Sunday, January 29, 2012
Saturday, January 14, 2012
Christmas is gently packed away. Each fragile ornament wrapped for protection; the strings of lights twisted in bundles and labeled: mantel, piano, tree. All in hopes of avoiding a bit of frustration next December. We store the large plastic boxes in the attic and give the house a good cleaning, vacuuming and dusting away the pine needles, cobwebs, dog hairs and magic. The glitter of New Year’s celebrations fade, until we scribble 2011 instead of 2012 at the top of a journal entry, the corner of a check, and remember. The house is clean, quiet and empty. And for me another academic quarter begins with an array of new classes, students, challenges and rewards.
When the call came, I didn’t answer it. Restricted. Montana. Another sales call, I figured as I continued to dress for work. The last thing I needed as I hurried to work during the first week of a new quarter was another sales call. I ignored it until I heard that mechanical voice telling me that I’d received a message. What kind of sales call leaves a message? Who do I know in Montana? I listened to the message.
“I didn’t send cards this year,” the voice said. “So I thought I’d give you a call. This is your aunt Grace.”
A normal belated holiday greeting from an elderly aunt. A conversation picked up after lying dormant for a month, maybe two. That would make sense, except that I don’t know my aunt Grace. I know of her. I may even have met her once or twice as a young child on one of those rare family visits with my maternal grandparents in South Dakota. My family would drive cross country from Seattle; hers from Minneapolis. A hometown reunion of sisters: my mother, Marcella, the eldest; Grace, the middle sister, and Lilly, the baby.
I have only wisps of memory of the visits that decorated my early childhood. The images that I do hold of my aunt Grace come from old family photographs and the letters and stories Mom shared with me in that handful of years we spent together between my father’s death and my mother’s dementia.
“You remind me of my sister, Gracie,” Mom would say. “You make me laugh.”
As dementia stole Mom’s memory, I made it my personal mission to make her laugh. She would show me a letter or card from Gracie stuffed full of newspaper clippings from their hometown newspaper – she kept up a subscription all those years. My mother did not. I would read the articles aloud.
“Remember so and so?” Gracie scribbled under the photo from the obituaries. “Quite the ladies man, wasn’t he?”
In the last couple of years, the years since we moved Mom into a dementia care facility, Aunt Grace’s letters for my mother have arrived in my mailbox. It was understood that I would share them with Mom, and once in awhile I’d write a formal note back to this aunt I do not know updating her on her sister’s condition. That was the extent of my contact with her. I didn’t know the sound of her voice when I listened to her phone message, her questions about Mom’s health. I listened once, twice. And then I called her back.
“Did I wake you up? Have you eaten your breakfast yet?” she asked.
“No worries,” I said. “Just getting ready for work.”
“I had my toast and cereal and coffee and orange juice. Now I don’t have to eat all day.”
“All day? That doesn’t sound like enough food for the whole day.”
“Well, maybe I’ll have a piece of candy later,” she said. “How about you? What did you have for breakfast?”
Here I was talking to a virtual stranger about breakfast cereal and eating habits. Yet I knew she was pulling me in, making me instantly comfortable with her blatant silliness. We spoke of Mom, of Aunt Lilly, of the years in nursing school that she shared with my mother during the war.
“She was the smart one, your mom. You know, we had to work full time in the hospital and go to school at the same time. Your mom could do it all. She was so smart. It was harder for me.”
But now the tables are turned. Now this intelligent, articulate, funny woman only a few years younger than Mom was sharing stories that my mother could no longer remember. As the years slip away and our elders pass, our personal history is lost to unasked questions and empty answers. Filling in the blanks in personal story becomes an impossible challenge when there’s nobody left to ask, when you wait too long.
I never asked my mother why she gave up her young dream of flying or how a small town socialite like herself adjusted to farm life in the Issaquah valley, the mother of nine children. I never asked who she talked to when she was lonely, when she had a fight with Dad, when she wanted to throw in the towel. Did she ever want to throw in the towel?
I ended the call and turned to my husband listening at the kitchen table. “She holds a treasure trove of stories about Mom, about my parents’ early life together. I wonder how much she’d be willing to share with me. Do you think we could make a road trip to Montana this spring?”
at 11:03 AM