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?