My sisters and I recently travelled to a tiny, picturesque little town in Northern Wisconsin to visit my Auntie Carol. Maybe you remember her...I've written about her before.
Throughout our lives, she was really more like a grandmother to us, just as she had been more like a mother to my mother. She was 17 years old when her only sister entered the world and she was tickled to death. She lavished my mother with love and attention. They formed a bond that was was uncommonly strong, even for sisters. There are more photos of the two of them than there are of my mother with either my grandmother or grandfather. They were inseperable, even when my Aunt had children of her own.
She was absolutely devastated when my mother died. She never expected to have to say goodbye to her baby sister and it was almost more than she could bear. My own grief over my mother's death was compounded by watching her mourn. It broke my heart to see her grieve so deeply. And I could do absolutely nothing to heal the pain of losing someone who had been like another self for 65 years.
"And do you know..." she said, in her still girlish Auntie voice, a voice that will stay with me long after time has blurred the lines of her face and stolen the smell of her, "....in all those years, we never had a fight."
She cried then, which unnerved us all. The women of my family don't cry. We are strong, indomitable women. We perservere. But this is just too much. For all of us.
Aside from the pain of losing my mother, was the shock of realizing that she was now the only one left who knew all the family lore. She never expected to have it left in her care. She had expected my mother to take on the role of historian and archivist; to pass on the stories and the scandals and the secrets, as well as all the vital statisitics. Being the eldest daughter, she had always been the keeper of those things. But she had expected to pass the torch and know that the story of our family would survive her in my mother's capable hands.
With my mother gone, she has become terribly afraid that it will all be lost when she dies. There is so much to tell, so much we girls don't know and were never told, because it just wasn't time. But suddenly it is time, and time that is running out, though we all try not to think about that.
When last we parted, she asked me when I thought I could come back. There were things she needed to tell me, places she wanted to take me, snapshots of the past that she needed to pass on. I promised her I would come back as soon as I could, knowing in my heart that it might well be too late. I hugged her extra tight that time, a beat longer than was strictly conventional for us. I fervently hoped I would see her again.
And I did.
This past week I travelled home again, to care for my sister's children while her daughter had surgery, to finish the business of dividing up my mother's life, and to be a witness to all the things Auntie had so carefully chronicled and preserved over the years. It's a responsibility she has not taken lightly. Every photo has a name and a date. Every newspaper clipping and every momento has a notation. Before my mother's death, it was a responsibility that she was proud to call hers alone. But she feels compelled to share it now.
And so, my sisters and I found ourselves in her van, travelling the snowy roads of rural Wisconsin, revisiting the past; people and places. I knew it was going to be an emotional day. Auntie wanted to show us where my Mother was born, where she lived as a child, where she went to school. She wanted to show us where our Grandparents were buried. Before that day, I couldn't have told you the name of the cemetary or even what road it was on. Our mother never took us there because... "They aren't there. That's not my Mom and Dad. I'd rather remember them alive and well than imagine them dead and decaying." Clearly, some of my issues with death are inherited.
But I was doing okay and so were my sisters. In fact, I'd say we were all enjoying the day. It seemed more like a celebration of Mom's life than anything else. We laughed at Auntie's stories, we shared our fondest childhood memories, we learned things we had never known and remembered things long forgotten. I felt oddly happy and at peace.
Until I saw the notebook.
I guess it had been there all day, but since I was seated directly behind my Aunt, I hadn't noticed it. At the cemetary, we got out of the van to visit my Grandparents' graves. The ground was slushy and muddy and for me in my foolish urban footwear, somewhat treacherous. But we picked our way over the mess to gaze at the humble stone with their names engraved upon it. I felt both strangely detached and incredibly affected.
I never knew my grandmother. She died when I was just a few months old. How can you mourn someone you've never known? But I have, every day of my life. At that moment, however, my mourning felt strangely empty. I couldn't recall a sound or a smell or a feeling to put with the sadness. No lilting voice calling me to supper, no face powder tickling my nose, no starchy apron against my cheek. I felt the gaiety of the day leave me and I think, my sisters felt it as well. We were silent as we made our way back to the van idling at the road.
Auntie had remained in the van; it was bitterly cold and the wind was fierce. It was when we returned that I saw it, spread open on her lap, her familiar spidery handwriting covering the pages, and neat little tick marks running down the left hand margin.
She had made notes.
There was so much I suppose, so much to remember and so much already forgotten. She didn't trust herself to recall everything, and I think it was that more than anything that made it so poignant. It was an acknowledgement of her growing frailty. It was a mundane but salient reminder of fact that one day soon, she too would be gone. And it was a testament to the heart rending importance with which she viewed her task.
Underway once again, I turned my face to the window and cried silently as the snow covered evergreens whizzed by.
The rest of the day was fun filled and light hearted; lunch at a Chinese buffet and then coffee at her modest little apartment, where Uncie Norm waited to hear all about our sojourn. But I couldn't get that notebook out of my mind.
That night I dreamt of it. Three items had been added to the bottom of the list.
~Say Goodbye to Connie's Girls
~Tell Connie Girls are okay
I hate to think of her being gone. I think the finality of my Mother's death will finally sink in then, because nobody will be left to tell her stories. She'll be really and truly gone. But as much as it hurts me to think of my life without either of them in it, I'm happy they'll be together once again. Sissy and Con; the sisters, the best friends.