The Sisters’ Story

I have never “reblogged” one of my own posts before, but here I am, on the eve 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.

Gerry Wilson

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…

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And How Was Your Day?

Week two of reading and responding to The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin as part of Joy Weese Moll’s January Reading Challenge, and wouldn’t you know it?

Yesterday was not a happy day.

Nothing serious happened, but my life felt out of control— too much to do, too many obligations, and every chore seemed to take longer than it should have. I had no time to write until last night. Not that I didn’t want to write this blog post; I did. But at that point, honestly, it was just One. More. Thing.

I was tired, frustrated, irritated, impatient, angry, even sad. I vented to my husband (he was handy). I railed at myself for not knowing how to say no.

Looking back on a day full of petty annoyances makes me glad I’m reading The Happiness Project. Granted, I’m thinking about my own discontent and my failures, but more importantly, I’m considering ways to make my life happier which, in turn, will affect the lives of those around me—especially those close enough to take the brunt of my bad days!

Not about me?

The other night, when I was reading chapter four in The Happiness Project, I jotted this down: “Many of Gretchen’s attempts to make herself happy turn out to be about other people.” A bit later (p. 147), she writes about discovering her Second Splendid Truth:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.

One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Sigh. Yes. I don’t believe I made anybody happy yesterday, least of all me. I was too scattered. I resented the tasks I needed to complete. There’s some satisfaction in having done them, but at what cost?

 The rant’s over; aren’t you glad?

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Let’s get to chapters four, five, and six, our reading “assignment” for this week.

Chapter 4 — Lighten Up: Parenthood

I don’t have much to say here. I’m a long way from child-rearing, but Gretchen’s advice to parents still applies. How much better would my day have gone if I’d stopped at some point, taken a deep breath, and found something to laugh about? If I’d lightened up?

Chapter 5 — Be Serious about Play: Leisure

Yesterday afternoon, when I was still turning from one thing to another, my husband sat calmly at the breakfast room table, working the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was close to tears. “It must be nice,” I said, “to sit around and work crossword puzzles all day.“ Ouch. He doesn’t work crossword puzzles all day. He’d repaired the garage door when it didn’t work, had done some writing, and had exercised a couple of hours. And more. I was angry, not with him, but with myself. It wasn’t just that I’d had no leisure time yesterday; I couldn’t remember when I’d ever had time to fritter away.

But whose fault is that? I know, don’t I.

Like Gretchen, I have a hard time identifying what I do for play. Oh, I spend time messing around on Facebook. I read. Writing is fun but also serious, even tearful business that dredges up emotions and leaves me wrung out. That’s not fun. There were the art classes I took a few years ago; I loved playing with oils and watercolors, and painting was so absorbing that the two-hour classes passed like minutes.

Have I done it since? No. So Gretchen’s “fun” chapter deserves a second read. I need to learn how to play more or play better!

Chapter 5 — Make Time for Friends: Friendship

I’ll simply reiterate Gretchen’s main points here and encourage you to read the book, if you haven’t. They’re important.

Remember birthdays. How hard is that, really? But it requires planning.

Be generous. Generosity is often more about time and self than money. If I’d approached the things I had to do yesterday in a spirit of generosity, how much better might the day have gone?

Show up. This one nagged me to pick up the phone last night and call a friend whose husband had had surgery. I’m glad I did.

Don’t gossip. I thought of this when I was in the midst of a conversation with a friend. We were talking about someone else, and it made me uncomfortable. Thank you, Happiness Project.

Make three new friends. Hmm. This one is hard. More food for thought.

Enough.

Sometimes as I’m reading this book, I think, gosh, Gretchen Rubin can’t be human. Everything seems so easy for her. How can she research and read and write and raise children and have a good marriage and friends and two (or is it three?) reading groups and throw big parties and publish and exercise and have fun and show up and be generous? Etc. Etc.

The perfect woman? No. Gretchen’s not perfect, and neither are we. Here’s where I see she’s human and very real: at the end of chapter six, she talks about how her “basic temperament” hasn’t changed, but in spite of that, she feels “more joy and less guilt.” And then she says this:

In some ways, in fact, I’d made myself less happy; I’d made myself far more aware of my faults, and I felt more disappointed with myself when I slipped up. My shortcomings stared up at me reproachfully from the page (163-164).

Ah, Gretchen, I want to tell her. You’re young, but so wise.

We all have days like that. I had one yesterday. But today–maybe today will be different.

How do you cope when you’re having a bad day? If you’ve read The Happiness Project, did you find Gretchen Rubin’s “strategies” for a happier life helpful?

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?