A Poetry of Sisterhood, Past and Present

Birthday, lilac farm and tulips 5-12 151

I was going to write about writing and reading poetry, its innards and otherness, how its spareness rearranges and keeps honest the core of living. Then my sisters stepped forward. One lives on earth; the other does not.

I have kept a snapshot on a table that sits inside the front door. We three are standing together on a river walk in Astoria, a town we visited on one of our too-few sister getaways. We are grinning, arms about each other’s waists. Taken several years ago, we look chubbier than more recently. I study the softness of our faces revealed by late spring light. We are confident, sure we will be there for each other year after year. I stand in the middle. Being the youngest, bookending myself with each sister is natural. None of us was/is tall, but we stand firm. They have white or greying hair; mine is still brown in the photo. An anomaly in my family. But I think the white is flooding my roots in the last few months, trying to catch up with the others.

Maybe my hair is grieving.

I still don’t know whether to use present or past tense half the time. Marinell passed away a few days before my birthday in April. Allanya is still here, in the same city as am I. Which to state: we were, or we are, or we will be…There are these new gaps–not one but many–like crevasses we note, then assiduously avoid.

But everything has changed. Everything. When one sibling dies and leaves the others behind, nothing fits in the same way. We became parts scattered by a toss into the circle of our expectations and hopes. Landing, though, outside the usual parameters of things. It is being alone in a good boat that, even when secured at dock, rocks with the waves–but it isn’t quite a comfort. It’s off-kilter. I stand with feet apart and scan for the others. Wait.

I have two brothers, one nearby and one on the other side of the country. We occasionally speak of many things, but not Marinell’s death. We are kind to one another. We note our health and projects. They are engaging in various captivating activities, invigorating travels. They live forward, I assume, as before. I haven’t asked them recently what else, what now–now that we are four in a family meant to be five (seven with  parents, gone as well). But their presence make two linchpins in the wheel of my life, helping it keep its place.

But sisters. They can occupy the same internal territory at a glance. Marinell and Allanya have been as close to me as any of my friends. More so. Not just because we were born of the same parents, but because we have embraced each other thoroughly. Our differences have skirted around the edges of conversations. We’ve had divisions and multiplications of positive and negative in our lives. Some shared like a knotted rope. But we didn’t waste time on the oppositional, rather forged connections all ways we could. Empathy, full throttle, has made it easy, no matter that we have inhabited different lifestyles. Mutual respect has been restorative in a world that seems to often disregard it.

Allanya and I care about helping people, the arts, our families, about creative work and nature. About how we can live from inside out, manifesting the Divine Love we know to be real. The same can have been said of Marinell. I do not idealize any of us. Our errors have informed our knowledge of the world and ourselves. No one has judged; we’ve gotten those stings from elsewhere.

Allanya has been an executive director of such diverse agencies, she acts that way more often than not, but her tender compassion can light a brave light in the dark. She collects turquoise and primitive paintings, yard creatures that she rescues from curbside, then repaints. Allanya is devoted to her family, so is often busy, as am I. But on the phone and face-to-face, we can erupt into laughter as well as weep without hesitancy. We have affinity, we have loyalty galore.  We eat chocolate together when sharing errands. Remember old flames.

Yet, we somehow steer away from the places our sister has occupied, literally and emotionally. We need more time to assimilate the truth, I suppose. To add it all up. To dispel the undertow of tears so we can reminisce with light heartedness.

The power of place is resonant of people in ways that perhaps only scent can be. For a few decades Marinell lived three and a half hours away. I cannot imagine returning to her quaint town outside of Seattle yet. There would sit her two-story pale yellow house with many windows, snug on a hill. Now owned–taken over–by others. Her music room is likely a television space or guest bedroom. Her burnished cello and grand piano were sold to strangers two years ago, when she and her husband moved to Texas. The thought still elicits a gasp. I may not even enter Seattle, a stellar metropolis that is resplendent in its offerings. It used to be partly hers–where she played in the symphony, shopped at Pike Place Market with us, attended Seahawks games. I imagine it less welcoming now, a city other people get to use for their pleasures and ambitions.

She was the reigning family historian. Lineage details and events and rumors were kept in her excellent memory, as they were in our mother’s until she passed at ninety-one. Now who do we contact when wanting to know where our second cousin once removed ended up? How will we know what really went on for our grandparents and parents during the Depression? And what was the name of that great-aunt’s gadabout son and did he ever marry?

I think of calling her every week. There is something I need to hear from her. Anything, a chortle of delight, a surprising insight, a question put in such a way that it never meant harm. She and I had many of the same health issues so shored each other up with two wills. We meant to endure without fuss, to give gratitude a refreshing.

I think of her answering the phone, that lilt of her refined voice, also capable of improper asides. How those beauty queen (literally) hazel eyes warmed the room. A tentative breath, then a pause when thinking, biting her bottom lip.

Everything was beautiful in her world even when it wasn’t. She found it, nurtured it, carried it, shared it.

I peruse the memroy bank and find us taking the (small, not large) yacht voyage for a week through the San Juan islands and sparkling Victoria; the journey to Banff where bears gorged on berries and we were awed by the Rockies; and that trip to tulip fields where we three sisters us sat gabbing amid such a profusion of color it was as if we were painted into a living canvass. And the shopping we did. We caught up on even serious personal issues while weaving between aisles, browsed the sale racks–all with pungent asides on good, bad or plain ugly fashion. I shake my head thinking of updates on crises amid discussion of earrings and scarves–but it worked fine.

My sister. Mercy and flowers, courage and fine crystal, stamina and a Bach concerto.

There will be no new times, not here, not soon. I accept she is gone, and I know where I feel she is. But she is not within my reach and it still shakes my heart without warning, a rattle of sorrow in the quietude of my days and nights. I keep trying to fill those gaps with frail wisps and little souvenirs, even epiphanies of memory. She shone for me. For so many.

This was to be about poetry. It has become musings on how I have been a sister with two other sisters, now one to one. That number flummoxes. But I will rebalance. What is left is what was before, a peculiar lessening and yet, still more.

Allanya and I are closer in age so became friends first and longer. Our childhood territory was marked by quiet fighting, sharing food and secrets. Co-conspiring of kids, and then deep sympatico as adults. Marinell was thirteen years older than I; eight more than Allanya. Perhaps her re-entering my life much later made it different, my being youngest to her oldest. She was a sort of second mother, pushing my pram, reading me books, reinforcing good manners. In time our ages better aligned as we discovered in each other solace and good humor, shared revelations.

I knew I was a grown up when I felt equal to my sisters–trustworthy, a part of their repartee, present for them and entirely able to return their affection.

The years gave, then took. As they do.

The poetry has been about herself, afterall. About accepting that loss swoops down on us, picks us up and drops us, altering all. Even how I think about journeying into the Olympic National Forest, where I know she walked and wondered about her health and future. It is about a sister who calls forth these words and inscribes the vibrating notes of my mourning. In truth, she liked my stories and we once made music together at her piano. I have written pages for her to critique; now I just write for myself. The music, it whispers.

As the days pass, sadness visits me and burrows but in time healing will complete itself enough. I have been enriched by her comings. Now her going. Yet I will find her in myself because we are ever sisters.

In the end, nothing can be perfectly retrieved from the past but love.


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