We soon will gather to say goodbye to Arlene and Dan. She died on April 7 in Richmond, Virginia and he died on December 4 in Cape Coral, Florida. Both were cremated. Their children are bringing them home to the Cremation Garden in the neighborhood in which they lived for most of their marriage.
I visited the place yesterday because my mom, Arlene’s only sibling, does not want to be late and wanted me to scope out the route and time it.
Later that afternoon my mom asked me to pause in my relentless clicking of the TV’s remote to let her check the weather forecast for the coming week. The meteorologist predicted it will be a sunny day. I wondered aloud whether the weather could affect the experience of a memorial service. My mom thought so. “No one wants to get wet,” she said.
I said, “I will cry anyway.”
My mom looked at me and nodded, but there was no question but that she wishes for her sister a sunny day.
I woke this morning thinking about sisters. Sometimes we live all of our lives in each other’s company. Sometimes we live so far apart that there can be miles between us when we are in the same room. We’re a little like socks in a drawer.
I’m always finding that one sock stays where I put it while the other slips down my ankle and disappears into my shoe. How is that I can have a pair of socks and one is clean while the other always seems in need of a pre-soak? There are even socks that have lost their mates. Did one fall along the way? Did one go down the drain of the washing machine? How does a sock go into the dryer and never emerge? I never seem to discard the remaining sock. Instead I either keep the remaining sock in the hope the pair will reunite or I pair it with another sock and the new pair continues to see the world.
I started hunting through old photos for pictures of sisters. Here are a couple that I found.
In this photo, my great grandmother Hattie sits alone in a chair. Beside her, sharing a single chair, are sisters Margaret and Doris. Hattie made no effort to edge closer to the two women sitting beside her. There is no reason why she would. All three women are my relatives, but Hattie was not related to anyone else in the photograph.
Sisters Doris and Margaret started their lives thirteen years apart, had sixty-six years together, but ended up spending many years apart, too. Doris died twenty-three years after her sister did. They were nothing alike and yet very close. Margaret went to school and became a school teacher. Doris rode her pony to town when she started high school and then rode home and never went back. While Margaret “saw the world,” Doris lived on the family farm nearly all of her life. In fact, Doris died within weeks of auctioning the farm, almost as if she knew that, without it, she was no longer tethered to this world. Moreover, Doris had a twin sister named Dora that died moments after birth. They never got to spend a day together after being so close during gestation that they shared a womb.
Hattie also was born an identical twin. She lived to be ninety-nine years old. She outlived her husband and one of her two sons. She also outlived her sister Susie. Susie died at the age of twenty-six of rectal cancer. Hattie never had a day’s serious illness in her entire life. As I looked at the photograph, I tried to imagine what it would have been like if Susie had been alive, too. Would Hattie and Susie have shared a single chair, as Doris and Margaret did, or would Hattie and Susie have insisted on having their own chairs? There is room for two in that chair. Is it possible that Susie’s spirit followed Hattie throughout Hattie’s life? I guess not. It does not sound like much of an existence, even for a spirit.
I have a photograph of Hattie and Susie in my home. My dad never would let my mom hang it in their home during his lifetime. He thought the photo was awful. The heads are touching, which might lead one to wonder whether the sisters were conjoined. They were not. I kind of like the picture. Susie’s side shows some more damage than Hattie’s side does and her expression seems distant and less happy, as if she might have known her time here was short.
I have other photographs of Susie that show her out with a beau or standing at the garden gate. In those photos she is serious but not at all remote or reflective.
My mom and her sister were not close. They lived under the same roof for seventeen years, and were only about three years apart in age, but they never told tales of shared misadventures or secrets whispered between beds set a couple of feet apart in a shared bedroom. My aunt told me several times before she died how my mom brought me (then a baby) to Arlene’s graduation from St. Anne’s Hospital Nursing School. They stood up for each other when they married. We spent holidays together and many family celebrations. The sisters did not often pick up the phone and chat, but there were no fights. When Arlene and Dan retired in Las Vegas, the sisters sent each other cards and notes every birthday, holiday, and anniversary.
Arlene and Dan came to Chicago for a visit a few years ago and my mom and I went to dinner with them and Dan’s sister Ann. We had a nice evening and caught up on family events. When word came that Arlene was accepting hospice care, my mom flew out to D.C. to visit with my sister. Kathy and Kathy’s husband Jeff drove my mom down to Richmond to see Arlene. It was during one of their visits that Jeff photographed the sisters together for the last time. My sister, Arlene’s son, and Arlene’s daughter-in-law stand behind Arlene’s wheelchair.
In the photograph, my mom is the one who appears distant, but she was the one who made the visit happen. She returned to Richmond again during her visit with my sister. When it was time for my mom to go, Arlene was asleep in her bed and my mom did not wake her because she wanted to leave open the possibility that they would see each other again and spare both of them the exchange of “goodbyes.” Arlene died several days later.
The limitation inherent in every photograph is that it captures one moment in time and never really captures history beyond that instant. Like the socks in a drawer, sometimes sisters are rolled together so tightly that you cannot tell them apart. At other times they are so far apart that it feels like they will never be reunited. No matter how far apart these sisters may have walked in the seventy-four years they lived as family, what I know for sure is that my mom is hoping that, for her sister, tomorrow will be a sunny day.