A Shared Sister’s Whisper
I grew up with three sisters. There were many whispers and a few shouts.
Christine arrived first. I came eighteen months later. Jill and Vanessa joined us after a one year pause and settled in within thirteen months of each other.
As one of four girls in a five year span, sharing is all I knew. Christine and I shared a bedroom for my entire childhood. Our twin maple beds waited for us when we came home from college and an updated set anticipates our annual summer visit.
Chris read Nancy Drew mysteries after Mom and Dad kissed us good-night. I was not much of a reader, so instead I stuffed candy under my bed during the day and enjoyed munching on it in the still of the night as I interpreted the shadows on our bedroom wall. The two of us shared clothes and make-up. I preferred brightly colored paisley scarves and Yardley’s groovy powder blue eye shadow. Chris had a favorite Navy blue mini skirts and sparingly applied Maybelline’s charcoal mascara. In high school she and I shared a Latin class. My translations were much better because of her assistance. Chris let me borrow her blue gym suit when mine was in a ball at the bottom of my gym locker, too disgusting to wear. We went on double dates and whispered boy secrets late into the night. They are still in our adult vaults.
When my late husband David was in his ill-fated car accident, Chris flew from her home in California to help take care of my young children in Lancaster while I went back and forth to the hospital in Philadelphia. She shared my blue winter parka when she walked our dog Harry. I know because I discovered a used pack of matches from her secret late night smoking walks.I laughed when I felt the soft cardboard in the side pocket after she went back to her family.
Chris and I shared the death of my husband. We didn’t analyze our feelings. She simply showed up. We recently shared the loss of our mother. Time had pushed us to the front of the line. It still troubles me.
Just like our childhood, our styles are different, but we are connected by love.
Sometimes I like to send her some of my creative nonfiction pieces before I submit them. She has a keen grammar eye and gives excellent constructive comments. It is a fun shared activity.
Recently Chris told me she wrote a story about our beloved neighbor Hilda in her on-line Stanford University spiritual writing course. I begged her to share it with me. After she sent it, I asked her if I could share her piece on my blog.
So for my March post, I am proudly sharing my sister’s grief experience. Chris’s writing is a beautiful tribute to our beloved neighbor Hilda.
Death comes with many different rituals and customs of comfort and condolence. Judaism observes shiva; the week long mourning after the body is buried. Sitting shiva, the family receives visitors offering comfort, prayer and often food. The Irish wake is a glorious celebration of the deceased’s life with food and drink and fond remembrances. Many Christians observe the tradition of the viewing the day before the funeral where the family receives visitors at the funeral home and mourners file by the body to say their good-byes.
Thalen died in February, but it was March before I could make the trip from the west coast to the small village in central New York where I grew up, to visit Hilda, his wife of 50 years. I had missed the funeral and all the rituals of the Catholic Church. I was returning home to sit with Hilda, hoping to bring a measure of comfort.
As the plane touched down in Albany I could see the dirty remnants of the winter snows. I took a deep breath. Coming home was weighted with so many memories. But change had not often intruded on the village of Ames. The house where I grew up was still there and my Mom and Dad returned to it every spring from Florida. Hilda and Thalen lived down the street, in the white house with the black shutters, my entire life. I logged many hours on their porch and babysat for their only daughter, Kathy, who now also lived in California. The old Methodist church we attended sits across the street. Hilda went to the Catholic Church in town.
Now, no Thalen. I thought about that as I drove my rental car down the Thruway towards home. Death is, at its most elemental, the absence of physical presence. But it is the loss. The loss of the person, the loss of the known, the loss of part of your history. Here I was, half a century into my life and had experienced very little death, very little loss. And I frankly did not know what to do. I felt restless, a little unmoored and wished I still smoked. My mind skipped off in random directions. Shouldn’t I be murmuring a quiet prayer rather than wishing I had a cigarette? Isn’t your faith supposed to kick in like a strong espresso? Where was God when you needed her? Or, more importantly, where was that urgent feeling of needing her? I had come bearing comfort. I had not anticipated questions and doubts.
Route 10 wound its way into Ames. The Welcome to Ames sign straddled the ditch. At the four corners I took a left past Mrs. Anderson’s store. Mrs. Anderson hadn’t been there for years, but history is hard to erase in a small village. The Baptist and Methodist churches, both white and stately stood side by side on the left. The buckled concrete sidewalk right in front of the church driveway was still there to trip over. Almost every Sunday of my childhood we would walk down that sidewalk to church. And someone, myself or one of my three sisters, would inevitably trip over that buckled corner of concrete. And my mother would inevitably say with some annoyance, “For heavens sakes, you know that is there!”
You know that is there. My mind stopped and rested on that phrase. This road, this sidewalk, this village, my house, Hilda, I knew they were there. That church where my faith took root, I knew it was there. Death is such a big, general thing, so very hard to grab onto. But loss is very specific. You can reach out and touch it. You know that it is there. I turned into Hilda’s driveway.
I woke early upstairs in Kathy’s old bedroom. I came down here the day I got married. Away from all the preparations that were going on at my house and sat in this bedroom, hair in curlers, and took sips of Scotch from the bottle Kathy had secreted in her hope chest. Hope is the thing with feathers/ that perches in the soul. Those words floated up unbidden. Mrs. Lathers, our English teacher had loved Emily Dickinson. She would have been pleased that somewhere in my 11th grade memory that had remained.
Hope and faith. One seems rooted in the uncertainty of the future while the other in the certainty of belief. Hilda had a steadfast belief, her red rosary the concrete manifestation of that faith. She so easily reached out and touched her faith.” How do you get there?” I wondered. I remember in my smug college days talking to Hilda on the porch about religion. I was taking a course and was therefore a newly minted expert. It’s like basketball, Christine. If you’re going to play you have to shoot.
Basketball was created in the dead of winter. A Canadian doctor devised it for the YMCA to keep young athletes in shape during the indoor cold months. It was played with peach baskets and a ball more like today’s soccer ball. There was no dribbling originally, just passing and shooting. I played basketball all through both high school and college. Hilda would often come and watch the girls team play. You have to shoot.
We sat in the living room, Hilda in her old brown recliner and I took the sofa. Her glasses slipped down her nose as she studied the schedule. It was March and that meant college basketball tournament. If there was something Hilda and I could share hope about, it was basketball. We sat and watched game after game. Pots of tea and cookies came and went. Hilda kept a running tally of the winners. I kept the snacks coming. Two people who had done this many times before, now sitting and doing it together. What did these games mean? Not much in the big picture. What did sitting with Hilda at this time in this place? I’d say everything. Faith was seated in the recliner, hope was on the sofa, paying close attention.
It was Saturday, but Hilda’s church was doing a special, private mass for Thalen. As was often the case in March, rain was blowing in sharp, wet gusts. I held Hilda’s arm as we made our way to the car. Hilda’s head was covered with the red patterned scarf that she wrapped around her perm for as long as I can remember.
Chapel veils were deemed unnecessary in the Catholic Church in the 1970s. Hilda was respectful of every decision made by the church, but maintained the traditions that had supported her faith. The red patterned scarf was staying. I remember as college students we were amused by this stalwart behavior. And dismissive of the importance. Now, I am not so sure. It almost seems radical in its traditional faith. What are the faith-based traditions that I maintain? Going to church has been inconsistent. Prayer is not part of my daily life. When I reach out what will be there?
As we pulled into the parking lot, the gang of six approached, Hilda’s friends from the Ladies Aide Society. Each grey head scarfed, plain button down raincoats and sensible shoes. Just looking at them made me feel safe. They took Hilda from me and walked her into the church with whispered reassurances, pats on the back and matching deliberate steps. This was faith, this was grace, this was hope in sensible shoes.
We all sat in a small, stuffy room behind the chapel. Father was there in his white robe. Hilda reached for my hand and held on tightly. Her hand was warm and soft. This hand had held me as a baby, given me orange popsicles as a child and waved a stern finger at me as Charlie Young tried to climb out the window at the end of a babysitting night. She always knew. Father droned on in Latin. In the quiet moments of prayer I looked at Hilda and her friends through half closed eyes. They were talking to God, simply, easily, and comfortably. Something in me stirred. Something I could reach out and touch.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Christine Burgess Gordon
Hilda died on Mother’s Day 2014. I reluctantly whispered good-bye.
Chris, Jill, Vanessa and I will forever share our memories of our life-long neighbor, best cherry pie baker and supreme arm chair college basketball cheerleader.
We love you Hilda. I hope you are enjoying the March Madness.