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?

Age Twenty-five: The Turning Point

So we come to the end of the October Memoir and Backstory Blog ChallengeThanks to Jane Ann McLachlan for proposing this challenge that has taken me places in memory where I would never have gone otherwise. At times I believed I’d have nothing to write, but it seems memory begets memory.

The end of the challenge brings me to a strange place in my personal history. If you’ve been following these posts, you know that by the time I turned twenty-five, I had two little boys. I was a stay-at-home mom. I couldn’t imagine a different kind of life. I was happy. I thought we were happy.

Christmas

Our first Christmas in the little gray house, my husband and I decided to have a party. I cooked all the food, I cleaned, and I decorated, using lots of freshly cut evergreens and magnolia my parents brought the day before. They took both babies home with them, so we would have our party and the rest of the weekend to ourselves. It was a rare occasion. My husband was in his internship year by then, which meant more nights on call, more time away from home.

We had a great crowd, mostly medical school friends, good food, good wine. I wore a new dress, and I remember feeling pretty. After the last guests left, we stayed up late, picking up glasses, cleaning up spills, putting away food. I was excited and pleased at how well the party had gone, and I kept trying to get some kind of response out of him. I wanted to be told what a good job I’d done. I had done it for him, after all. But I got nothing. He had seemed withdrawn and sad for weeks. Every time I’d asked, he would say he was exhausted, which was true. His schedule was grueling. But I kept after him that night until he told me. Yes, there was something wrong. He wasn’t sure he loved me, he said. Maybe he loved somebody else. What? We had been married three years. We had two children.

I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he got up early and went hunting with friends–another surprise. He hadn’t told me he was going. I was left alone, distraught and uncertain. I missed my children. I called my parents, thinking I would just check on the kids, and my mother immediately knew something was wrong. I told her. I’ve always regretted that.

By the time my husband came home the following afternoon, the little boys were back, too. He had made his decision, he said. He wanted us. Just like that. That easily. And I believed him.

We would stay together for a long time after that Christmas. I gave birth to two more sons. Did I think that having more children would hold him? No. I’d wanted a house full of children, remember? It didn’t matter. He left anyway.

I blamed myself. He was the one who left, but it must have been my fault. All my fairy-tale notions of love and marriage? Destroyed. I hated myself for not knowing what I might have done differently. Oh, I knew all the self-talk and the psychology. I was a psych major, after all. I went for counseling. But still, it was a long time before I could look anybody in the eye and carry on a conversation.

I wasn’t writing back then, but I was getting ready. I believe the surprises, the unexpected turns, the complexities of relationships, the betrayals, the losses, the long years of trying to hold a marriage together, of getting up in the morning and putting on a fictional face to the world (“How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you!”), were the catalysts for stories to come.

I hope stories will surface out of this challenge. We shall see.

Thanks to all of you who have read and followed these little pieces of my past. I hope you’ll come back soon and see what else I have in store. Or in story.

If you participated in the challenge, what did you gain from it? If you were a reader and/or follower, what have these memories sparked for you?

I Refuse to Call This “Sweet Sixteen”

Although I was. Sweet, that is. Innocent, really. Had never been kissed, until my sixteenth birthday. Really.

My mother had given me a pamphlet called “What Every Girl Should Know,” a kind of watered-down version of the facts of life. We had never had “the talk.” My grandmother told me to “keep my skirts down” (she told me that after I divorced at forty, too). About this time, a girlfriend and I took one of her father’s medical textbooks down from the shelf one day and greedily read the facts. I was partly astonished, partly appalled. And during my junior year, this year called sixteen, another friend dropped out of school, pregnant. She would never go back.

Meanwhile, I went on my merry little innocent but angst-ridden way.

This diary should be burned.  It’s solid evidence that I must have been the silliest sixteen-year-old who ever lived.

Diary. To be burned.

I was silly-sick in love with a boy who knew I had a crush on him, and he played me like crazy.  He would put the word out that he was going to ask me for a date for something big–like the Junior-Senior Banquet–and then he’d wait until the very last minute to ask. I was oohing and ahhing and Dear Diary-ing, page after page about how he called or he didn’t call. Meanwhile, I seemed to be having a pretty good time! I had great girlfriends, although my best friend would move away at the end of that school year, and I would never see her again. I was dating at least one other boy, and there was a lot of driving around in cars and meeting up with boys at the Dairy Bar and going to movies and meeting up with boys there.

But this one boy who mattered to me more than the others–he could be loving one day and cruel the next. Looking back, I believe he introduced me to emotional abuse, only I didn’t know what to call it. It was good practice for later, I suppose. If I had understood it better, I would have realized that I was pretty and smart and talented, and he was good looking and not smart and very insecure. The only way he could be with me was to put me down. Sad, isn’t it, that I took that for two years. In my defense, I was only sixteen, and back then, sixteen was very young.

Here’s a quote from the diary: I will never understand boys or men! That about says it, doesn’t it?

Tell-tale words

When you close your eyes and look at your young self, what do you see?