We strolled among acres of tulips, fields spreading out like a quilt of electric color. It was a Pacific Northwest spring day unlike most, sun warming our faces and magnifying bright hues of flowers. Marinell gazed over the swaths of color, a smile warming her hazel eyes. Allanya noted varieties of tulips, making a list of those she might purchase. I was clicking away, each picture a frame of transient beauty captured. Flower season is not lengthy; blossoms wither and fall. The purpose of flowers, after all, is not to last forever but to offer pollen to bees who pollinate so next year we get to witness another display of beauty. The Cascade Mountains rose above Skagit County tulip fields in a show of stark permanency amidst the temporal, echoing our shared family moments.
My sisters and I have had a years-long tradition of allotting time together each spring, a “sisters getaway”, generally a long week-end freed of work and family obligations. M. is thirteen years older than I am, old enough to have helped my mother care for me when I was born. She has lived in the Seattle area for twenty-five years. A. is five years older, once a squabbling partner who became an important part of my daily life since we both reside in Oregon.
Although the three of us have been only 3.5 hours apart, we see one another on average four times a year during family gatherings. Our separate time ensures our own time, doing and speaking as we please. We have travelled to other destinations, walked many paths in village, city and country, shopped, and visited museums, gardens, exhibits, galleries. We enjoy learning things, exploring new territory, sharing enthusiasm for places and people. And as we go about sharing many interests including the arts, books, nature, psychology, travel to name a few, we talk.
We swap tales of family history and how we each experienced growing up–not necessarily so much alike, as we each have our own perspective and moments. We compare and comment on our trials, errors and successes which have been thought-provoking to witness. M. has been a professional cellist. A. has been an executive director of several non-profit organizations. Since we are not all committed to the same faith practices we explore beliefs and what has impacted us spiritually. Disposed to analytical thought, we have probing discussions on everything from social issues to natural phenomena. We often just meander from topic to topic. And in the process, we laugh readily and often. And cry, at times. We are also very good at putting up with each other as needed.
This visit, however, was different. We stayed at M.’s house instead of going off on a small adventure. The house, in fact, that is being put up for sale next week. She and her husband are moving to a southwestern state, closing one chapter of their industrious, fulfilling lives and beginning another. A. and I assisted in the sorting and tossing process. We each ended up with mementos, some of which were photographs of our extended family. I felt a deepening quietude as I scanned the pictures of family dinners and celebrations, lingering over images of those no longer with us. The picture of my parents’ back yard awakened my heart. Was it always so beautiful, the modest yard that hosted croquet and other games, barbeques served at the round wooden table with the umbrella, gatherings around the maple tree where we all climbed and swung on the old swing? The green shadows are dappled with playful light. Still, the life lived there, along with our two brothers and parents, was not a life without strife. Some of my memories are a blur imbued with an urgent need for peace and a longing for happiness that would not be dismantled by loss and pain. I study the pictures of my teen-age years and wonder over my seeming confidence despite secret struggles. The dining table is circled by family members who were accomplished, good-hearted and, naturally, flawed. But it was nonetheless a family life powered by the energy of love.
I studied the many decades-old portrait of M. taken a few years after she was named homecoming queen, an event that awed me as a child. A local photographer deemed her so lovely that her picture was entered into a contest and subsequently published. She had and has a humility that is noteworthy. This sister-woman who weathered a lifetime of challenges also profoundly enjoyed various fruits of her labors. I watched her as she spoke now and there it was: the same graciousness, soft but insightful gaze, a smile that emanated good humor. Her wavy hair is mostly white now, but she is the same big sister who so carefully watched over me as a little girl. Who I admired from a distance of thirteen years difference yet was lucky enough to get to know closely after growing up. Whose cello playing mesmerized me all the years we all practiced our instruments. I took up cello, too, because she did. In fact, all of us girls played cello at one time or another but she worked hardest at honing skills and considerable talent.
One of the nights together we sat in her music room and looked through music, some of which belonged to our father once. There were the old songbooks of standards. She stood n ear the grand piano. It, too, would be soon sold. The thought was more than I could bear as I remembered the baby grand in my parents’ home, and the shock I felt when I came back to find it long gone. So I asked M. to play for us. She chose a couple of songs I used to love to sing as she or our father accompanied. She stopped too soon for me, the last notes echoing in the room.
How do I say “farewell, have a good and happy new life in Texas” to my oldest sister? Of course, it is what my intention is when the day arrives for leave-taking. I know she is just moving from one space to another. I understand we will all see each other here or there, that A. and I will fly down to visit or meet up somewhere in between, perhaps each spring.
But it somehow feels as if she is going far away, just like the day she went off to college and I stood in the doorway waving, bewildered, at age five. And this feeling rises to the top of the laughter, hearty tales of tough and triumphant growing up years, and becoming older the best way we can, with lots of grit and the force of joy. This sadness floats and spreads out over my morning and brings me tears. Nothing stays the same, I know. And there is merit in that.
Then I am saved by this: we are sisters first and last, despite the relationships that have come and gone, the changing fortunes, the health crises that can derail us each. We are of the same family and so, also, three who share a heart.
The last night together we talked by the warmth of a fire, right into the early morning. When we were emptied of stories, we hugged one another close. M. said: “We have all survived!” meaning we have all made our way through this wilderness called life and been able to call up enough strength and gumption to stay the course thus far. We have sought God and found faith a constant flame. We have elicited and shared laughter that lights up the deepest dark. We have made it together and also apart. Life in the final analysis is very good, indeed.
We straggled off to bed, only to arise the last morning to attack more sorting and tossing. It was a chore made lighter for M., but it was all just stuff. One house is soon to be exchanged for another house and furnishings. It is people who will make the difference for her as they do for us all. For now, she had sisters working side by side with her. And the fact is, the love that binds us has no state line, no expiration date, not here or in eternity.