While working at the old house, cleaning out closets and cabinets and drawers, I found a cardboard box full of stuff that had belonged to my great-aunt, Sis. Her name was Margaret, but everyone called her Sis. There were letters from relatives and friends; birthday cards and postcards; memorial cards and prayer cards; rosary beads and several pieces of costume jewelry; photographs of nieces and nephews through the years; and so very many handwritten notes. She wrote on scraps of paper, long sheets of stationary, on the back of used envelopes, even on paper towels and napkins. She wrote lists and reminders; the names of relatives with the dates of their birth and death; short poems and stories; thank you notes to others that she either never gave to them or rewrote on another piece of paper. As I looked at these old papers, read the words she had written, I was overcome by a sense of loneliness. It was as if Aunt Sis had been longing for someone to talk to, to hear her, to listen to her. Not often having someone who would or could listen and understand, she wrote (talked) to herself.
I kept most of the notes, taking them home to add to my own cardboard box labelled “FAMILY.” They would be valuable when I finally got around to my plan of compiling a family history. Aunt Sis was a meticulous keeper of information. But some of the notes were oddly beautiful, touching, or puzzling. A few of these I pasted into my scrapbook, and wrote on those two pages these words: “I write notes to myself. I try to remember things. And I am lonely.”
Below is an excerpt from Still Here Thinking of You~A Second Chance With Our Mothers, a collaborative memoir written by myself, Susan Hodara, Joan Potter, Lori Toppel (Big Table Publishing, 2013). I am posting it here because it tells a little bit about my Aunt Sis.
I walk through the front door of the house where I grew up, and into the familiar kitchen. Aunt Sis is sitting on an old wooden stool in the middle of the big bright room. Her hands are folded in her lap, her head is tilted back, eyes closed, her face lit by the fluorescent ceiling light. She is my mother’s aunt, eighty years old, and still her skin is silken.
“Hold still,” my mother says.
She is bending forward, leaning in close to Sis’s face, one hand on her forehead and the other guiding the razor across her aunt’s chin. There is a mint-green bath towel wrapped around Aunt Sis’s shoulders, to catch the drips from her wet and slicked-back hair. My mother must have just given her a shampoo in the sink. Her hair is glossy black with white streaks like stripes, and cut short like a man’s. The shaving cream on her chin looks like a small beard.
It’s almost six and I’ve decided to stop by on my way home from work. The apartment I live in is just ten minutes from here, and my boyfriend, Bill, whom I live with, won’t be getting home until later. I’m thinking that maybe my mother has made a dinner I can share. She looks up and smiles.
“Hey! Nice surprise,” she says. “I have a meatloaf in the oven. Stay. Eat. It’ll be ready in about a half-hour.”
“Lying down, upstairs.”
I walk to the table, pull a chair close to where my mother is, and sit. “Hi, Sis,” I say.
“Don’t talk,” my mother tells Sis. “I don’t want to cut you.”
“Sorry,” I say.
My mother’s hand shakes. Her hands always shake, and still she is good with her hands, capable, sure of herself. She is concentrating now; she is being careful, gentle.
“How’s work?” she asks.
I tell her about the new exhibits opening at the museum and about the artists’ lecture series I’m working on for spring. When she finishes shaving Sis’s chin, she takes the towel to wipe first her own hands and then Sis’s face.
“Okay, now let’s get you upstairs and into the shower before I have to get dinner on the table,” she tells Sis.
She looks up at me. “So, are you staying? Come upstairs, we can talk more.”
My mother misses her children. She is only forty-nine and we are all out of the house. Eddie moved out first, at nineteen, into an apartment over a garage in a town nearby, where my mother goes to take care of his three cats when he’s away. Debi got married a year ago, to the boyfriend she had been living with for five years. And Terri is an hour away, living with another girl, working as a paramedic. It is a time when my mother should be free to come and go as she pleases, yet it has turned out that not only is she caring for her senile aunt who has moved in, but her mother-in-law, my widowed grandmother, is still living in the house. She has a bad heart and a frail body, and spends much of her time lying down, but her mind is quick and her will formidable.
Sis stands and walks toward the staircase in the foyer. She is tall, with the straight and strong back of a much younger woman. My mother likes to say that if you took Sis’s healthy body and my grandmother’s sharp mind, you’d end up with one whole person.
“How are you doing, Sis?” I ask, following her, and she smiles and keeps walking, repeating in a singsong voice, “Fine and dandy, fine and dandy.”
The three of us climb the steps and go into Sis’s bedroom. As my mother helps Sis out of her clothes and into her robe, I sit on the bed and look away. There are rosary beads of clear-cut crystal with a silver chain and cross on the nightstand, and a small black and-white photograph in an old brass frame–a middle-aged Sis with my mother and her sister as children.
She walks Sis down the hall to the bathroom. “Now remember to wash good,” she says. “Get under your arms and between your legs. I’m going to come in and check and I want to see you soapy. Don’t just stand in there daydreaming.”
While Sis showers, my mother and I sit on the bed to talk. I can smell the meatloaf baking in the oven and I feel hungry. She is asking me if Bill and I have had any more conversations about getting married.
“You know, I told him to please make me a mother-in-law before making me a grandmother.”
“Don’t worry,” I tell her, knowing, but not saying, that becoming a mother is the farthest thing from my mind.
“I’ll be right back,” she says, as she pats my knee and gets up to check on Aunt Sis.
My stomach growls. I am looking forward to the meatloaf.