ow was it that my sister let things get so bad?
She bequeathed me this question along with a few simple jewels – easier to shut her box of jewellery away than upset at her death.
Although there was strong likeness in our face shape, dissimilarity to this older sister seemed vital.
Something 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 now looked foolish, mine did not. Such differences were important. Around the nausea and feeling insubstantial, it felt essential to keep a wall, or the ground beneath my more comfortable life might be disturbed by the digging of her grave.
However, this grew visible only after our father probed.
What did he think he was doing?
Before being uncharacteristically personal, did he realise his view might be unnerving, or did he believe he was being helpful? Maybe he simply did not consider me at all.
The eldest of his three daughters thought the comments unseemly and better forgotten. The poor man, lonely without his wife, spoke out of turn. Those people in mourning go through an anger phase, she said.
But it was with me he spoke 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 drifting, without sufficient heed to the path?
Initially following our sister’s funeral , the pair of us, each side of her by birth, huddled close again.
There had been perpetual shifts in which two were allied and who stood apart, and we 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. When it came out after the terrible night, our father admitted to knowledge and to yelling down the phone at his son in law. Her son told of waking to violence several times.
We had seen only that the husband had to have everything his way 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 child 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 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 had been shut to everything. I’d seen the first born sister married 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.
It looked likely there were affairs. And you only had to see his street strut, his embarrassing need to display himself as potent, to suspect some lingering adolescent uncertainty.
Their 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 know? After all, despite a considerable crispness, she also gave and gave, which her husband took as his due.
We three, influenced by more than we could grasp, put others first. And when some man opened in us a longing for love, we each stumbled into offering all we could.
But this is to jump ahead.
At mother’s funeral everyone applauded her self-abnegation and we, too, considered sacrifice to be noble. Any doubt over what we were able to give being particularly good began only after father left me wondering.
How far did we offer what we ourselves sought?
Our father, not a man given to much reflection as far as we knew, had not spoken out before.
Since the death of his wife and child in one year , he dozed on our sofa each week , following Sunday lunch, until the day he followed me into the kitchen.
“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, I enquired politely. And he was off!
“Ask any man, would he rather find himself wrapped in kindness or feel he really matters to a woman?
“Not that your mother wasn’t a decent wife, just something of a martyr. How often was she free to enjoy any of us, or herself? Once 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.
“Then helping with the grandchildren drove her when she needed rest. Telling her made no difference. Of course, if I’d known of the cancer it would have been easier to insist. She must have realised something wasn’t right.
“You three girls were never much better at taking care of yourselves. But you don’t have to sign up and try for sainthood because she did.”
Would our father have preferred a 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 “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” that big word which others enveloped me within (especially if I was convenient to them).
It belonged as ill fitting, baggy pyjamas but how could I do without it?
In the dark, fear crept out to turn everything uncertain. Perhaps 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 would be not making that big Sunday lunch for father.