It had come near the end of a week already quite filled.
I’m tempted to say “busy” but everyone’s weeks are busy, anyone I know, at any rate. I suppose there are people in this world whose lives not beset by agendas, obligations and responsibilities, whose next moment is open and subject to whim or serendipity, but I don’t know any of them, nor they me. So I am left to imagine what it must be like, and keep my persistent hope of a time still ahead when I can try it for myself, even for a short while.
It had been another week of work, at this job where I increasingly find myself ushering along three or four concurrent priorities of growing complexity, each completing for space and time, work which, by and large, I have invited, in the dual attempt to provide myself with something interesting to do, something more than the repetitive brain-in-neutral tasks of last year when I was the new guy, before I’d had time to demonstrate that I was capable of more, as well as the attempt to be useful, to push as close as possible to indispensability, if such a thing can be achieved in this setting.
In the middle of all that, I also needed to carve out time in the week to again function as my mothers healthcare advocate, to attend an appointment with her, a follow up on a medical intervention performed several weeks earlier, to understand the outcome and what if anything was yet to be done, in order to restore, insofar as might be possible, some ease of mobility and comfort to her 95 year-old body, increasingly subject to cranky joints that don’t work very well anymore and injuries resulting from things that would never have phased her even a short few years ago.
And then there were the home improvement projects. I recently raised the specter of new flooring and other house projects Jeni might wish to entertain, reasoning that now was the time to consider such things, while I’m still working, however tenuously, and before retirement. So it began; searching the net, looking at photos, taking notes, then making the rounds of home improvement and plumbing stores, shopping for materials, colors, textures, carrying samples home, evaluating them in our rooms, under differing conditions of light, getting prices, evaluating proposals. This too was part of the week, which felt well filled by the time it came.
Upon arriving home from work that day, I had opened my trusty laptop, as is my habit, attending to my usual home-from-another-day-at-work tasks while it came to life.
I then sat and opened the first email, from my sister Sharron, and was presented with this:
I should say straight out that it is of my other sister, Marilyn, and me.
Now, it may be helpful to understand that this was unexpected. It also had the additional quality of being completely unfamiliar, not a reminder of an old family photograph, but one which I had, in fact, never seen, not at the time of its taking or at any time between then and now.
Where had this come from?
With my mind filled with the complications and complexities of the week, there were but two aspects of this old photograph that captured my attention: when was this taken and where were we? As Jeni prepared our evening meal, I tried to logic it out from the available clues.
From my clothes alone, I judged it to be near the end of my high school years. I remember that shirt and, I think, the shoes, although they are not shown in any detail.
The setting was harder to figure. It wasn’t my parent’s home, and it was too soon for it to have been Marilyn’s home she would share with her husband in Shelton. By degrees, it started to come back; the couch, the bowling trophy and the bookcase seemed to be remind me of Sharron’s home from that time. A couple emails later, it was confirmed.
The following morning, over coffee, before readying myself for another workday, I spent another few quiet moments with it; without the mental noise present at the end of the previous day, I looked again with pause and thoughtfulness into these two faces. Other questions surfaced. I wondered about the occasion. From the way we are dressed, it must be one of the holidays; Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas; something. Our family never did anything with any formality, but holidays in those days were almost always attended in dresses, button-up shirts and slacks. And on holidays, cameras were sure to be part of the experience.
As I readied for work, the reality behind the image stayed with me, this frozen moment with no voice to tell me about itself, this mystery which had survived more than forty years to be presented to Marilyn and me as a jpg attached to email, a technology unthinkable when the camera shutter was snapped. This is a remnant of the world of film. After all frames had been exposed, it would have been rewound onto the spool, taken to the drugstore to be developed and prints made, which would have then be pasted into a photo album or stored in a shoebox.
I began to think about these two people looking back at me through the years, and began to wonder less about when or where, but instead trying to cross the gap in time. Just who are these two? Who are they at precisely this moment in their young lives?
Marilyn looks impossibly young on the couch next to me, more like my girlfriend than my sister, appearing nearer to my own age than the seven years that actually separate us.
With the photo still on the screen of my trusty laptop, I try to let in the mood of the moment. It feels like there is a presence of lightness, a contentment being experienced by us both, something more than mere smiles for the camera, I think. Marilyn’s attention seems to be on her hands, on whatever she may be holding; her posture and her smile are beautiful, even demure, maybe playful. Whatever has happened in the moment before, we seem pleased, perhaps amused. And there is innocence.
If this is, as I believe, 1968, the mood and expressions of these two young people is all at odds with my memories and impressions of that year. It was not a happy time for me. I had spent the first half of the year trying to come up with a plan to avoid being drafted after graduation from high school. Having finally achieving that aim and freed from what I was sure would have been certain death in Southeast Asia, I spent whatever was left of that year, and a few that followed, rudderless. Past the need to beat the draft, I had nothing, no thought, no plan, no impulses, no initiative, no passion, no purpose, no feeling for the next phase of life where I suddenly found myself. Everything was about staying out of Vietnam; there was no place in my thoughts beyond that singular objective. After the Army M.D. rejected me for induction, I was empty.
And yet I see none of this on the face of the young man seated by his sister.
Marilyn is attractive, just as she is in my memory of that time. She is 24, maybe 25. As I look upon these two familiar faces, I am reminded of various times when our lives as brother and sister intersected, as well as times apart. Though separated by seven years, we were usually close. There was the time I felt quite protective of my older, yet youngest, sister. She remembers it better than me. Her husband entered the Air Force and she returned home to live with my parents and me; it was a time when I tried to behave more like an older brother, making sure she wasn’t left alone, involving her in my life while circumstances caused her to live apart from her new husband. It wasn’t long before she went to him, after basic training, to live on an Air Force base in Montana.
After the Air Force hitch, she and Steve bought a home in Shelton, where he was raised and where his folks lived. By that time, I was past high school, past the threat of the draft, fully into the undefined “what-now” that followed. I took to driving down to spend weekends with Marilyn, sometimes longer, moving into one of their spare bedrooms. I looked forward to it. I wanted to get out of my parents house, where I still lived. I loved making the drive through the backroads that took me away from the city, wound through the lowland forest and past saltwater inlets. Once there, I read, went for long, aimless walks through the town with Lady, their Labrador Retriever. And I spent time with Marilyn, who, after all that had transpired since high school, was all the company I wanted. Time with her was by far preferred to time with my friends. The discontent I felt in my world and the world beyond was strange and unpleasant; being with her was familiar, a comfort. Sometimes the three of us, Marilyn, Lady and me, walked the streets of the small town together. I have no memory of what we spoke of, but it doesn’t matter. There was a peace and a contentment in being there with my sister, as often as I could make time for it. There remains a big piece of me that wishes I could return to those days.
I look again at the old photo. There isn’t a mark on either of us, none of the effects of what would come later, the stuff of life; divorces, new spouses, a lengthy separation when she lived abroad, the death of our father and the aging of our mother, which has now provided us with yet another shared experience.
For the last year, Marilyn and I have spent Saturdays together, as a team, to see to Mom’s needs; cleaning, dishwashing, laundry, shopping, finances. It’s the most time we have spent together in a while.
And it is no different than any of the other times that came before. She is and always has been more than my sister; she is my friend.
A couple weeks ago, in between tasks for Mom, we went together to a store I know of, to see what she might find there for herself. Driving there, shopping together, for but an hour or so, it was the same, no different than any of the shared brother/sister times from our past, no different from that black and white moment on the couch, taken on some long ago holiday, until now.
It is the same, from that day to this. And I am grateful.