple of the sisters doze in their chairs. “When are you coming to see me?” Eleanor asks. “Will it be soon? Will it be December?” I say I’m not sure, already feeling guilty, thinking about all the reasons I should go and all the reasons not to. They aren’t valid excuses. What better way could I spend my time during the holidays than to take a day–just one–and go and visit her?

Leaving

When it’s time for me to leave, I’m filled with sadness. I wonder about the memories and stories my mother might have contributed had she been here. I think about how, when I laugh, it’s my mother’s voice I hear.

Eleanor insists on getting up from the couch and following me to the door on her walker. She stands in the doorway and waves as I’m driving away. My last glimpse of the farmhouse, she’s still there at the door. I wonder what she’s thinking. My eyes fill with tears. I hate to leave her especially, not knowing whether I’ll ever see her again.

I’m overwhelmed by such an accumulation of life and memories and years gathered in that house. I’m struck, as I am so often now, by how stories change over time. I’m sure my own stories are changing, but what time robs from us it also invents, as long as we keep telling.

Are  you “in between” the very young and the very old? What are you doing to preserve the stories?

11 thoughts on “The Sisters’ Story

  1. Reblogged this on Gerry Wilson and commented:

    I’ have never “reblogged” one of my own posts before, but here I am, on the even of Mother’s Day, thinking I should write something about my mother, and I just ran across this post I wrote back in 2012. My mother is long dead; the women I write about here were still around at the time this piece was written. One of them, Mother’s best friend, Eleanor, died not too long ago, which makes this piece, especially the ending, all the more poignant for me. So Mother, this is for remembering you: your beauty, your fortitude, your laughter, your sadness. Your love for my dad and for me. Your sacrifices. Your truth.

  2. It’s pretty special that all four of those sisters are still alive. I’m sorry your mom isn’t there to join them, but I’m glad that you still get to visit with them and hear stories from the past. Your photos are also priceless. How cool that you still have them (and the stories that go with them).

  3. Gerry, that’s such a sweet story. It must be so nice to have sisters. I’m an only child and always wished for some siblings but have that with my children. They used to fight like crazy but now in their adulthood they are the best of friends. I’m glad. I look forward to them continuing to grow closer and support each other as we all age. 🙂

    1. There were SIX sisters in that family (and an older brother)! My mother was an only child, and I’m sure she loved getting caught up in that large family so different from her own. You and I share the only child status, and I always wanted a sister, too. Or an older brother with good-looking friends. That would have been fun!

  4. What a precious story, Gerry. I love the pictures that go with it. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s as well. As a result, stories about her teen years in Nazi-occupied Holland are coming out: stories that were previously too painful to tell. (I was in my 30’s when I heard the first one!) When I told her that I’m working on my writing, she asked me to help her write a book about it. I’m starting the manuscript in a couple weeks, after my finals. It’ll just be a chapbook, but I think all she really wants is something to share with her church friends anyway.

    1. Oh, wow. The important thing is to get her stories down! How amazing they must be. Would she let you record her? Then you could do more with them later. But the chapbook sounds wonderful–something she can hold in her hands and share with others. Good for you!

      1. I started by writing them down in a special journal, but eventually I bought a digital recorder. An hour into our first interview I played the recording back to make sure it actually worked. I got surprisingly emotional. I know that’ll happen when she’s no longer with us, but I didn’t think I’d be emotional an hour later and while we were still sitting together! *L* Of course, trying to write a book at the request of an Alzheimer’s patient is a fun story itself, so I’ve been recording that aspect of the adventure, too.

  5. How lovely – and nostagic and a bit sad. Yet loving. I visit old friends like these, for my love of them, their enjoyment of my visit, AND in the hopes that a younger relative/friend will do the same for me when I am elderly, and just want to tell my stories, even if they’ve changed over the years. This is one of the reasons we write, yes? To have our stories written the way we saw them AT THE TIME. Thanks for a great post.l

    1. And thank you for the lovely comment! Yes, I think that’s one of the reasons we write. I was sadder that day because I realized I’d missed out on opportunities to hear stories about my mother. Yet the description of her blouse was amazing! I knew immediately it was the one in the photo.

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