Mary Anne Slack
“Shoot me when I’m seventy-five, would you?”
Liz’s husband looked at her over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “Shall I assume this has something to do with you spending the afternoon at the nursing home?” He drizzled olive oil over his salad. She placed a glass of red wine in front of him and sat across from him at the oak table, taking a generous sip from her own glass.
“It came to me today that there’s such a thing as living too long. You hit your eighties and either your mind or your body starts to go. You know, Mike, I’d just rather skip all that.”
“Is Aunt Julia getting worse?” he asked gently, serving her a plate of steaming pasta.
“Well, she is eight-nine. Today she asked me where my mother was. I had to remind her that she’s been dead for two years.”
Liz slid her plate toward him.
“Did your sister show up?” He piled greens onto her plate.
“Apparently she was there last night. Mary brought her favorite black raspberry ice cream. And she washed, dried, and folded her laundry perfectly.”
“Well, that’s one less thing for you to do,” he said, digging into his pasta.
“You know that’s not my point, Mike.” She jabbed at her pasta with her fork.
Mary was six years older than Liz. Liz remembered that when she was little Mary would read to her and share her music — The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens. Liz still couldn’t hear one of their songs without remembering how she and Mary would lie on her bed and listen together, often singing along, their voices blending perfectly in spite of their age difference.
By the time Mary left for college, she was Liz’s heroine. Mary was beautiful in her eyes, tall and shapely with long, curly hair that she ironed in the morning before school. She was a good student and had lots of friends, most of them boys. The twelve year old Liz couldn’t wait for the day when she would look like Mary and live a life just like hers. Somehow that day never arrived and Liz resigned herself to wearing her straight-as-a-stick hair short and neatly styled. Her body refused to stretch and curve as Mary’s had. The flowing dresses left behind in a closet would never fit her, except, she’d thought ruefully, as a Halloween costume.
When Mary chose to attend a college six hours away in New York, Liz felt abandoned. She spent time in Mary’s room, smelling the scent that still lingered and listening to the albums she’d left behind.
During Mary’s rare visits home, Liz stayed close, craving her sister’s attention. One summer day she sat on the front steps of their house listening to Mary talk on the phone to her boyfriend. She pretended to be fascinated with an ant colony working furiously to build a house in the crack of the sidewalk.
“Oh man, I wish you were here. I’m so bored. There’s absolutely nothing to do,” Mary complained. Whatever he replied caused her to giggle. “Keith, you naughty boy,” she crooned in a voice that Liz had never heard from Mary. Liz wanted to remind her that there were picnics in the field behind their house, bikes to ride around the neighborhood, a municipal pool half a mile away, just to name a few options that Mary had once enjoyed. But Liz didn’t say anything. She watched carefully, trying to find the old Mary in this restless, easily irritated version of her older sister.
That was the last summer she’d come home. She spent a summer in New York City, another in Chicago. After graduation Mary moved to Los Angeles with a group of friends. The plan was to break into some exciting field — movies, television, fashion — Mary was vague about her goals.
A few days after Mary left for the west coast, as she was going to bed, Liz heard her parents arguing across the hall. She opened her door to listen.
“Maybe I should go out to California and see what she’s up to,” her father said.
“Henry, she’s got to find her own way. She doesn’t want a conventional life. She’d be miserable here. Besides …”
“What?” he demanded.
“I have a feeling that Keith is out there, or at least that he’s planning to go.”
“That hippie? She can do a heck of a lot better than that guy.”
Her mother lowered her voice to a level that Liz couldn’t hear, so she shut her door softly and lay on her bed.
A conventional life, she thought. Isn’t that what everyone wants? She tried to picture Mary in their kitchen cooking dinner, helping children with homework, but instead could only see herself.
Six months later a postcard arrived from Las Vegas. In Mary’s florid script were the words, “We’re married! Love, Mary & Keith.” Her parents spent a tense week trying to reach her with no success. A letter followed a week later with a photo of the bride and groom. Mary had stopped straightening her hair and wore it long and curly. She looked radiantly happy, looking up at her bearded groom. His hair was longer than hers, a fact duly noted by her father.
“As long as she’s happy,” her mother said as she gazed at the photo. Liz knew from her mother’s tone of voice that she was disappointed, as was she. Her dreams of being a bridesmaid in Mary’s wedding would never come true now.
Mary’s happiness was short-lived. Liz learned by listening to another late night conversation that Mary had come home from work to find Keith in bed with their next-door neighbor. She left him and filed for divorce. As sorry as she felt for her sister, Liz hoped that now she would come home. Instead, she stayed on the west coast for twenty years until she met Dan at a book sellers´ convention in San Francisco when she was forty-five. Mary and Dan fell in love, married and moved back east.
Liz chose a more conventional path. She had gone to a college twenty minutes away from home. Because she was homesick living in the dorm, she decided to commute after her freshman year. She met Mike during her junior year. His laid-back, charming personality won Liz over and her parents were thrilled when they married the September after graduation.
Mary had come home for the wedding. The night before the ceremony, Liz’s mother came to her room. Liz was lying awake thinking about how this was the last night she would sleep in her single bed.
“Honey, I was just talking to your sister,” Liz’s mother began. She took Liz’s hand in hers. “Is there something you could ask her to do tomorrow? One of the readings, maybe?”
“Why?” Liz asked.
“Well, Mary’s feeling a little left out ,” her mother said gently.
“Left out? Hasn’t she done that to herself? We’ve seen her three times in ten years and now she wants….”
“Don’t get upset, Liz. I don’t think she expected to feel left out, but now she finds that she does. She is your sister, after all.”
“And I’m supposed to make changes now? The program is printed, Mummy. Everything is exactly the way I want it. I’m not changing it.”
“Liz.” Mike had stopped eating. “Where are you?”
Liz looked up from her reverie to find her husband waving at her across the table. “I’m sorry. Were you saying something?”
“What are you worried about? Julia adores you, honey. That won’t change. I think this new-found thing with your sister is a good thing. It’s … I don’t know … healing.”
Liz put down her fork. “Well, it doesn’t feel healing to me,” she said heatedly. “I’ve been there for my aunt all these years while Mary was so busy that she could barely give Julia the time of day. Suddenly she’s the favorite niece and I’m on the outside looking in.”
“Liz. Julia can’t even remember that your mother is dead. Do you really think she’s aware of the dynamics of relationships? Mary’s not her favorite. She’s just happy to have both of her nieces in her life.”
Liz picked up her fork and twirled her lukewarm spaghetti. They ate for a while in silence. Mike topped off their wine glasses.
“And one more thing.” Mike leaned across the table and looked her in the eye. I’m not going to shoot you when you’re seventy-five. You’ll have to find someone else to do the deed.”
Liz smiled. “Okay,” she said. “I guess I’m actually relieved about that.”
While Liz scraped the plates and loaded the dishwasher the phone rang. The caller ID showed an out-of-area number so Liz decided to ignore it. It stopped after two rings and then Mike came in, holding the phone out to her.
“It’s Mary,” he mouthed to her.
She glared at him as she took the phone. “Hi, Mary,” she said curtly.
“Hey, Liz.” Her sister’s voice was friendly. “Did you go to the nursing home today?”
“How did she seem to you?” Mary asked.
“A little confused, actually. She wanted to know where Mum was.”
“Did she tell you I invited her to my house for Thanksgiving?”
“To your house?” Liz responded. “Mary, Julia spends every Thanksgiving with us. It’s a tradition. My kids will feel terrible if she’s not here.”
“I realize that’s the way it’s been in the past, Liz. But your kids are, what? Nineteen and twenty? I’m sure they learned to share a long time ago,” Mary said, chuckling.
“Look, Mary. Traditions were established long before you moved back.”
“And you can’t make an adjustment for one year, Liz? It is etched in stone?”
Liz found herself clenching a dishcloth in her free hand. “Yes, it is, as far as I’m concerned. Etched in stone.”
Mary sighed audibly. “Let’s let Aunt Julia decide.”
“No!” Liz balled up the dishcloth and threw it into the sink with a force that sent a spray of water onto the front of her shirt.
“Gosh, Liz. You are so possessive of her. She’s my aunt too, you know.”
Liz opened her mouth to reply, then thought better of it. Anything she could say would sound petty.
“Look, just think about it,” Mary continued. “Let’s meet over at the nursing home tomorrow. We’ll discuss it then. Will eleven-thirty work?”
Liz agreed so that she could get off the phone and think straight.
Mike put his head around the corner. “Come on, Liz. I’ve got the movie starting.” He looked more closely at the tight expression on her face, her furious blotting at her shirt with a dishtowel. “What’s the matter?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. I’ll be there in a minute.”
As she joined her husband in the family room, she decided she would not complain to him about this. What would be the point? He would try to persuade her to be reasonable when she preferred to be angry. Her argument revolved in her mind as the movie played. Mary had chosen a life that was separate from her family while Liz stayed close and nurtured those relationships. Now Mary seemed to think that she was entitled to the same traditions that Liz had established long ago. Liz had raised her children nearby, relying on her parents and her aunt for help and support. When they’d needed help, she’d been there for them. Her parents had died within a year of each other shortly after Mary moved back to the area. Liz still felt that loss acutely, surely much more than her sister did. Aunt Julia was all she had now.
The next morning Liz went to church early with the intention of arriving at the nursing home right on time to hold the discussion with Mary in the parking lot. She did not want to put her aunt in the middle of a long-overdue sibling
dispute. Mike decided he’d rather paint the bathroom and she left him to it.
She arrived at 11:05, confident that she’d be able to catch Mary before she went in. The parking lot was more than half full, Sunday morning being a popular time to visit. She parked her car, picked up a bag of homemade apple muffins and got out to enjoy the sunshine. She spotted a gray Volvo a few cars beyond hers and walked in that direction. She peered into the car, hoping it wasn’t Mary’s. She’d said 11:30, didn’t she? On the back seat was a plaid doggie blanket covered in golden hairs. All that was missing was the slobbery muzzle of Lydia, Mary’s golden retriever.
Damn! Why does she always do this? She marched briskly toward the front door, seething. On her way to the second floor she took deep breaths, telling herself to calm down for Julia’s sake.
She heard her sister’s voice before she rounded the corner to the hallway leading to Julia’s private room.
“Honestly, that man is going to drive me out of my mind if he doesn’t go back
to work soon. I guess I was single a little too long, Auntie.”
Julia’s voice was soft, but firm. “You’re lucky to have him, dear. Don’t forget that.”
Liz knocked softly on the partly open door. “Good morning, ladies,” she said.
Mary and Julia sat comfortably near the window. On a small table stood a silver carafe, three white coffee cups and a plate of assorted doughnuts. Liz tucked the bag of muffins into her purse.
“Good morning, Liz.” Her aunt greeted her with a smile, reaching her face up to receive her kiss. “Where’s Mike?”
“For some reason he found the energy to paint the bathroom this morning. I decided to just get out of his way,” Liz answered.
“Wow. I wish Dan would catch what he’s got,” Mary said. “All he does is sit at the computer all day looking for a job. I told him we’re okay without his income, but men are socialized to be the breadwinners.”
“Dan is a very nice man, Mary,” Julia responded. “You’re lucky to have him.”
Mary grunted. “I guess he’s okay.” She winked at Liz. “Aunt Julia,” she began.
The door to Julia’s room opened and a smiling young woman entered.
“Excuse me, Miss Flynn? There’s a hymn sing this morning in the activity room. I know how much you like to sing.” She turned to Liz and Mary. “You could come along, if you want to.”
“Oh, dear,” Julia responded. “Is that tall woman with the beautiful voice going to be leading it?”
“That’s the one,” the girl replied.
Julia looked at her nieces, frowning. “You know how I love to sing the old hymns. But I hate to interrupt our visit.”
“Don’t be silly, Auntie,” Mary said just as Liz was about to suggest that they all go. “You go ahead with this nice lady. Liz and I need to catch up on some things.”
“You’ll be here when I get back?”
“Of course. We may even see you there. You go sing your heart out.”
They watched Julia walk out slowly on the arm of her escort.
“I usually go with her to the hymn sing,” Liz said. “She knows the words to every verse. Never has to look at a book.”
“Did she sing when we were kids? I don’t remember.”
“She sang in the choir of the Congregational church for sixty years, Mary. They threw a retirement party for her when she couldn’t climb the stairs to the choir loft anymore. It must’ve been before you moved back.”
“Did you go to the party?” Mary asked.
They were silent for a moment.
“What do you think about what we talked about last night?” Mary asked. “Do you thing you can part with Julia for one holiday of your life?”
“Mary, this isn’t just about me. Julia’s getting confused. This is not the time of her life to start changing things.”
“Fair enough,” her sister responded. “But what if this is her last Thanksgiving, or the last year that she recognizes us or knows where she is?”
“Stop, Mary.” Liz closed her eyes and shook her head. “I can’t even go there.”
“Well, Liz, you may very well have to go there, like it or not. Denial is not going to help you get through the hard times.”
Liz felt her calm façade disintegrate. She leaned toward Mary and spoke in a harsh whisper. “What do you know about the hard times? Who took care of Mum and Dad when they were dying? Was it you? I don’t recall you being there until the very end. And who helped Julia decide to sell her house and move to this place? Do you think any of that was easy?”
Mary’s voice quivered as she answered. “Do you have any idea how hard it was to get near Mum and Dad? I don’t mean to take anything away from you, Liz, but you were always there. You had everything under control. You made it clear that you didn’t need any help.”
“What do you mean? There were times when I felt ready to crack, I was so overwhelmed.”
“Well, you didn’t ask for my help and you didn’t show any vulnerability at all. You were super woman and I finally gave up and left you to that role. But now Liz, I want a chance to do something. It’s my turn. I don’t want to be super woman, but I think it would be good if you backed off a little and gave me a chance.”
“I don’t think you’ve earned that chance, Mary,” Liz answered shakily. “You left home. I stayed. I earned the right to…”
“To what, Liz? What did you earn the rights to when you chose to be the dutiful daughter while I went off to live my own life?”
Liz didn’t answer. Now that the question had been asked she realized she had no idea. She looked at her sister. Mary’s eyes shone with tears, yet she kept her gaze on Liz.
“Well?” Mary asked. “What is it that you want, Liz?”
Liz shook her head, holding back her own tears. When she could speak she said, “I suppose it’s silly, but I can’t help feeling like you’re an interloper. Julia and I have always been close, but more so since Mum and Dad died. You haven’t been part of my life in a significant way since I was twelve years old. I learned to get along without you. We all did.”
Mary looked away as she spoke. “We made different choices. I probably would have been happier if I did things more like you, like Mum and Dad would have liked me to.” She looked back at Liz. “But I wanted something else and I’m not going to apologize for that. I can’t change the past. I am sorry that I wasn’t there for you more. I do know that I never stopped loving my baby sister.”
Liz started to cry freely, burying her face in her hands.
“What, Liz? Why does that make you cry?”
“Because I find that hard to believe! You left. You didn’t make an effort to keep in touch with me. You just went off and lived your own life. And I idolized you! Do you know how much that hurt?”
Now Mary was crying too. She handed tissues over to Liz and they both blew their noses.
“I didn’t know, Liz. I never realized you felt that way. I mean, now I see how stupid that is. Of course. I was your big sister and I left you. I was completely self-absorbed. But then, who isn’t at twenty-two?”
“But you didn’t stay twenty-two, Mary. You got older and more mature and still you didn’t reach out to me.”
Mary was silent for a moment and then spoke softly. “Do you remember that when I came home for your wedding you barely spoke to me? I guess I figured that you didn’t want a relationship with me.”
“I was twenty-two for God’s sake!” Liz snapped.
Mary raised her eyebrows. “Apparently that wasn’t a great age for either of us,” Mary said. She stood up and squeezed Liz’s shoulder. “I’m going to go sit with Aunt Julia and give you some time alone.”
She left the room, closing the door only partway.
I’ll never be able to hide this from Julia, Liz thought. She looked in her purse to see if she had any makeup with her. Nothing. She felt emotionally spent from the tears. She closed her eyes and tried to sort through her feelings. The old resentment was still somewhere inside her, an old, dusty box that had been kept for far too long. Maybe it was time to clean house.
The fact is, Liz, she told herself, you are not twelve years old. You are an adult, a married woman with two nearly adult children. It’s time to let go and move on.
Liz left her aunt’s room and made her way slowly down the hall in the direction of the music. A slightly out of tune piano played a hymn that Liz knew she should recognize, but couldn’t recall the name. She heard a familiar voice and followed the sound.
There was Aunt Julia with her eyes closed, singing along to the introduction in her sweet, slightly quavering soprano voice. She looked thin and frail in her light pink cardigan, the pearl buttons matching her thinning hair. Beside her sat Mary. She wore her hair long and curly, streaked with gray. There were fine lines in the corners of her closed eyes, but Liz realized she was still beautiful to her. They both were.
Suddenly Liz recognized the hymn. Cat Stevens had recorded it years ago. She started to sing the words she hadn’t sung in years.
Morning has broken, like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning.
Praise for them springing, fresh from the Word.
She took the seat next to Mary, who opened her eyes and frowned.
“Isn’t that a Cat Stevens song?” she whispered.
“Uh-huh. We used to sing it lying on your bed,” Liz whispered back.
“Maybe it’s a sign,” Mary said, reaching for Liz’s hand. Liz squeezed Mary’s hand as they joined in on the second verse, the words tumbling out as if thirty years hadn’t passed at all. Julia never opened her eyes but continued to sing without missing a word, as if singing with her two favorite nieces was the most natural thing in the world.