by Barbara Latham
ow was it that my sister let things get so bad?
She bequeathed me this question along with a few simple jewels given after her funeral – easier to shut a box of jewellery away than upset.
Although there was strong likeness in our face shape, dissimilarity to this older sister seemed vital.
Something had weighed on her, as if shaping up to her lot was not quite manageable. She seemed the daughter most like our mother and stayed closer. Above all her choice of husband was foolish, mine was not. Such differences were important. Along with the distress, ground beneath my more comfortable life became disturbed with the digging of her grave.
However, this aspect grew more visible after our father probed.
What did he think he was doing?
Before being uncharacteristically outspoken, did he consider his view might be unnerving, or did he believe he was being helpful, or simply not consider me at all?
The eldest sister thought his unseemly comments better forgotten. The poor man, lonely without his wife, spoke out of turn, since people in mourning go through an anger phase, she said.
But it was with me he was indiscreet and his words could not just be ignored after he put all four females of his family in one category.
When he shoved pebbles beneath my feet did it end a dream-drifting, without sufficient heed to what might be on the path?
Initially following our sister’s death, the pair of us, each side of her by birth, huddled close again.
There had been perpetual shifts in which of the three were allied and who stood apart, and we two quickly asserted the bond of not being the middle sister in the earth – buried alongside our mother.
We wept for her as we looked to find her crucial mistakes. For we would never let matters get so out of hand!
Not that her husband fully intended injury but he did expect to keep power over her.
We knew she’d married a volatile man with a temper, though not that he hit her, which only came out after the terrible night. Our father admitted to knowledge and to yelling down the phone at his son in law. Our nephew told of waking to violence several times.
We had seen only that her husband had to be put first and she, being kind and good, agreed for two decades.
What brought about the change no one knows. Certainly she had been thrown by our mother’s death, having been particularly involved with her care in the final year. Soon after, as her only son left home, she wanted to go as well.
She wouldn’t stay unless things changed, she told her husband. She simply couldn’t go on making their home, working and giving, with him showing so little interest – not in the absence of loving contact with her mother and son, which had sustained her. He found this challenge inconceivable unless some other man was behind it. Although there was no sign of one, because he was convinced there had to be another man, he insisted on answers she didn’t give.
He lost it – he agrees to that much and neighbours heard him shouting. One heard a cry as he hit her, just before she ran out the front door. The rest was seen. She was halfway down concrete steps when he lunged. She fell with the impact, caught her head and died hours later from a massive blood clot.
“How could she have married him?” we asked each other. That it was hard to imagine the attraction was some small reassurance.
It wasn’t as if my eyes were shut to everything and I had long found it easy to see the first born sister was married to a quiet bully, whose power depended on sulks, withdrawing if she tried a scrap of assertion over crucial matters, though domestically she was bossy. His methods for getting his own way were barely visible, never dramatic.
It looked likely there were affairs, you only had to see his street strut, his embarrassing need to put a potent man on perpetual display, to suspect that lingering adolescent uncertainty about himself and his ability to love drove him out there to see what he could pull.
His two daughters found an alien cosmetic bag, with perfume, under the car seat and were outraged. They asked me, as aunt, if their mother should be told, or did she just not want to see? After all she, like our second sister and despite a considerable crispness, also gave and gave, which her husband took as his due.
She gave because we girls were encouraged to be “giving and nice”. The three of us brought up to be marriageable and trained to put others first, expected to get jobs done around the house, where tasks had no end, and then to consider others before sitting down with our tantalising book. We were girls influenced by more than we could possibly grasp. And when the first man opened in us a longing for love, we each stumbled into offering all we could.
But this is to jump ahead into what began after father spoke – the beginnings of doubt that what we were able to give was particularly good. And satisfaction with “my sensible choices” turned to wondering how many bruises it would have taken for any of us three sisters to turn with gaze sufficiently clear to notice some corner of our own unrecognised longing, hidden inside what we called our “generosity.”
How far did we give what we ourselves sought?
At mother’s funeral everyone spoke of her warmly, applauding her self-abnegation and we, too, considered sacrifice to be noble.
Our father, not a man given to much reflection as far as we knew, had never shown obvious frustration before the death of his wife and child in one year.
Usually he dozed on our sofa each week after Sunday lunch but ten months after his daughter’s burial he followed me into the kitchen and dragged me into his turmoil.
“I can’t help asking myself if being firmer with your mother would have helped you all.”
Despite not really wishing to understand what he meant, predictably, I asked politely. And he was off!
“A wife, holding herself back while claiming “goodness” is a hard one to crack. Ask any man, would he rather find himself wrapped in kindness or be able to excite a woman and feel he really matters to her?
“Not that your mother wasn’t a decent woman just something of a martyr. How often was she free to enjoy any of us, or herself? After she’d helped all and sundry at that church of hers, and sent food to the sick, she was exhausted. Charitable efforts got the attention, not you girls or me. We got her tired and needing to recuperate.
“Then helping with the grandchildren drove her when she required rest. Telling her made no difference. Of course, if I’d know of the cancer it would have been easier to insist. She half knew, I’m sure she must have realised something wasn’t right.
You girls aren’t much better at taking care of yourselves. Not surprising. Though she stayed up late sewing your pretty clothes, concern for each of us as individuals was not her way – that kind of pleasure and time consuming consideration was renounced for all, whether or not the rest of the family signed up for sainthood.”
Was it so bad?
Would our father have really preferred a passionate but selfish wife?
And why was he putting his living daughters in the same position as the one horribly dead?
His words were not nonsense but…and many “buts” were quick to surface…but if you are accommodating aren’t you more likely to live in peace? And if kind, surely that is worthy?
Why did he threaten a smooth version of myself taken out for security on wakeful nights – “giving,” “kind” – these big words others might envelope me within (especially if I was convenient to them).
They might be bland terms but weren’t arbitrary. They belonged as ill fitting, baggy pyjamas but was it sensible to do without them?
What else could I be?
Father’s apparently abrupt marital dissatisfaction left me floundering.
In the dark, fear crept out of the night to turn everything uncertain and left me feeling it was only sheer luck that I fell for a more decent man than my siblings. That I, like them, had no safe compass for a marriage worth having.
And had I passed on faulty mothering?
But if I was to be more assertive, giving less, the start might be making no big Sunday lunch for father.