As the eldest in a large family, I grew up taking care of others. Watching my younger siblings, I learned to develop a sixth sense; I reserved a part of my attention to wander on that periphery where something might flare up among any one of them, at any time.
This ability turned out to be useful during the decade in my young adulthood when I was a teacher. All children share a yearning and striving after something too unformed and unknown to put into words. A great teacher is someone who takes a student’s poor question and, without any embarrassment to the student, transforms it into a profound inquiry with reverberant answers that ripple through the consciousness of the class like circles of water spreading outward in a pond. I wasn’t a great teacher, but I was a good teacher who got my students excited about learning and served as their guide.
All of my life, I have identified with being competent, dependable, responsible. My parents were strict with me and punished me for infractions. I absorbed their lessons and was hard on myself. I didn’t allow myself to make mistakes, and when I made them, I suffered agonies. Self-torture was the price I paid for error. I missed opportunities where others might have helped me because I wouldn’t let them.
There were times when I wanted help, and I didn’t get it. For a long time I was frustrated and unhappy. It took a paid professional—my therapist—to tell me that I didn’t get the help I wanted because I never appeared as though I needed it. His observation stunned me. I thought others could tell when I felt needy and vulnerable. Apparently not. I had learned to conceal my feelings. I thought neediness ugly and repellent, and I was afraid of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable meant letting my defenses down, leaving myself open for attack.
It’s often said that to be loved, one must be a lovable person, someone who knows
how to love. It’s the same with receiving help. To an extent, it’s knowing how to ask. That was hard for me, because I always thought I had to be in charge. From my parents I had learned that any help they gave was in exchange for something else. They expected a return, and often I thought the price was too high. The help they gave wasn’t really help at all. It was barter.
I knew that not everyone was like them, but my fear of this transaction infected my
interactions with others. When I needed help, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it until I was desperate. When I did ask, it was with the expectation that the price would be too great, or else I would be turned down. The cycle fed on itself: my defeatist attitude ensured that I would be defeated.
And sometimes I was guilty of the same behavior that I deplored in my parents. I
asked for help as if I were extracting a promise, and when I met with resentment in return, I only had myself to blame. That was another of my misperceptions.
In time I have come to see that the best help of all is that which arrives like a gift when we are in need, without our having asked for it. I think it is more common than we realize, but we are not always able to know it for what it is and benefit from it. It might come from a humbler source than we care to acknowledge. Or it might seem so obvious as to invite dismissal. It might not be what we had thought we needed at all, and yet it turns out to be exactly right.
How can we recognize this help when it is offered, and how can we profit from it? I
think it comes from cultivating an outer alertness and inner attention that clarifies our perceptions and sharpens our sensibilities. In order to receive help, we must be prepared to accept it and learn from it.
One day at the height of summer when I was sixty years old, I was in distress, and
my mind was poisoned by evil thoughts. I was still in shock from having been laid off three weeks previously after seventeen-and-a-half years at the same job. After so long and successful a tenure, I thought I had proved myself valuable, if not indispensable. It is true that I was valuable to many people. But not to the people who made the decisions. At least not valuable enough.
And so one Friday morning at the end of June, I came into work, and no sooner had
I gotten myself settled at my desk, turned on my computer, checked my email and listened to my messages than I got a call from the Executive Director to come to his office. As I knocked on his closed door, I gave his Administrative Secretary a quizzical look, and she averted her glance. And so I walked into the trap that had been prepared for me. Afterwards, people commiserated, “When one door closes, another opens.” I believed this to be true, but I also knew that I hadn’t quite closed that door, even if it had been closed on me.
That day in mid-July, the loss of my job was a constant source of distress in the
background of my thoughts, but there was something more immediate that was causing me misery. The previous weekend all the contents of my parents’ house—all that my sisters and I had not taken, and that was most of it—were sold at an estate sale that had been arranged by my two sisters, Mimi and Lois, who were the executors under the terms of my father’s will. The sale took place in our parents’ house in Alabama, and none of us were there. However, on the second day of the sale, I received a text message from a distant relative by marriage, who had gone to the sale with her husband Gordon:
“Just left the estate sale. While we were there, a guest found 3 envelopes of cash money. He returned it to Ron May. Gordon overheard Ron tell him that this has
been happening all day….Thinks he said 2500$ and a box of silver dollars. This was
not including what Gordon saw the man returning, I’m guessing. Just fyi. We
thought you should know. (Sale ends in 15 mins.) Love you, Hayley.”
I called Hayley, and she turned the phone over to Gordon, who told me his story. He
saw a man with a box of household items in one hand and three envelopes in the other
come up to Ron May, whom my sisters had hired to run the sale. Gordon noticed the man because his attitude was secretive and excited. “He said to Ron, ‘Look, I want to show you something,’ and he pulled out the envelopes, and there was a wad of cash,” Gordon reported to me. “It was all very hush-hush. I pretended to look around so they wouldn’t notice me staring at them, but I was eavesdropping.” Then he repeated what Hayley had texted: “Ron said that this had been happening all day, and he mentioned 2500$ and something about a box of silver dollars. The man asked, ‘What can you do for me?’ and Gordon peeled off a fifty and gave it to him, ‘That’s your finder’s fee,’ he said, ‘and you can have what’s in that box you’re holding for free.’”
I asked Gordon what the man’s name was, but he hadn’t caught it. He repeated what
he had said, as if for emphasis, and then handed the phone to his wife. She said to me, “I think you ought to let Ron May know what you know. Because my guess is, he won’t tell you.”
“No. He looks like a slick operator to me, and Gordon thinks so, too.”
I thanked her and hung up, pondering what they had said. Was it like my father to
keep so much cash in the house? When my father died, he was 89 years old, with advanced Parkinson’s disease. He couldn’t drive any more, and he might have wanted to keep cash in the house in case of an emergency. His disease had affected his mind and his judgment, as well as his body. I thought it entirely possible that he might have stashed cash in envelopes in different places and then forgotten about them.
Perhaps in that way he had accumulated $2,500. As for the silver dollars, I remembered him showing me some that he had when I was a child. I had owned silver dollars, too, given to me by my grandparents as gifts, that I kept in a sterling silver piggy bank that was one of my baby presents. I didn’t know what had happened to Dad’s silver dollars, nor did I know what had happened to mine. When I had gone off to college, I had left the silver piggy bank on a shelf in my closet, and one day when I was home on vacation, I noticed that it was missing. I had my suspicions, but I never learned what had happened to it or its contents.
As for my father, he was nothing if not tenacious, and he had not gone off and left
his silver dollars unattended, as I had. I thought it entirely possible that he had them hidden away in a box somewhere, and that my sisters and I had overlooked them, as well as his paper money. We had had very little time to go through the house in preparation for the sale, and there had been a lot to go through.
I had never met Ron May or spoken to him, but I took his contact information off
his website and called him. An answering machine picked up, and I left a message,
identifying myself. I suspected he would not call me back. Then I called my sister Mimi and told her what Hayley and Gordon had said. She expressed skepticism. She reminded me that Ron May was recommended by our father’s attorney. I replied that I did not know what to believe, but I didn’t see what motive the Moores would have for fabricating their story. “I think you should contact Ron May,” I told her. “You and Lois are the ones who hired him, and he has the relationship with you. I also think you should hear what Gordon has to say.”
A little while later, Mimi called me back. She said she had spoken to Ron May. He
told her that there was $500 in the three envelopes the man had brought him. When Mimi told him what Gordon had said, he insisted that he had been talking about other estate sales.
He claimed he had said, “This happens all the time,” instead of “This has been happening all day.” Mimi also reported, “He did admit to giving a finder’s fee of $50 to the man, as well as all the stuff he was carrying for free. He takes a 25 percent cut, and he says he’s entitled to 25 percent of the cash that was found. I don’t really agree,” Mimi admitted, “but I don’t see what we can do about it.”
It wasn’t truly necessary for me to inform Lois as well as Mimi. I could count on
Mimi to tell Lois about my phone call. Yet I wanted to speak to Lois. The Moores’ story had disturbed me. I didn’t want to believe what they said, but I felt I had to take them seriously. I was better acquainted with them than my sisters were, because I had entertained them the previous autumn during their trip to New York. I knew them to be honest, well-meaning people who had been deeply attached to our father.
I was surprised by how unsettled I felt during the weekend of the estate sale. Even
before Hayley texted me, I had continually thought of it taking place far away in Alabama. I had not expected to react this way. Along with my sisters, I had selected what was important to me of our parents’ belongings. There was a lot left, including all of the furniture, because it wasn’t valuable enough to justify the shipping expenses to our distant homes. None of us had claimed our mother’s wedding china or our grandmother’s. We already had our own sets of dishes and no space for extra storage. My father had not touched any of my mother’s clothes after she died, and so there were all of her clothes and my father’s, too, which did not fit us or our husbands. None of it I cared deeply about, but still I was surprised by how upset I was at the thought of our parents’ lives being dismantled in this way. Except for the more valuable items, I had wanted to donate our parents’ clothes, housewares, and furniture to a local charity. I had researched possibilities—Community Furniture Bank, Home for the Homeless, Goodwill Industries—and sent my sisters emails about them. They ignored me.
They were determined to sell everything they could, and what was left over after the estate sale, they had decided to place on consignment. I felt bad at the thought that Ron May might be stealing from our family. Superstitiously I wondered if it were bad karma for having sold what would have been better to have given away. I kept this thought to myself, knowing that everyone but I would think it preposterous. However, I still wanted to speak to Lois, but she didn’t return my call.
Instead, she sent a group email:
“The sale was a success. Ron estimates that 1,100 people came through over
the weekend. Almost all items were sold. The sale brought in $10,348.50.
Ron’s commission is $2,587. He’ll be sending us a check made out to the
estate for $7,761. He does not provide an itemized accounting, but will
include a letter summarizing the sale along with the check. Mimi will scan the
letter and post on our Google drive. Ron is taking care of removing the items
that are left and cleaning the house.
I emailed her back, “Hi Lois, there is something I need to talk to you about. I left
you a message yesterday. I’ll call you tonight.”
When I called again, I got sent straight to her voice mail. The next day I
received an email from her: “Hi Adrienne. Mimi and I talked and she filled me in. She has followed up with Ron.”
Clearly, Lois was avoiding me. I can be as tenacious as my father, and I wasn’t ready to give up. I wrote back, “Hi Lois, I’ve been trying to reach you but am without success.”
I felt frustrated. By now, I was more upset by the fact that Lois refused to speak
to me than by what the Moores had said. Clearly, Lois didn’t want to talk to me, and she thought that she didn’t have to. My feelings plummeted, exacerbated by memories of my previous conversation with Lois.
After I was laid off, I had called her, seeking sympathy. She was familiar with my
work, which was fundraising for a not-for-profit agency providing social services. After years in local government, Lois also worked for a not-for-profit in Berkeley, California, as Director of Operations. I had thought that she would commiserate with me.
But she didn’t come across as sympathetic—or sympathetic enough. She said she was sorry, and then she declared, “They must have wanted to get rid of you.” She proceeded to tell me about someone at her job “they” had wanted “to get rid of” and how they had done it—“not like you,” she said, but then I wondered why she was telling me about it.
She was showing me her cold, managerial side. She clearly identified with the ones who “had gotten rid of” me. That was her job. She saw it from their point of view, not mine.
And then came the part of our conversation that I regretted the most—about money. I had never asked Lois how much money she made, and she had never asked me. I knew she probably made more money than I did, and I knew that her husband made more money than my husband. But we never discussed it. I thought that she thought that I probably made more money than I did, and I wanted to keep it that way.
But then, in the midst of our conversation, she asked me how much money I made, and I told her. And immediately wished I hadn’t.
She didn’t tell me how much money she made, and I didn’t ask her. Part of me wanted to ask her, but I was afraid that if I knew, I would be more upset, because it might be so much more money than I made, and yet she complained about the cut she had taken when she moved from city government to a not-for-profit. I thought she had sounded arrogant when she said, “But I’m going to take care of that when I negotiate my next contract. I told them I’m leaving, but I’ll continue as a consultant. Now they’ll have to pay me what I’m worth.”
It seemed to me then that Lois was rubbing salt in my wound by reminding me that she was negotiating more money for her work, whereas I was jobless. In my blacker moments, I believed that Lois thought that she was better than I. By not returning my calls, she was sending me a message: she didn’t have to call me back. Her time was valuable, and mine was not. She didn’t have time for me, and she didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
She was forcing me to correspond the way she wanted, by group emails. Emails are useful—I send as many of them as the next person—but this was one of those times that I wanted to talk first. I didn’t want to involve our sister Stacy until I had discussed the Moores’ allegations with Lois as well as Mimi. Stacy was a loose cannon. We’d all been affected by her explosions in the past.
I felt the way I used to feel as a child when I had tried and failed to get a response from one or the other of our parents. It seemed that no one wanted to hear what I had to say—not at my former job, not my own sister.
Lois sent another group email:
Mimi and I have spoken at length about what happened. Mimi has spoken
with Ron several times as well as with Gordon. Gordon told Mimi that he overheard portions of a conversation that Ron was having. Ron said that Gordon took incomplete comments out of context. Ron said the customer found envelopes with $500 in them. He said he made a few statements to the customer about finding money at other sales, silver coins, stocks and bonds, etc. Mimi and I feel comfortable that Ron is being truthful with us. He is operating a 30-year old family business and conducts estate sales almost weekly. I don’t intend to pursue this any further.”
Lois didn’t sign the email and I could hear her annoyance between the lines. I
thought to myself, She is willing to talk to everyone but me. By now, my hurt had deepened; it wasn’t about the sale or the money or who was telling the truth, Gordon or Ron.
It was about us—Lois and me. Even though I knew that this kind of thinking would only bring me damage, I couldn’t stop myself. I was on a downward spiral of depression. It was in this state of mind that I went berry picking at a U-Pic-Em place in Connecticut. It was a hot, sunny day—a beautiful day—but my spirits were low as I drove the scenic country roads, lined with farms and fields, old homes, green lawns, and flourishing trees. Normally I love being on my own, on an expedition, but that day I couldn’t seem to shake the gloom that settled over me.
A sign for the berry farm led me off the road down a makeshift drive formed by two ruts across a field. There was a parking area next to an open wooden structure in the midst of rows and rows of berry bushes. I pulled in—there was only one other car. The wooden structure consisted of three walls, a roof, and a high, open counter behind which sat a pretty young woman in a green-and-yellow sundress and a boy about ten or eleven years old. In response to my query, she told me the prices by weight, and she handed me a plastic gallon jug with the top cut off.
“For the blueberries,” she said. “I want to pick raspberries first,” I told her. “I’ll pick blueberries afterwards, if I have time.”
“You’ll have to look for the raspberries,” she said. “There are only four rows, and
they’ve been picked through.”
“I came for raspberries,” I said. “I already have some, but I need more to make jam.”
“You’ll find some,” she assured me, “look low down.” She handed me two pint-
sized cardboard boxes. “Are these enough?”
“They should be.”
The buzzing of insects rose and fell in crescendos. The sun blazed on the rows of ripening fruit. In addition to the berry bushes were apple, peach, and apricot trees. Yet the woman in the sundress had said there would be no peaches this year. On the way to the raspberries, I passed the peach trees, with their dark, glossy leaves, and I wondered why they weren’t fruiting. I hadn’t asked her.
At this farm they pruned their raspberry bushes to chest height. I squatted low to the ground, looking under the crepey, bright green, serrated leaves for the globed berries, red and soft and ripe enough to slip off their stems into my hand and then into the box.
Gradually, the box began to fill up. I needn’t have worried; there would be enough berries. Sweat trickled down my back, but I didn’t mind: I am a child of Alabama, and the heat rarely bothers me. Normally, berry picking is a relaxing, meditative activity for me, but today I couldn’t seem to escape my miseries. I thought about my lost job. I remembered my father’s comments to me that were not complimentary. I pondered Lois’s feelings of superiority over me, recalling that, several weeks ago, Mimi had called me to complain about Lois. I had refused to take sides, and Mimi had been furious with me. Now, I thought, I know how Mimi felt. Despondently, I considered my family and our losses and how sad it all was.
I filled one box with raspberries and started another, and yet I couldn’t seem to calm down the way I usually did. Like a cat chasing its tail, my agitated thoughts circled one another, going nowhere.
Sitting on the ground, I watched an orange-and-black butterfly alight on a leaf and fold and unfold its wings. Like a dancer, it slowly lifted one threadlike leg and set it down. A dragonfly hovered in the air, and sunlight reflected off its translucent wings, revealing their delicate pattern of scales. Why can’t I be happy? I wondered. The world is so beautiful, and now I don’t have a job, I have time to enjoy it, at least for the summer.
But dark thoughts whirred and buzzed in my mind, like insect wings. Gnats flew at my eyes, and I shooed them away. I filled the second box of raspberries, and I brought both boxes to be weighed.
“So you didn’t have trouble finding any,” the woman in the sundress commented.
“No, and there’s plenty more if anyone else comes,” I said, gazing around the parking area. The other car had left, and there was only mine. “You’re right. You can still find berries under the leaves.”
She weighed my berries. I said that I planned to store them in the cooler I had in the trunk of my car, while I picked blueberries. I said plastic bags would be fine.
“You have to be careful about the berries smashing when you put them in the cooler,” she warned me.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m going to make jam when I get home.”
“Oh, I love to cook!” she exclaimed with real enthusiasm. She turned to the boy, who was drawing something on a piece of paper. “We should make some jam, what do you say?”
“Is he your son?” I asked, though she looked too young to be his mother.
“No, he’s my fiancé’s cousin. They own this farm. I’m helping out, and he’s keeping
me company. He’s my best friend. Aren’t you, Bobby?” she turned to him, smiling. He put
down his crayons and grinned back at her. “I don’t know what I’d do without him. It would be really lonely here all day.”
“I usually like being alone,” I admitted. “I came here to be by myself and relax, but I
can’t seem to. I’m too upset.” I’m not sure what inspired me to confide in her. It was an impulse. She had an open, friendly face, and I warmed to her smile.
“You’d be surprised how many people come here when they’re unhappy,” she said. “I see it a lot.”
“I’ve had a rough time. I lost my job after seventeen-and-a-half years.”
“I lost my job, too,” she said. “I know what that’s like.”
“How did you get through it?”
She shook her head. “I was a personal trainer in Philadelphia. The gyms there—well,
they take advantage of you. I didn’t like it, so they let me go.” She sighed. “I hit rock-
bottom. My bank account was less than zero. It’s a long story. I was weak. But I’m much
better now. I have faith, and that changed me. I don’t know how you feel about that.”
She looked at me as if she expected I might argue with her. I noticed that she was
wearing a cross around her neck.
“I believe in God,” I said. “I try to, anyway. And I recognize the power that faith can
have. I have seen it too many times not to believe it.”
Obeying the urge to confide, I went on, “It’s not only my job. My father died at the end of February, nearly two years after my mother. I have a lot of sisters, and we’re going through this emotional stuff getting ready to sell the house. It’s not easy. I
feel that my youngest sister thinks she’s better than I am, because she has a job, and I don’t, and she makes more money than I did at my job. She can’t be bothered to return my phone calls.” And I told her about the estate sale, and what had happened, and about my termination, and what Lois had said.
She listened carefully. “A lot of people feel that way,” she said. “They think they’re
better if they make more money. But it’s not true. Everyone is equal. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. It doesn’t make you a better person. I have sisters, too,” she went on. “I know it can get very complicated. After I lost my job, I was driving past my sister’s house. I hadn’t seen her for years, and I drove past, and then I changed my mind. I went back to see her. I was standing at the screen door, and she was on the other side, and she wouldn’t let me in.”
“I told you, I was weak. I was crying, and she didn’t want to know about it.”
“Did she think you wanted to stay with her?”
The woman shook her head. “No, she knew I didn’t. My mother said, ‘Why did you
go see her?’”
“Why not?” I interjected. “She is your sister.”
“I don’t get along with my mother,” she admitted. “Like I told you, I was weak, and
I let people take advantage of me. And my mother doesn’t understand what I’m doing. Like now. She doesn’t understand why I’m working here and not getting paid. But it’s my fiancé’s family’s business, and when we get married, it will be my business, too, and I want to help out. She doesn’t get it. But I’m much stronger now, and I don’t care.”
“You’ll be all right,” she declared. “It doesn’t matter what your sister said, or what
she thinks. It doesn’t matter about your job. You have to believe in yourself and be strong.”
“Thank you for telling me. I needed to hear it,” I replied. And simple as her message
was, I realized that I felt better for the first time in days.
“I’m hot,” I said. “Is there a place around here to go swimming—a lake with public access?”
“There’s a pond on the property. It’s really beautiful. You could go swimming there.”
“Really?” I was astounded. “Have you swum there?”
“No, but I’ve thought about it. It’s hard to get to. There are grasses growing all around it, no beach or anything. You’ll have to find a way in.”
“Where is it? I think I might be able to do it. And I have a bathing suit in the car.”
“See those trees?” She pointed at a row of poplars marking the edge of the lower field. “If you walk around them, you’ll see the pond. Have you gone swimming there?” she turned to ask the boy, who had been listening to our conversation.
“I have,” he said, “but you have to be careful. There are snakes and snapping turtles.”
“Oh, boy,” I said. “Do you think I’ll be okay?”
He shrugged. “Probably. But maybe you shouldn’t go.”
“Let me think about it,” I said. “I’ll pick the blueberries first.”
The blueberries were as abundant as the raspberries were picked through. On tall bushes with sage-green leaves, they grew in clumps, the berries turning from green to purply blue, and came off in my hand easily. It did not take me long to fill the gallon jug with ripe fruit. I felt like a different person, picking the blueberries. I had stopped obsessing about my sister and my job. Was it really so simple?
“I’m just going to go look at the pond,” I said, when I brought my blueberries to be weighed.
“You probably shouldn’t go swimming there,” the boy said again.
“You’re probably right,” I agreed.
I walked on the edge of the field, down the line of trees, and then doubled back to
look at the pond, which the trees hid from view. Fringed by tall grasses, it was larger than I expected and lay cool and inviting, shimmering like a mirror in the late afternoon summer light. Sadly, I said goodbye to it. Despite the woman’s impulsive invitation, there were too many reasons I could think of why I shouldn’t accept it.
“I guess I better get going,” I said, when I returned. I wrote a check for the berries and put down my phone number. If she ever wanted to, she would know how to get in touch with me.
“Thanks for talking to me. I feel a lot better. I really mean that.”
“You’ll get better and better,” she said. “I know you will.”
As I was driving, I saw a sign for a local Audubon refuge and on the spur of the moment decided to visit. There was a map in the parking lot depicting a bog trail, a duck blind, a raptors aviary, and other features. I headed towards the bog trail, which was a boardwalk through wetlands. The flies and mosquitoes and gnats were fierce, and after
awhile I left the bog for the duck blind.
I watched two mallards swim lazily in a pond in a haze of golden light, and then I
came to the raptors aviary. It consisted of a dozen cages holding raptors of all descriptions arranged in two rows back to back. A sign proclaimed that all of the birds had suffered permanent damage inflicted by humans that would prevent them from surviving in the wild, and they were being maintained in the aviary for study purposes.
There was a red-tailed hawk, a crow, a raven, and a huge, ugly turkey buzzard, its
bare pink head and neck wattled and wrinkled. There was a little screech owl and a large barred owl with golden irises rimming dark pupils. There was a Cooper’s hawk, a bald eagle, and a small peregrine falcon with feathers like black-and-white bars. I walked slowly in an oval around the cages, and some of the birds looked back at me, and others ignored me.
The raptors aviary awoke in me a complicated response, and I knew I wouldn’t forget it.
That night I started to make my jam—raspberry first, and blueberry the next morning. I sterilized the jars in the oven, boiled water for pressure canning, measured the berries and crushed them with a potato masher, and measured the sugar. Into a heavy pot went the crushed berries, pectin, and a teaspoon of butter. I turned up the heat and stirred
the mixture until it was liquid and bright scarlet, studded with seeds. When it began to boil, I added the sugar all at once.
This was my favorite part of the process: watching the mixture turn from scarlet to crimson, as the melting sugar added depth and substance, shine and darkness. I breathed in the sweet, hot, fruity fragrance of the jam cooking, and when it came to a boil again, I stirred it vigorously until I couldn’t stir down the boil any longer. I turned off the heat and skimmed off the layer of scum that had risen to the top. Then I poured the jam into the clean sterilized jars, wiped the rims, and sealed them with pressurized lids or melted paraffin wax.
I boiled the jars with pressurized lids under water for twenty-five minutes and fished them out with sturdy tongs, careful not to splash myself. For the other jars I cut curlicues of string, laid them on the hardened wax, and poured another melted layer over them, leaving one end of the string free for easy removal.
While I was making the jam, I felt engaged, too busy to think about anything else.
Days later I succeeded in having a conversation with Lois. It was not a success. Before we spoke, we were already angry with each other—I with her for avoiding me, and she with me for demanding that she speak with me. She made excuses for herself—how she was busy at her job, how her daughter was unhappy at her job, how occupied she was with
the renovation of her house.
“I’m not interested in hearing about all that,” I said coldly. Usually I would have been sympathetic, but that day I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. “I asked you to call
me back, and you avoided me.”
“I didn’t need to talk to you. Mimi is handling the house and its contents. And I didn’t like what you said about Ron May.”
“I don’t know him. I never met him. I don’t have any opinions about him. But Gordon is family, at least by marriage, and he made a serious allegation that I felt I had to respond to it seriously. That’s why I wanted to speak to you.”
“I emailed you instead.”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“I prefer emails.”
“And I’m sick and tired of the emails.”
“So what are you saying? You’re not going to read my emails?”
“I’m not saying that. I’m saying I’m tired of being managed like someone who works
for you. I’m not your employee. I’m your sister.”
As I said, it was not a successful conversation. After I hung up, I thought about the
woman at the berry farm and her advice. The good feeling she had engendered in me had lingered for a while, but it had not lasted. I knew I could be a better person, and I felt bad about what I had said to Lois.
She sent another group email.
As you know, I will be in Alabama next week overseeing the installation of the carpets and painting before the house is put up for sale. Please remind me if you left anything at the house that needs to be taken care of when I am there. I know there is a box of letters that needs to be mailed to our cousin in Australia, but I can’t remember what else was left.
I wrote back to her, titling the email “Apology” in the subject line:
I’m sorry I got upset with you. It’s been a hard time for me and I hope we can move on, and that your trip is a success. You asked about ‘stuff.’ There is a box of thousands of color slides that I packed from Dad’s carousels in May. At that time, you said you would ship the box to me when you were next in Alabama.
It would be a terrible shame if all that history were thrown in the trash. I only had time to examine a few of the slides. I was packing them the morning of the day I left, and I was in a big hurry.
I was still a little angry with Lois; I could feel it when I wrote the email, and it accounted for the stiffness of my language. I was sorry for what I had said, and I could feel that my anger had dissipated, but I still didn’t trust myself entirely.
Lois wrote back:
“Adrienne—it is ok. Thanks for your email. I know it has been a hard time for you. I try to be as responsive as possible, but lately I have felt like I am just trying to get through each day without dropping too many balls.
I will definitely ship the color slide box to you. I will try to call you from Alabama. Now, I am off to pack. Will be glad when the week is over.
Friends you can choose, sisters are forever. Since our parents’ deaths, we have interests in common, which are being separated. When the house is sold, and the assets are divided, there will be nothing material yoking us any longer. We will continue to be connected by blood, by upbringing, by shared memories.
Our parents left us a complicated legacy. They paid lip service to unity and sowed division. They didn’t care about fairness, and they weren’t fair. My father had a limited imagination, and my mother perhaps had too much, susceptible as she was to paranoia.
When it came to siblings, they were novices. Neither had sisters. My father was an only child, and my mother had only one brother from whom she was estranged. In this, as in so many other things, they were not the best guides for us.
We have laid them to rest with their flaws and their fears, the love that they needed and didn’t get, the love they got and didn’t value, or didn’t value enough. In looking forward, I also look back. I remember a conversation I had more than thirty years ago with my great-aunt Helen, my mother’s brother’s sister, who lived in North Hollywood, California.
My husband and I were in our young adulthood, and we were traveling. So much lay ahead of us, including the decision to have a child. Aunt Helen did not understand what had happened to my family. She knew that Mimi was troubled, because Mimi had stayed with her on several occasions when she was at business school at UCLA, and she had observed Mimi’s eating disorders that compelled her to starve herself during the day and raid the refrigerator in secret.
“We left her in our apartment when we went away for the weekend,” Aunt Helen told me, “and when we came back the freezer was half-empty, but still she wouldn’t eat with us. Your mother says she’s allergic, but I don’t think your parents know what’s going on. Mimi pulled the wool over their eyes.”
Even then I knew that Mimi’s food problems had their source with our parents and their obsession with weight and appearance, their desire that we remain like little girls, instead of developing into women.
I opened up to Aunt Helen that day. I told her about Mimi’s problems, about Stacy’s problems. I described the conflicts that had fractured our family and broken us apart.
Aunt Helen had only one son, a conscientious objector who had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada. She and my uncle had supported him, and she would have given anything to have been close to him, but he had turned his back on her and his father. Aunt Helen listened attentively to the catalogue of my family’s woes.
“Your mother threw her children away,” she commented, and there was a well of sadness in her voice.
I had never thought of it in quite that way, but I realized that she was right.
When Aunt Helen died a widow, she made her son her executor. If he were to predecease her, her second choice was my mother. In addition, she left all of us small legacies.
My mother was taken by surprise. “Imagine that!” she exclaimed. She said she had no idea that Aunt Helen had valued her so highly. In her voice I discerned a note of fear or dread that somehow she didn’t measure up to Aunt Helen’s estimation of her.
It took me aback. My mother was usually so well defended that I had never glimpsed so clearly her deep reservoir of inadequacy. It occurred to me that her attacks on us were motivated by this lack, as well as by her dissatisfaction with our father, and this realization complicated my resentment of her by arousing my pity for her.
Looking back, I am able to understand better how in taking care of others, I was cared for as well. Now the tables have turned, and my younger sisters, Mimi and Lois, as executors of our father’s estate, are taking care of things for me, and thus are taking care of me as well.
It might not be my way, but that is their prerogative. And though at times I might grow “sick and tired” of group emails, I recognize that my sisters are seeking to discharge their obligations in a spirit of cooperation that is new in our family.
One of my yoga teachers once said, “Happiness cannot be owned, earned, worn, or consumed. It’s the act of living every single day with love, grace, and gratitude for what you already have.” I am grateful for my sisters, and I am grateful for people like the woman at the berry farm who appear in my life like angels to remind me that I can reate my own strength, my own peace:
There never was a war that was
not inward; I must
fight till I have conquered in myself what