Mercy and reflection

In one of my sister’s closets, I found two bundles of letters, postmarks dating back to the early 80’s. There were: Easter cards from Sharon, all manner of holiday cards from Dot, a couple of letters from my father in his distinctive engineer’s script, lots of postcards from my brother as he traveled Europe as a young man. Many, many letters from me.

It was the letters from my mother that undid me — forced me to box it all up and stow them for another day. Maybe another year. Maybe never.

What a hearty correspondent my mother had been! Did I, too, receive so many missives over the years? Probably. But I don’t really remember and unlike my sister, I didn’t hang onto them.

There were letters from Provence full of exclamation points (“perfect tomatoes! perfect green herbs! perfect bean cassoulet!”), letters from Florida full of encouragement, letters acknowledging weight loss (more encouragement), letters enclosing checks, letters of explanation post-misunderstanding, letters of apology.

“My dear sweet Valentine, Noreen… ”

The letters reminded me how distorted and corrosive my sister’s narrative about my mother has been, never elastic or truthful enough to include the good, the positive, the well-meaning.

One letter came on the heels of some disastrous trip to Washington. Why had they gone? Was it an art-related treat offered by my mother, some attempt to connect?

Oh god, the paragraphs about my sister’s explosive response to some fairly innocent remark read like a summation of my last nine years. “I’m sorry for what I said, but I didn’t think it was THAT heinous…”

And then, my mother scribed these stunning words: “You give me too much power and offer up too little mercy.”

Here’s Gauthier’s “Mercy Now,” which has been one of my anthems of grief.

The letters reminded me that at one time, my sister seemed poised for normalcy. Just one more infusion of cash, one more sorting of twisted emotion, one more round of diet supports, a car, a business, and she’d be fine, right?

Retroactively applying new understandings, it’s been clear that disorder showed up at every stage. How harmed she was by ignorance about mental illness! And how effectively her chaos was camouflaged by the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. A rebellious phase, nothing more, surely?

As I rejiggered history, I lost sight of the younger, better version of my sister. Sorting her things has brought it back. Her flashes of brilliance, her capacity for understanding literature, her iconoclastic spirituality, her intuitive and stunning art. I remember that there was a time when I felt eclipsed not just by her shadow but by her strengths, too.

Family legend has it that my sister spoke in full paragraphs by the age of two, while my speech was so garbled only my mother could understand me until after the age of three. There was my sister’s nearly perfect score on the verbal SAT. Her voracious reading and gigantic vocabulary.

My sister read the LOTR every spring for years. As much as I loved Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, too (another of her favorites), I could barely get through the trilogy once and anyway, who’d want to read “The Two Towers” a second time? She devoured sweeping historical novels — Leon Uris, for instance (she may have read “Exodus” three times) and Michener (have you seen how long “The Source” is?) She adored the romances of Mary Stewart and the mysteries of James Lee Burke. Bindings gave way, covers taped and worn. I brought “This Rough Magic” to the nursing home, but it stayed in the drawer. She was going.

A lot to unpack here, but for now, not the letters.

Have you saved any correspondence from over the years? If so, why and do you ever look at it? I have the letters that K and I exchanged early on, which are precious but clearly not for the boys’ eyes.

In closing, let me leave you with the idea of things undone. A friend reminded me that in the Tibetan tradition, survivors attempt to tie up loose ends for the deceased over a period of 48 days. What, has my sister left undone? And if the better question is, what didn’t she leave undone, is such a pursuit futile?

What will I leave undone? And you?





26 thoughts on “Mercy and reflection

  1. kathydorfer

    i could say so much here . having been part of san francisco 1967 … then lived in a commune .
    i have to say your sister type was prevalent among my group . my friend , bill wheeler started his commune with a lot of mentally ill people . he felt he was doing them a service to give them some place to live . i lived on a ranch next to his but our goal was to do art .
    your sister’s life resonated with me having bipolar family members . so difficult to watch and also
    such brilliant people .
    as for old letters … mine are from my husband and usually have a drawing attached .a few from a special friend .
    as for stuff , just moved and really tried to pare down . that said …. art supplies are given a free
    ride . they will just have to go with me ( :
    thanks for the post today …

    1. deemallon

      I have to say that I just love the kinds of responses these family posts are prompting. I knew none of this about you and knowing it will enrich lookin at your images on social media going forward. Thank you for revealing what you did.

      Art supplies get a free pass in this house too. Although after dealing with my sister’s clutter from a place of judgment, it will be time, I think, to take my studio on. Too much already!

  2. Gigi

    Again, after reading this I think “how I wish I knew her better”. I think our parents kept us all apart for self preservation. I was reading the same books and running amuck on her coattails. I thank god for 2 good pals I had as a kid. We kept each other alive and mostly sane (mostly). And, as the Mallons ran wild in the NYC boroughs, Nor was running her own elsewhere. I hope she too had a few good friends.

    So hard to figure out how much crazy is family nature or nurture. I keep thinking no matter how they spruced themselves up (or didn’t) our folks were still the Hatfields and Mccoys. (And I understand Nor’s anger. I still hold a grudge from being told as a kid I was fat and ugly…) Family can be the worst thing to happen to a person. I am sure it was a legacy handed down from generation to generation, and will continue long after I am gone.

    Funny too how Mary Gauthier fits so well with the dna. “The chair that I sit in belonged to my daddy, carved from the hard wood of a bitter tree. When he was alive he used tell me kid I knew when you was born you’d end up snake bit like me…” (((sigh))) aint that the truth.

    Dee, go easy on going through that stuff. It is good to have and keep. Pace yourself. Everything happens for a reason. Maybe you reading her notes sets her free. And you too.

    Or better yet, put them away for a year. There is a reason memorials are a year later.


    1. deemallon

      It is too bad we were given so little opportunity to know each other. My parents had us moving every few years, leaving not just family but newly made friends behind too. I do wonder about generational complexes. How to study them? Or uncover them? Maybe all we have sometimes is the imagination.

      And yes, you two were cut from the same cloth — but so many differences, too. For one thing you’ve expressed the artistic drive, while hers got buried along the way.

      Your attentions over the last few years meant the world to her.

    2. planetaryvibrations

      Hi Dee, wonderful overview. After meeting you at Nors apartment, I looked in a drawer I had many many tarot decks. I thought the same thing, who will want these when I am gone. Nor and I loved reading tarot and talking for hours about astrology. We had amazing conversations in petson and on the telephone. Noreen could lose it on people but I have to say she never lost it on me. She loved my energy and I loved her intelligence. Both creatives! Those tarot decks got me seeing them at her house. I know it’s hard for you now Dee and you were the best sister ever for Noreen. It may take a few years to process it all. A complicated person and frustratingly uncooperative if you tried to help her. Once I got married, we lost touch a bit. She became reclusive and then she disappeared because of a hospital stay which I found out about later. You could have a big bonfire this summer but save a few special things.
      Much love Dee

      1. deemallon

        Hi Melissa. Thanks for coming over the other day. I know how much you meant to her. Even as she declined and barely walked in the last few years, she often volunteered to do reiki on someone I cared about. I know you shared that. “Frustratingly uncooperative” is one way to put it. I’ll keep you posted about this summer. Thanks again.

  3. Mo Crow

    I read Lord of the Rings 13 times then gave my fancy hard cover copy with the rice paper pages and parchment fold out maps to a friend with 6 children who had never read it. Still have letters & cards going back to the 70’s from friends and family, sent all my brother Mike’s letters back to him in the early 90’s so he could publish them but he hasn’t done it yet, maybe when he retires to write the great American novel that he has been promising to do since the 80’s…

    1. deemallon

      I am not surprised that you also read the LOTR that many times. I read The Hobbit twice, Beowulf three times, The Crystal Cave three times. But that’s as extreme as I get. Maybe if I read faster? Is your brother in the US? I have some letters going back that far but not many.

      1. Mo Crow

        3 of my brothers and Mom are in North Carolina the 4th brother lives in Cincinnatti, cousins on my Dad’s side of the family live in New York and Mom’s are in Ottawa

  4. With my needles

    Feeling as always with you – and you are asking about the letters. Yes, we (DH and me) keep love letters (56 Years of marriage) – but I wouldn‘t read them again. I am still keeping loveletters of my parents in a thin box ☺️ never read them. They are old! 90 years or so. After me they will be thrown away, I am sure. Your posts give me much to think of.

    1. deemallon

      I think I will reread my husband’s and my letters before destroying them. Maybe for our thirtieth anniversary next year?

  5. Dana

    What a good writer you are!! This post has me close to tears.
    I wrote a much longer comment that seems to have disappeared. Rats.

    1. deemallon

      I hate it when that happens. More in my phone than on the PC. Anyway, thank you Dana. Such praise means a lot coming from you. You are an amazing writer.

  6. Michelle Slater

    I can hardly breathe, so overwhelmed am I by your observations and reflections. How DID you survive? Art is ubiquitous and it can be a pleasure, a business, a passion for living, but it can also be an insatiable addiction. Add illness and …. No Words. Sending bone broth soup soon.

    1. deemallon

      Art was not an addiction. TV, food, alcohol, misery — all. Art making might’ve improved the last few years of my sister’s life, but she’d lost her will along the way.

  7. Liz A

    Confession: I so loved the Fellowship of the Ring that I read it night-by-night to my then grade-school-age children as their bedtime story.

    As to what we leave behind … I have letters in the garage that I wrote to my parents, returned to me after they had both passed away. It has been 7 years and they sit unread … I’m thinking they are past due for torching. And there are other papers as well, some of which held information I would have sworn was otherwise. How the mind twists memory to its preferred narrative.

    So yes, 48 days to tie up loose ends, things left undone. That sounds wise to me. And we actually have a list that we continuously update and leave in a safe deposit box … accounts, user names and passwords … in order that our kids can more easily tie up those loose ends someday.

    But I wonder sometimes … what will happen to our blogs?

    1. deemallon

      I loved the Lord of the Rings, too — don’t get me wrong. If we hadn’t been so busy working our way through all the Harry Potter books, it’s a choice I might’ve made too. Your practice of keeping account info and passwords in a safe deposit box is so wise! K and I have to do a bunch of things like that this year.

      1. Nancy

        Oh yes to you and Liz! I’ve been making lists of passwords and so on. One page is titled “Online Presence” because I don’t even think anyone really knows. I also have a list of “Contacts”…a who to call list. My sister asked my mom to do this, so she made a list titled My Friends 🙂 I love that and it was so useful when she was in hospice and then after, Mine is set up like a phone tree (example: call my work…then they can tell everyone else there or call certain friend, who will then tell others within that circle and so on). I remember calling people after my dad passed and my sister and I split up who to call and delegated so no one person had to repeat that news over and over. I have, over the past many years created other tools for whoever follows me, if they want them. Dang there is a lot. This is part of what I had planned for the year, along with everything else I just did! haha Love to you, I think of you daily. xo


Leave a Reply