Southbound, the train leaves New London station in bright morning light. I’ve stowed my suitcase and taken a seat by the east window to watch the river, its surface so silken that the pilings of an abandoned pier reflect, refract, and plunge like roots through the flowing mirror that carries an ash blue streak of cloud, a shining sky. At the mouth of the broad river, out where the salt water of the Sound absorbs the fresh water of the river, a small red house flashes in a shimmer of sun, a lighthouse in every sense of the word.
The wind has risen and now ruffles the water, and in the change of light, I remember the small red brick house, far south in Virginia, where I spent a shy childhood anchored to my mother. The little red hen house, she had called our home in Richmond. The affectionate nickname not only revealed her deeper roots in the farm fields of Dinwiddie and Amelia Counties, it also showed how she deflected disappointment—she turned a phrase, she put on a good face. From her, from my withdrawn father, from my difficult sister, and from conventional west-end Richmond—“the center of social rest” as I’ve heard it called on a nationally televised newscast—I had been running away most of my life—because, as I used to tell myself then, I was different.
With a shriek of its whistle, the train gets underway.
I keep three black and white family snapshots in my wallet, and as the train car rattles south, I take them out. They are not gems of wholeness, harmony, and radiance, but they seem decisive. Here I am standing alone, dressed for church, in a full skirt and small hat that tells me it’s the 1950’s. I am eleven, posed in the front yard, sun full in my face. The sun shines white on the grass of the well-cut yard, onto which a shadow falls. The photographer’s shadow spreads onto the grass between me and him, inky black. It is a silhouette of head and shoulders, and although I recognize the silhouette taking the picture as my father’s, it now also seems to be the shadow of death. I hear my parents reciting in unison the Twenty-third Psalm. This is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Death is taking my picture, the same Shadow of Death I confused as a child with God. Death the Maker of Things Invisible was also God the Father, Creator of All Things, Author and Lord of the Visible, Judge and Justifier. To see God, I remember thinking, you had to die.
And here is my mother. There is something in her eyes and the set of her smile as she looks through the camera, through even my father, who is most likely holding the camera, an ensnaring beyond flirtation, a possession that has leapt over desire and its obstacles, over the finite and the uncertain. She has won. She is unsurpassable. Whoever you are, within this gaze she has you. In glory, she will enter the Kingdom, a triumphant mother, a child of God to the end of time.
The third photograph gives me, at first glance, my cousin Jane and me. Jane, a slim and lovely young woman, holds me in her lap. I am four, dressed in a dotted-Swiss dress I remember is pink and which I wear for church or for company coming. Between Jane’s body and mine, there is a darkness out of which an arm strains into the light and only part of a face. It’s hard to see my sister—Betsy, as we called her then—but there she is, squirming her way into the picture, struggling to be seen. Although I appear innocent, even demure, looking down at my patent leather shoes, I lean back at an uncomfortable slant, using my body to block my sister from Jane’s lap and evidently from my mind. For the years I didn’t want to see my sister, she wasn’t there. I turn over the snapshot and find in my childish handwriting these words—Jane and me.
I shuffle through the three photographs again, ending with the one of me on the grass of the front yard. I inhale a scent of cut grass and lilac in our yard, and the too sweet, nearly rotten scent of daffodils cut for the vase. I inhale again, and I smell summer heat on the sticky tar of Lexington Road, thunder clouds, the swell of rain, clean laundry on the line in the back yard, my mother’s skin.
Aside from the years of World War II, my parents have lived in Virginia within a radius of seventy miles most of their lives, intimate with the look of things around them there—with the James river, mimosa, old fields of scotch broom and red clay; with red brick houses and magnolia trees and the sedate respectability of west-end Richmond. So that to see one magnolia tree anywhere might summon for them the avenue of magnolias in front of my aunt’s stately house, Alandale; to see an old barn with a slumped roof might remind them of the farm in Amelia County; one spreading oak might bring back with it the small red house where I lived with them, and with my sister, rubbing elbows and ideas, striking sparks from the friction.
Or are the oaks and magnolias, the barns and front porches, the cry of the backyard mockingbird for my parents only single sensations, lit for a moment, flying and flown, single notes in a passing moment? My parents are in their nineties, in residence in a nursing home. So much has slipped away. Emptiness in the mind, they must feel it spread and deepen, much as shadow takes a field into dusk and nightfall. To what we see, to what we think, to what we are, remembering offers an odd mix of distance and immediacy—an apparent contradiction only resolved by greater intimacy and depth, not by any easy harmony. Returning home, I realize, I’m now looking for memories we can hold in common; I’m looking for common ground.
And my sister Liz, how does she see things now that, bedridden or in a wheel chair, she looks out onto a field from a single window, the porch railing beyond it like prison bars. Aside from her honeymoon in Bermuda, my sister has lived all of her life in or near Richmond. If she were happy, or sad, I never knew for sure, and I didn’t ask. In earlier years, she would have considered such questions—asked by me—absurd.
Now from further down the train car, a woman’s voice rises and swells. She’s talking on a cell phone without any idea how far her voice carries. “I want to go home already,” says the woman, now only five or ten minutes out of the station. “I want to go home,” she says again, adding, “but I need to get away.”
I want to go home, I need to get away. The train’s refrain, heard at root level in the mind.
I remember how, having left home and my first marriage, I sent a card to my mother, signing it “The Prodigal,” in my twenties focused on departure only, perpetual departure beyond anyone’s reach. Back then, I thought that a change of location would be enough to confirm who I was. Living in Richmond was not for me. I could no longer, not without an angry struggle, talk to my family or my friends about politics—the war in Viet Nam, the continuing Civil Rights movement. I was fed up with manners, with the politeness Thomas Jefferson called “artificial good humor.” Manners my mother called breeding. In the eyes of most of the people I grew up with, manners were equivalent to virtue, and it was hard to convince Richmonders that manners and custom offered poor substitutes for right thought and right action. Nor could I talk to anyone, least of all myself, about religion. Raised a fundamentalist Presbyterian, in college educated agnostic, I threw up my hands, abandoned the field, and ran away full tilt into what I called my own life—that is, into the unacknowledged and unlived lives of my parents, my mother’s in particular. She hid in the blind spot of my eye, in an inner room of my psyche for too many years. I might make my own choices, live my own life, but in the shadows she stamped her foot or offered whispered judgments. If anger is a variant of self-love, in those years I loved myself, did as I pleased, and was willing to live with the consequences and with the debts my willfulness ran up. I was different—by which I meant that I also had no reason to keep in touch with my conservative, materialistic sister. Let her have cars and clothes, the big boats, the house by the golf course. I had my books. Let her have the luxury of extra calories; I had the economy of poetry.
Out the train window, the phragmites sway like a wheat field, and I look out on hummocks of mud, low-tide mud, a bird in the marsh light. After a tunnel of trees, the world widens out into a clearing of light at Deep River’s salt marshes. As I always do, I watch for the glint of the distant lighthouse, a compass needle at the horizon where the Sound and the sky meet. Once across the Connecticut River, I know where I’m heading. I feel it in my bones.
Relax, I tell myself. It’s hours and hours before you get there.
And yet I’m in a hurry to get there. For years the far-flung daughter, I now have a new role in the family. My sister had been the daughter who stayed home, the late-favored one who gave my parents a grandchild. After her stroke, I’m the long-distanced care-taker and daughter-turned-mother—a southbound prodigal—more so now with my mother’s deepening senility and loss of independence. She knows me, but she can’t easily tell me how she is. She begins a sentence and breaks it off before she reaches the verb. Her startling aphasia is interrupted only now and then by the miracle of a complete sentence. She needs diapers. She needs a wheelchair. Her doctors don’t think she’ll recover what only months ago she took for granted. My mother had always been the boss; now she has sunk deeper into the quicksand we call second childhood. Child-hood—a dark cloth pulled over the head. Confused by my mother’s decline, my father calls often, asking for advice. The miles and miles that had once protected me from them are now too many. Earlier in my life, I’d spent years running away; now I spent much of each year returning home. There’s not much time left in the season of dying. It’s time to mend, to sort through, to set to rights; it’s time to heal, to recover, to get to know the strangers I call my family.
My eyes blur. I wonder if there’s enough time. On my last visit, before she took her afternoon nap, my mother motioned me closer, something to tell me. The look on her face said she had a wisdom to impart. “Life is. . .” she began, and as I leaned in to listen in the long pause, “something you wait for,” she concluded, closing her eyes.
More than likely it will be my mother who will keep Death waiting. “I’m not leaving here until I know you’ll be with me in Heaven,” she once stated with implacable certitude, a few years back when she lived in the suite in Assisted Living.
“You may be here a long time, then!” I’d teased. But for my mother, then reclining with her two cats on the four poster bed I called her throne and parliament, wearing an old bathrobe, her wig propped on the beside table, neither my salvation nor the length of her mortal life were laughing matters. It nearly took my breath away, her unquestioned assurance of control—over God, over her own mortality, over me.
On the edge of her bed there had been her boxed Bible with the large print. In that box carefully folded beneath the Bible, I had earlier that day found two of my mother’s bras, both stretched out from carrying her womanly heft. I hadn’t known whether to laugh or to cry, so I’d laughed—the Bible and her brassieres, her two principle means of support, nestled together for safe-keeping. My mother was an angry woman in those years, someone who locked her door against the nurses and my father. “He comes in the middle of the night and takes my pills,” she’d insisted. She took Valium for a condition she called “hot mouth.”
“Dad has his own pills, Mom. He wouldn’t take yours. Perhaps you’re having a dream?” I was becoming used to offering both my mother and father “counsel.”
“No, I see him with my own eyes. Them, too. I used to have, oh eleven bras, and now it’s a good day if I can put my hands on one.”
Sorting through her things, I had found bras in coat pockets, in pillow cases, beneath towels, and in the boxed Bible whose lid, I’d noticed, was riding a little high.
“I want my family all around me,” now she insisted, and I softened. Beneath the certitude was her loneliness, her fear of dying, her fear of living. Saving my soul was part of what she considered her mission in life. Saving my father’s soul was also part of it, and that task had taken so much energy that she had refused to cultivate friendships or visit a library, volunteer for social activities or visit a sick relative. I have to take care of your father, she would say, his lack of social skills, his emotional balance, the reasons she must isolate herself and him. Only once did she put aside her proffered excuses. “The truth is,” she’d said, “I don’t really trust people.” When I asked her why, she waved her hand in a vague gesture that made her words disappear, as salt dissolves in water.
My parents are both able to move about in wheel chairs or, on a good day, my father uses a walker. But it is my sister’s fate to live the life of an old woman before her time. Liz lies in a single bed in a room she prefers darkened because the light hurts her eyes. The blinds are shut. She watches television all day in her isolation at Angel House, where her husband, unable to manage caring for her after her stroke, has taken her. Before her stroke, she led an active life. A partner with her husband in the printing company they pioneered together, she ate out every night, then raced to a marina near Norfolk each weekend to be on their yacht, embracing a life of material pleasure. After her stroke, unable to walk or use her left arm and leg, Liz has become dependent on others to move from her bed, to dress, to toilet. She can’t read, although her memory is sharp. Her left hand has closed into a shape that resembles how she held her hand as a child when she wanted to cast the shadow of a snouted beast on the wall to scare her older sister.
“No matter what happens,” Liz likes to remind me, “I’ll always be younger than you are.” Once when she said that, she winked and grinned at me. I saw her as a young girl in a rakish hat and a plaid wool coat, the coat buttoned tightly around her stout body as she squinted into the camera, mischievous. Even then, the light had hurt her eyes.
“That’s because my eyes are blue, yours are brown,” she likes to remind me. “I got all the bad genes.”
Bad genes? My mind follows her words into a memory of lunch at the restaurant my sister had picked out. She and I were taking our parents to lunch, the first meal the four of us had had together after years of strain and misunderstanding as my parents, confusing love and money, prudence and control, took away the power of attorney from my sister—considered a prodigal spend-thrift—and gave it to me. After my sister’s campaign of reproachful and angry silence, they’d compromised and ordered a jointly held power of attorney, a possible way for us all to make amends. As we sat together as a family in the restaurant, the three of us watched my sister eat mud pie for dessert. In two months, Liz would have the stroke that would knock her unconscious in her kitchen, but we didn’t know that as she ordered dessert. She insisted on dessert. We knew she was diabetic and seriously overweight. But we were too respectful of the artificial peace to say, Stop this. You know you’re hurting yourself. Stop.
Forkful by forkful. Liz ate steadily, luxuriously. This is to die for, she said, This is to die for.
After her husband called to tell me that Liz had suffered a massive stroke, my body often felt heavy and numb, dumb and inattentive. I startled easily. I forgot what I was doing. I couldn’t listen to ordinary conversation. Twice I wandered into the bathroom and peered into the mirror on the medicine cabinet and told my reflection, “Your sister’s had a stroke.”
In Richmond, when I entered her room at the rehab facility—primarily a convalescent home with a rehabilitation department and a reputation for good care—a nurse was smoothing the top sheet over Liz’s body, a white mound. I couldn’t see her face yet, blocked by the nurse who was removing a lumpy plastic bundle—a soiled diaper, I suddenly realized, embarrassed for my sister. Awkwardly I balanced a large vase of roses I’d just bought for her, looking around for a place to put it down, unwilling to look at my sister until the nurse had taken away the diaper. I found an empty shelf over the television, and I put the vase of roses there, glad the flowers were colorful, the arrangement bountiful, easy for her to see from a distance.
“Look,” she told me, uncovering her left leg from the sheet. She wiggled her toes. “My friend Christy came and painted them.”
Her toenails, which had been coated with a lacquer clear as the white of an egg, with flecks of glitter added in, flashed like mica, like quartz in stone.
“She wanted me to have sparkly toes,” she added, laughing. As she laughed, I saw how crooked her mouth was. She saw me noticing.
“I’m supposed to say Eeeeee, so the corners of my mouth stretch out, and it’s working. You should have seen me before.” She repeated Eeeee, and the long E vowel worked the affected muscles, her face now a parody of smiling. So that I wouldn’t reveal in my own face mounting shock and concern, I looked around for a chair. Finding none on the nearest side of the bed, I sat on the edge of the mattress.
I said back to her Eeeee, and patted her good right leg. “That’s good.” And we both laughed. My monkey-face response, my mirroring, which might have risked her thinking I was making fun of her, had made a bond between us. We were children together again. That we could make faces at each other and laugh—that was a good sign. I thought of what long ago our family had called her, “bouncing Betsy,” and I began to tear up.
“Look, I brought you flowers,” I said quickly, turning my body in the direction of the roses. “And I brought some lotion. Why don’t I give you a foot rub?” I began rummaging around in my knapsack.
Liz nodded. “Don’t mind me if I drift off a bit.” She closed her eyes after asking me to turn on the CD player beside her bed. “That’s the music we used to put on when we went to sleep on the boat,” she told me, opening one eye. Her face contorted, froze into a mask of grief, then smoothed out. The overwhelming feeling passed. “I’ve named my left arm Lazarus,” she said suddenly. “I’m going to get back to where I was. I talked to God about it.”
When she closed her eyes again, I poured a puddle of lotion onto my palm. In Connecticut, I had decided on touch, not talk. In our family, no one knew the gentle art of honest conversation, talking over our differences. Instead we tripped over our words and tumbled into silences that were constricted, not spacious, the wrong sort of tie that binds. Words might be my way of attempting repair and solace. But my sister, I finally realized after years of too much mud pie, needed a way to bridge distances that soothed the body first. Boldly, I began the massage on her left side, avoiding the bulk of her body, keeping my focus on her affected leg, hoping that my hands would transfer to her body an acceptance and compassion, a nurture I’d never given her.
We had been sisters for over fifty years, but I couldn’t remember ever touching her body like this. One measure of love is loss; I wondered if Liz loved her body less, or more, now that she had lost the use of her left arm and leg. As I massaged her leg, wondering what she could feel, I began to hear our mother’s voice, the door to our childhood’s bedroom narrowed open, my mother singing into the dark where Liz and I lay unready for sleep. She was singing the lullaby that ends “all through the night.” I couldn’t remember the rest of the words, but I could still see her, about to withdraw, and the stroke of light that crossed the coverlet as her alto patience and intimate refrain lilted over us, like a hand stroking back damp hair from a feverish forehead.
Who knows if the body believes the words we offer it, or if it only listens to the motive below the motive, octaves down. As my hands touched my sister’s immobilized flesh, we were once again side by side in the dark of our old bedroom. Once again we were children, our small bodies already ripening to the sweet danger within us.
Were anyone to ask me now if I believed in resurrection, body and mind I’d have to hum what little I remember of the song that long ago had carried us all through a night that was deeper than we could have known. As I massaged her legs, as my body faintly rocked back and forth to increase the rhythm, all the years I forgot to remember her, all the years I scorned and disregarded, part of my own heart fell away, and it came to me in a shudder of surprise that I had, all these years, loved her without knowing that I loved. What was it in me that had concealed that love so stubbornly? How was it possible to love and not to know?
“I see you,” Liz said, opening her eyes and looking to the side of herself she neglected, finding me there.
Because I didn’t want to cry, I said, “I see you, too, silly,” and we laughed again. Neither of us wanted to cry, not yet. Liz said Eeeee and gave me her new, crooked smile.
“Don’t stop,” she added, nodding at the bottle of lotion. “It may sound absurd, but it makes me feel almost human. Please don’t stop.”
All that long day, I stayed with my sister. Even in the dark, I sat by her bed until she seemed to sleep. Before I left her room in the rehabilitation facility, thinking her asleep, I said quietly, standing at the door as our mother had for a moment as her song became the silence that held us—“See you in the morning.” I had only whispered the words, but Liz caught them.
“I’ll be right here,” she said.
Close to Richmond now, the train passes through the small town of Ashland. As it rocks past the main streets of shops and Victorian houses under big oaks and maples, I remember how, in earlier years, I would look for the man in the wheelchair, who from the front porch door of his house would wave a handkerchief as wide as a towel at the train whose windows must have reflected clouds and the branches of the oak trees. Through these reflections and the flashing of light, he must have been able to see the silhouettes of passengers, their lives in motion, passing through.
On this trip I am helping my father clear out some of my mother’s things.
“You won’t believe what I’m finding in Mom’s little pine chest,” I tell my sister when I visit her in Angel House, talking to her about all the clutter of Mom’s belongings, trying to keep her part of it, if in words only. “Ten pairs of white gloves and a box of yellowed engraved calling cards with her name, Mrs. John Spears Ferguson, embossed on them.”
I nod. “And I found a linen cloth with the word Baby embroidered on it in blue—much too fine to have been used for any baby.”
“Probably the boy Mom didn’t have. The miscarriage before you.”
Liz looks close to tears again—since the stroke, the slightest thing can get her stuck in a mire of melancholy—and so I rush on, telling her about the file cards I’ve found with Mom’s favorite recipes. “One is for chocolate icing—remember licking the spoon?”
“And, look here, I found the angels you asked about.”
Because Penny, who runs Angel House, loves angels, Liz wanted me to bring her the little figures—a gift for my keeper she had said wearily. Apple-cheeked, the angels are identical in their neat blonde braids, idealized faces, and choir robes. Each little mouth is a shapely zero of wordless song. Each year at Christmas, my mother would unpack them and place them on the mantel, along with holly and running cedar and candles. My two girls, she’d say, nodding at the look-alike angels and smiling. But I was the blonde; Betsy had dark curly hair, and hair color only began the list of differences.
Now I put the angels on Liz’s bedside table in the darkened bedroom at Angel House. My sister squints at them and laughs. “I remember them in the living room, on the desk. They’re supposed to be you and me.” Then her face contorts. After a few minutes, she says quietly, “Why did Mom love you better than me?”
For once in my life, I don’t try to answer her with excuses, speculations, reasons. I let the question float in the good silence between us, and I rub her arm. “I don’t know,” I finally say softly. “I don’t know.”
It all began in love, I think, looking at the two angels. It all began in love, and then something went wrong. The old silences between my sister and me are only part of it. How many times did I take out a photograph of my mother and study it in silence when I might have more usefully talked to her, confronted her, made my peace? I remember back to the times—away from home, independent, “successful”—I’d stayed up late, drinking alone, talking to my own image in the mirror, saying the things I wouldn’t admit any other way.
In the house where I grew up, to say I give you my word was a pledge to be truthful. Telling a story—that was a euphemism for lying. To keep one’s word was to honor a promise, but I think now that we kept our words too often hidden, secret from each other, secret from ourselves.
I wonder suddenly if my mother is still waiting to have the talk with me we’d never had, waiting to be offered what she felt she’d never been given. I wonder if we’re not, all three of us, behind our different adult masks, children in hiding, arrested in some bedrock form of desire or fear.
After a while, I open the blinds to let some of the too bright light into Angel House, and Liz and I sit side by side at the bright window—she in her wheelchair—both of us squinting. She has a sketch pad and crayons beside her. I watch as, to my surprise, Liz draws what might be a kindergarten child’s classic view of home. As a girl, she had enjoyed painting with oils, and her work was skilled. Now she takes up a stout crayon and draws a house with a peaked roof and a central door, squares for windows, a chimney with smoke curling out in O’s. Then a tall tree with a cloud puff of green crown. Her sun is a circle with sharp radiating blades, the yellow core of a daisy with a sharp ruff of petals. She loves me, she loves me not.
“It’s 37 Lexington Road,” Liz says, laying aside the crayons. She doesn’t say our house. She doesn’t call it the home place, our childhood home, or the little red hen house. Without any feeling in her voice, she simply gives an address. In all the snarled and dead-ended circuits of her brain, she still knows, reluctantly, her way there. When she says, “Take it to Mom and tell her it’s from me,” I have to swallow hard before I can trust myself to answer lightly, “Sure, I’ll be glad to.”
I ask Liz if she remembers Mom’s singing to us before sleep, and she shakes her head.
“I just remember all the things we didn’t have.” She pauses. “I told one of the nurses at rehab that the one good thing the stroke had given me is that we’re together,” Liz say, her voice firm. “We’re friends.”
“It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“It’s the way it should have been all along,” Liz says, her voice as entirely free of blaming as I hope my discovery of love for her is free of pity, tinged more by gratitude and compassion.
When it is finally time for me to return and finish sorting and packing Mom’s things, Liz launches into a series of jokes, one after another, jokes she has told me on the phone over and over. Clearly she doesn’t want me to leave.
“Did you hear the one about the blonde who stood for hours looking into the refrigerator?”
I shake my head, wanting to leave, wanting to go before the tenderness I feel for her dissolves into impatience.
“When they asked her why she stood there staring at the orange juice, unable to move, she says: Well, the container says Concentrate.” She laughs and begins to reel off another dumb blonde joke—breaking it off unexpectedly.
“When are you coming back?”
“How about later today? After I’ve done what I can with Mom’s stuff—I have to spend time with Mom and Dad, too.” It is, I hope, a gentle reminder.
She nods then looks at her left hand, the fingers curled inward. Using her good hand, she shifts Lazarus to the right. When she isn’t mindful of her weak side, her left hand slides over the arm rest and dangles onto the wheel of her chair. She looks into her lap for a long moment. I think she is going to say, “I’ll be right here,” but she surprises me again.
“Don’t go,” she says. “Tell me a story.”