I am sitting in the middle of our living room with my husband and sister. The living room is a shambles — piles of articles to store, to give away, to pack. Empty spaces loom where paintings and photographs used to hang. Our cat, Lefty, watches us all suspiciously. We are upsetting him with our tension, our comings and goings, our imminent move.
My sister, Ellen — who originally made this blog title into a plural — is visiting from Gdynia, Poland, where she’s lived for more than three years teaching English. Who knew we’d be in the turmoil of moving when she originally planned her trip? Nobody. She’s stepped into our upheaval and is being patient with our jitters and obsessions.
My husband and I are, jointly and separately, non compos mentis. All he can talk about is the bidding war for our barbecue pit on Craigslist. I sit still, like a block of ice, staring in a manner I’m pretty sure would most kindly be termed deranged. I’m not calm, I’ve taken to telling people; I am catatonic.
Oh, but forget about the house, the furniture, the move, the mortgage, the closings, the logistics. My sister, three years younger than I, and I have known each other for 58 years. She and my husband and I have known one another well for a good 40 years. After that length of time, you almost forget where you end and the other person begins. Our pasts overlap and intertwine. Think kudzu.
We talk about our families, of course. Do you ever get tired of talking about your parents, no matter how old you are, no matter how few parents you have left? It hasn’t happened to us yet.
We talk about my sister’s and my mother, who was smart and charismatic, fragile and abusive. Her shifting moods, alternately bright, then vicious, dominated our childhoods. Our family seemed to exist to hold her together. She died in 1997, crippled by Parkinson’s and deeply embittered by her life and family. One by one, we all disappointed her and broke her heart. We know this, since she told us frequently. We failed to love her enough, my sister and I weren’t housewives, I wasn’t religious, my husband and I were liberals. Everybody failed her.
“Mother’s death freed me,” I said to my husband and sister last night. They nodded and drank more wine, as if I’d said something inarguable like, This house is a real mess.
“I’ve never thought that before, but it’s true,” I said.
“Of course, it’s true,” my husband said.
I thought about all the years I’d spent agonizing over my mother, feeling overwhelmed with guilt about her, writing her letters I never sent, struggling with therapy. Then she had died — and that long and excruciating and silent conversation was over.
That was my side of the story. Hers, if she were here to tell you about it, would have been very different — almost unrecognizably so. Where does the truth lie? That’s the question that always haunted me about my mother. Who am I to have the last word?
We continued to drink wine and tell family stories and ask unanswerable family questions. I was with the two people who know me best in the world. Around us, a house and a history were being taken apart, disappearing before our eyes. Everything goes, nothing lingers. The family stories from the next generation — would I recognize them when they were told by others?
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read one of my favorite posts about mothers and their dreams