On Giants' Shoulders

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Pot of Tea and Cinnamon Toast

This morning I made myself a pot of Earl Grey tea (with loose leaf tea from Common Grounds) and cinnamon toast and came upstairs to sit at the keyboard. This pot of tea was making me nostalgic because the pot is one my sister made for me nine years ago. She loved to do crafty sorts of stuff and one Christmas this appeared in the box of Christmas presents. It's a neat little pot that sits on top of its own cup. It holds two full cups of tea (just the right amount for daily heart health). She made it in a ceramics class, one of her favorite ways to unwind, destress etc.

As I was surfing around on my favorite blogs and sipping my tea, I landed at Wittingshire. There the blog for the day was about family memories. Of course that fit very well with my nostalgic mood. You see my sister died a year and a half ago at the age of not quite 52 (her birthday would have been the next month). This left me quite literally an orphan. I am, as I noted to family at the time, the keeper of all the memories, all the stories. It is my account of things that people will get. I finally get to have the last word.

My sister and I fought like cats and dogs when we were growing up. She most often played the cat and I most often was found hiding out in the bathroom while she pounded on the door from the other side. Now, I can't even remember what it was that we were fighting about. Isn't that weird? I remember the fights, but not the issues.

It was only in the last years of her life that we were beginning to have a real friendship. It was really after my mother's death that we actually began calling each other on the spur of the moment. If we'd had cell phones we probably would have talked with each other a lot, but we were both too concious of long distance charges to use land lines really frequently. The fall she died was the one when my life was finally going to allow the time for me to go to Missouri to visit her. I had it all planned out. I was going to go in October. Unfortunately, the trip was to Nebraska in August instead and she was already comatose when I got there.

One of the very difficult things about living here and now is that family bonds have to get stretched over such incredibly long distances. People move far away and visits simply don't allow for the same sorts of relaxed relationships that living fifteen minutes away does. My own mother lived less than ten minutes away from one sister, less than twenty away from another for most of her adult life. They still didn't spend inordinate amounts of time together, but they certainly had a drop in sort of relationship. Our relationship with the aunt who lived less than ten minutes away was so close that she was nearly a second mother to us. I know that I will never truly be a second mother to my sister's children. They grew up without me there. It is not for lack of desire on my part, it's simply that we never really got to know one another all that well. My trip to Nebraska when their mom died helped a bit, but I know that on a certain level we will probably always be a bit more strangers than I am with my nieces and nephews who live only five hours away.

This is part of our American heritage. We are a nation of immigrants. Our ancestors left their family homes knowing they would probably never see their families again. Then a few generations later people hit the trails west, again leaving family behind, with no real hope of seeing them again. Now I see young people who are desperate to go to college on the west coast, to get as far away from family as possible. This was not why my sister and her husband moved to the midwest. Had they had the choice they would have stayed in the east. It was the Nixon recession that forced them out of Vermont. They wanted to retain family ties, it was just so difficult when family was mostly a twenty four hour drive away and plane tickets were expensive.

One of the things that you lose when you become an orphan is the very sense that there is someone else who does remember the stories. You lose the sense that there is someone else who knew you when you were seven and had a broken wrist or who understands why you're afraid of falling, or who could help you replicate your mother's stuffing recipe. I tell the stories to my kids (like about getting stuck in the manure pile while chasing the dog) and they are funny, but somehow not so funny without my sister there to join in the tale. We have Grammy Drown's coffee cake and Grampa Drown's omelet at Christmas. We have Aunt Mary's baked beans (the only baked beans my kids will eat!) and we try to pass on stories, but only I have the memories.

I sometimes wonder whether the fact that we are so separated from our birth families doesn't make it easier for people to walk away from marriages after 20 years or so. I often tell my kids that when someone does that they walk away not only from the other person, but from the person they were at twenty something as well. When you walk away from the person who shared the births of your children for example, you lose a part of yourself in the process. No future partner will ever know the you you were then. No one else will ever know you quite like your siblings, your parents, your cousins who lived down the road.

I think that one of the reasons that children appreciate books like Little Women, Penderwicks, Swallows and Amazons, and Narnia is that they do realize the importance of family. One of the things that homeschooling does for children is to provide them with a solid family base. In a culture where everything may change several times in the course of a child's growing up this seems to me to be incredibly important.

Very few children still have the experience of living in the same house from the time they were born until they get married. My family moved around in the same general area, but there was a point when I was in college that the joke was that I couldn't go home for the weekend because I wasn't sure where home was. There came a time when I could go to my mom's, but I couldn't go home because I truly had never lived where she was living. Home was where I lived, not where my mom lived. My husband had the opposite experience "the house" is still where he grew up. We still go over to "the house." My children grew up with grandparents around the corner. It has in fact shaped who they are.

I think that all of the moving around my family did (even though it only encompassed three different towns and only 25 miles of distance)and the fact that I now live on the "other side of the state" from where I grew up makes the sense of orphanhood greater for me now. It gets exaggerated by the fact that ten years ago I left the Protestant church we had attended for nearly 20 years and became Catholic. This was a decision that was right and necessary, and yet in a sense it was another sort of separation. The people who knew my children as babies, who attended their baptisms, who watched them sing with the Sunday School for the first time are not the people whom they now worship with on Sunday morning. We sit in pews with strangers, after nearly ten years in the same parish there are only a handful of people I know by name and I still know far more than my kids do. In becoming Catholic I amputated myself from my homeschooling friends, nearly all of whom were evangelical Protestants, I amputated myself from my close high school friends (all of whom were Pentecostal Protestants), I amputated myself from my Intervarsity friends from college.

All of this amputation was difficult, yet when my sister was still alive I felt it less keenly. There was still someone there who knew me when I was in high school youth group, in Intervarsity, even from a distance as a Congregationalist evangelical homeschooler. She saw the continuity in what seemed like radically different decisions. She went to church with me both as a Protestant and as a Catholic. She didn't follow me into the Church and yet she didn't treat me as a pariah. We were sisters, no matter what. She was on my side, no matter what.

Fortunately that's not the whole story. My husband of 31 years has known me for nearly 37. My sister-in-law has known me for 39. I have one Protestant friend (who hasn't abandoned me) whom I've known for 44 years and there are still my cousins who've in fact known me since I was a baby. I have to travel to find those people who knew the little girl me, but at this point in time they are still out there. There are still cousins who went to Grammy's for Thanksgiving, who taught me to play chopsticks on the piano, who showed me how to swing a bucket in a circle without spilling a drop, who locked me in the chicken coop, and scared me with stories about big black dogs. I sometimes feel that I'm the keeper of the memories with them as well, but at least if I tell a story it does seem to awaken the memories with them as well.

Maybe story tellers are meant to be the keepers and recorders of memories. Perhaps we care more about memories, see the value in roots. Perhaps it's just an oldest child thing (although my sister valued memories at least equally). I just suspect that we live in a time and place that is encouraging us to run boldly towards the future while blithely discarding the past. In the process we risk losing not just valuable insights from the past, but pieces of ourselves as well. There are times when change is necessary, when moves are unavoidable, when separations are simply a fact of life. It is important, even then, to figure out which things can be left behind, which relationships were only situational and which are core. It's then important to figure out how to load the spinning wheel, or grandma's old bedstead and the family pictures into the covered wagon and carry them along with us, even if wagon seems a bit more crowded and we'd rather simply reinvent ourselves when we arrive in our new home.


At 6:33 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

What a beautiful post, Liz. Thank you.

At 8:15 PM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

That was beautiful, Aunt Liz. I feel pretty similar to that since Mom passed on; I'm not in quite the same situation as you, but there's still a sense of unshared memories and not being able to go back.

Actually, *sits crosslegged on the floor* will you tell me a story?



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