Edith

 

 

I

seem driven to make sense of Edith’s life and death.
Having only fragments of my daughter disturbs nights, then hangs as fog through day.
There is a collection of pieces, as there is of my many painted plates.

But of those, sold or given away, most are forgotten and each one is done once taken from the kiln.
Entanglement with Edith does not end. And it’s hard to tolerate that the whole cannot be held.
Some bits stay sharp-edged and piercing – others, like a pinned moth, lose colour and conviction.
What had I expected if not this? My old body in decline remains complete enough but any tale of it splinters.

Even during Edith’s last months, I fed on relief that she was alive and fine-tuned believing how my being there might possibly help.
Before her illness, although it grows increasingly difficult to recall, expectations of my days taking a brighter turn may have shrunk but there were sparkling specks across the grey. Plenty continued to delight, unless I misremember.
There was appetite for more of life and gratitude for it pulsed through, if good mornings came pain free.
Having been widowed two decades, perhaps I’d half-forgotten and carried on, week after week, with a semi-blank over the inevitable ahead for myself, as I painted through another day.
I repeated having asked for a fast slide down the final slope – and knew a request was useless.
Death was encountered but kept on the move until, with Edith’s, it became fixed and heavy in my belly.
Forcing me to submit and stomach it.

It is two years ago that my daughter’s physical strength drained away.
She stayed determined the life was hers, not ours, and she was going alone – closing in, shrinking out of ties, though we longed to be there for her, displaying our love.
But what could we offer if not to alter her cancer?
Keeping my child alive moved entirely beyond my grasp. Yet wasn’t that a responsibility mothers took on?
What else might slip from me before my own life is ended?
And what do I know of Edith’s completed one?

It is not to be reclaimed as mine through hoarded memories.
My older daughter, Naomi, seems to reduce the absence with pictures and stories – as if she has caught sufficient of her sister.
But what use are these old versions on repeat? Or my years of concern while Edith still lived?
It was over Edith, above my other three, that regret took up residence. Worry came up from behind, some days, to pull me back, breaking my onward stride.
Each of the children, the eldest a grandfather himself now, could flood in – forever keeping hold on the heart though no longer under my wing. But it was Edith’s tightness, especially with the son and husband she tried to love, which proved most uncomfortable to witness.
Had there been signs from the start I missed?

There is little Edith, at four, standing tall before me and proud as I do up the last button on her new, blue and white dress, made to match her big sister’s.
Naomi, who is a bold six, does not want a baby “twin” as we go out to a party and insists on wearing a different frock.
The love for Edith that day feels extreme. She is the youngest then – our second boy came after a gap of five years.
Do I recall the tenderness evoked because I have also not forgotten the look on Edith’s face later that afternoon?
I found her sticking pins, which had held up the hem of her new dress, into Naomi’s treasured rubber doll.
There was no outward rage or hurt, just a pinched look of “I am not having things this way!”
An impotent protest which didn’t pass as Naomi’s tears and fury did. Grim resistance remained part of Edith.

Naomi, who usually managed to keep up with her big brother, and who went more easily with whatever came along, made few allowances for her sister’s rigidities.
However, by the time we moved to Wellington, Edith in her late teens and having grown into being pretty, began to draw men round her.
She sought such attention right up until she stopped leaving the house, aware her appearance was gaunt.
Edith usually attracted successful, smart looking men but married a different one. Jim was a soft man, large and loose limbed, who was kind and didn’t appear rattled by his wife’s sharp rebukes.
He accepted a woman being hard to please and quick to find fault as a sign of her being superior and more sensitive.
Perhaps he put up with too much and the tolerance helped neither Edith nor their son.
The only child, Dennis, obviously struggled to please his mother.
Edith seemed well loved by Jim, though possibly not loved to her liking. And my two attempts to open up an exchange, about my inadequacies in understanding or meeting her, were instantly shut down.
Naomi was very different. She tumbled into passion and thought her man a wonder. And with me she liked nothing better than to consider the past and talk of her loving parents with colourful vocabulary, tinged by melodrama.
She moved to Australia and in letters became more effusive, while Edith and Jim stayed only ten minutes from me.
If Naomi thought her sister cold, Edith was just as critical of Naomi’s “lack of restraint.”
Their brothers kept opinions to themselves and seemed to call on Edith each time they visited me, yet undoubtedly enjoyed party time when Naomi came, expecting to sing and dance and celebrate with us all.

Despite having become powerless, an urge to nurture, which sank deep in me at each birth, never quite vanished.
Once every cell felt primed to fight threats to them.
Being alert kept the four from falling in pools, getting lost in busy shops or being too ill-equipped for school.
There was a taking care role going and it was a good fit for the time my efforts made a visible difference. And, until Edith was dying, my inability to alter fate did not show up starkly.
She allowed no pretence that there was any point in our being around her.
Love could not hold her in life – she had to be let go.
My haunting fear – then and now – did Edith feel uncertain whether there was wholehearted love for her? Uncertain if her own heart was opened enough?
Might I have held more of her if she’d accepted my arms, or just felt better?
Despite our bond, Edith claimed independence years before she pushed us away from her failing flesh.
I stayed long nights in the waiting room, possibly conjuring that in the end she’d call for me, though she said she was having no family witness her “ultimate humiliation” – to “lose control” being the worst undermining of dignity.
Jim accepted this was Edith’s way.
I told him, as he went home, of a need to simply stay near but, while wakeful, polished up old stories of grown adults crying out for their mothers as they died.
Edith held tight to a nurse but never spoke to contradict her earlier injunction.
Regret, that I was with her entering life but not leaving, remains thickened in and round me.
By the time her body was forced to stop and I could hold it, Edith was quite of reach.

Most who called on us had some story of Edith and their gentle versions lapped around comfortably.
Her tart side and bite were left out.
How would I have taken anyone saying “and what a bitch Edith could be at times”?
Even Naomi didn’t say it and she had seen the worst.
But did the others enjoy and accept Edith with all her contradictions or only want her well dressed and well spoken?
She made effort to present herself, with high standards for immaculate manners and appearance, which seemed valued by flirting men.
She was a joiner of clubs where her dressmaking skill was appreciated and where, apparently at ease, Edith was sociable.
Did others see confidence in her own judgement, which drew male admiration? Possibly my focus on the vulnerability beneath was as limited.
I noticed tension but maybe others saw her pride and the hair, set each week to stay in place.

Naomi’s thick unruly curls of childhood, like much else in her, settled into natural softness by middle age. Hers needing no spray, while Edith’s straight hair was put in rollers, then coated in lacquer to keep it orderly, even in hospital.
Where Naomi had a physical confidence and reasonable posture, Edith’s back, with possibly admirable effort, was noticeably straight, helped by balancing books on her head as she dusted and sitting with a ruler from neck to shoulder blades.
It never seemed fair that more came easily to Naomi. And I, too, became work for Edith since, whether I liked it or not, she was convinced I would eventually become her responsibility.
Somehow we crept towards not freely enjoying each other.
Then from time to time found ourselves having a lovely day.
I loathed being seen as a duty and rarely asked for help but Edith’s quite frequent loud intake of breath made it obvious when something of me irritated.
It could take effort not to feel mauled and to recognise how Jim and Dennis received the same, while Naomi got a double dose.
Edith’s husband was Jim with everyone except her and he did her bidding, including moving to a separate room as soon as Dennis was born. Edith saw no reason to disguise that James could not be forgiven for “the horrors” of the never to be repeated childbirth.

She was away with her Bridge Club, where she was said to be a well-liked member, while Naomi was over on a visit, so we both moved in to look after Dennis.
One evening, when Edith rang to say goodnight, Jim finally heard the phone through the radio on full, with the four or us singing and dancing to a song.
Dennis told his mother breathlessly that he was having the best fun and we didn’t get headaches from music even if it was as loud as he and his Dad liked.
Next day a message, sent via a friend, asked us to please leave once Dennis was at school, as Edith had a migraine and needed to come home to quiet.
Our little holiday in her house abruptly ended.
Edith could be like that, though no other time was she so reduced by headache while out. She usually suffered them only at home.

Where could I have been more attentive?
Not that one iota of the past can change and there is no possible separation of what was Edith’s nature and how it played out with our parenting. Then throwing siblings into the mix is further complication. The other three children gelled more readily, so we felt a need to look out for Edith.
She once forcefully said about Dennis “If you love the one, why ever would you want another?”
Odd – given she was number three – but I knew bitterness ran deep over the baby born just after she started school.
Naomi was at an age to claim the baby as hers, rushing out from class to push the pram, then change him.
He was a sweet natured, lively boy who adored Naomi and his big brother.
Again, Edith was the one left out.

Now concern is useless – these old hands can only be put to painting plates – my lips might speak and eat but not kiss that daughter.

Decades before her final choice, it was for Edith to decide what she shared with me and it was always less than Naomi.
While my first girl wanted me to go and stay with each birth, Edith put a circle round Dennis from the start, after a pregnancy of worry and sickness.
She had not conceived for five years after the relatively late marriage and kept an immaculate house, played bridge, golf and tennis, with male partners other than Jim, and made pretty dresses for her older brother’s four girls, but took no interest in Naomi’s two boys when the family came regularly to stay.
Edith was sure she looked after Dennis far better than we did her and it’s true there was fuss over his health, concern whether he was warm enough or wearing sensible shoes. There was a timer for his teeth cleaning night and morning and constant remarks on his manners.
Edith, pleased with her improvement on my mothering, apparently failed to notice the many signs of agitation in little Dennis.
His eczema and asthma kept him coddled.
Perhaps he was designed to be a cautious, anxious boy with symptoms but it was hard not to see it as reaction to the atmosphere around him. Edith’s critical comments kept her son jumpy, ever on alert to where he might be in the wrong.

Three months before she died perhaps we all conspired, wounding Edith more than we realised.
Naomi’s sons had left home and between jobs she came for a longer stay than usual.
When Edith sighed that it was all very well her sister flitting in, but all the work over me would fall to her, Naomi told her cheerfully they had just completed a granny flat and really hoped I’d go to them. Or she’d come back if I ever needed . Meanwhile she admired my managing quite without help.
Edith was frosty. I had never challenged her picture of me as potential burden and having that load taken off did not appear to please.
Perhaps it suited to fix some reason her middle age, where men rarely looked at her, was less satisfactory than she’d hoped.
Another day Naomi, not realising Edith had come in, said how hanging around her siblings lives no longer appealed. Though each time she saw my smile still felt wonderfully “at home.”
But it was through Dennis the greater hurt was inflicted.
Naomi had long been his fun and favourite aunt but this visit Dennis had more freedom to be with her, coming in after school most days instead of walking home.
Somehow that nervous, hesitant boy grew brave enough to insist that, with his savings, he could afford a flight to return with Naomi for some of the summer holidays. He had been talking to his two Australian cousins and they encouraged him.
It is possible Naomi agreed to help – certainly Edith was convinced her sister put him up to it, bribing with promises, and was shocked by Dennis’s plan.
She told me in a fury, “Naomi has her own, why can’t she leave mine alone.”
But Jim agreed it was the boy’s money and choice, after all he would only be gone for two weeks of a school break.

Edith then announced she would go too.
Given how angry she was with Naomi, everyone could see this would not work out well and for once Jim was firm.
Not knowing this, I too made a suggestion – perhaps she could let Dennis decide.
To everyone’s embarrassment she did so at a family gathering over dinner.
Had she assumed he would not stand up for himself, opposing her in front of us? But he did, saying he’d be back soon and had already made plans with each of his cousins, who were nearly ten years older and generous with him.

So Dennis went, then extended his stay, declaring he had never been as well, after Naomi took him to some breathing expert and he no longer needed a ventilator.
Naomi or the breathing man also got him to stand taller where Edith’s rebukes had failed.
Edith might have been crushed but showed each of us only a brusque clipped front, including to Dennis on his return. We all thought ourselves part of the offence.
When it continued, we took it as her being unforgiving.
As far as we know, she didn’t admit her health fears to anyone.
Given her ready irritation, palpable since adolescence, I didn’t register this holding out against me felt different.
Had I been kinder and less quick to imagine I knew the reason for her behaviour, might I have recognised the erected barricade was also keeping back medical scrutiny?
When it came it was too late.

The last days of Edith’s life her brothers and Naomi arrived, although they barely impinged on my being as intensely about Edith as at her birth, despite being in an outer room.
No one else belonged in my howl, once I crept away from holding her.
The body was solid and I could embrace that to try and turn her death to fact.
Naomi could no longer be kept out and also wanted to sit with Edith. But this was not what we could share.
Naomi told me recently how her initial, uncomfortable response was feeling gratitude death had not come for her.
Even sorrow came to Naomi full of her own fears – that a younger sister dying drew death too near.
Whatever was going through her, Naomi stayed a month, being gentle with Jim and Dennis.
Since I was consumed, it was a relief she cooked for them and listened if they wanted to speak.
She comes back regularly these days and her memories tumble out – a collection different from my own.
At the time of the death I could only hope that Naomi got more from her brothers and those long conversations home to her husband, who left after the funeral. My capacity for others had shrivelled.
Whatever proved difficult to show Edith while she lived now has fierce grip and focus.
Since there is no hope of taking hold of my second daughter, perhaps I dare not let anything else of her go.

ii

With my sister’s death something, which must have been assumed a solid, began dissolving.
Up till then calling our mother “a rock” or “my anchor” rolled off my tongue.
Clichés would do.
Loving her didn’t look complicated.

It was three days after her 54th birthday, early June 1970, when Edith died.
She comes at night but slips off abruptly and will not be caught.
A few dream images stay vivid till morning and one or two fit ready-made stories now fixed to permanent.
As my feet fit her shoes exactly and she kept a lot of good pairs.
But much which unfolds during sleep becomes inaccessible – Edith who went from sight is neither obliterated nor in reach.

She is the woman I came up against most.
We could chatter, though rarely went in for sharing secrets.
She left a huge wardrobe of formal clothes I would never wear. And there are uncertainties.
She brought death up close, just as our father’s did in the week my second pregnancy was confirmed.
At the time that November baby was born, my mother flew to me, immediately after Edith’s wedding.

Mother sank into father’s death, yet made a huge effort to be helpful for Edith’s marriage and then looking after my first born son, while I curled with the new one.
It seemed possible for us to share sadness and new life – laughing and crying together.
So it surprised how far Edith’s death cut us apart.
Most mothers would be devastated and I could not imagine surviving the death of either of my children, but where I am shut out, doubt now slides in.
Perhaps I’d assumed myself better loved because that I adored our mother was often and easily said.
But dead Edith takes much more of her.

My sister and I, always sharing a bedroom, grew as two legs of a chair, alongside our two brothers, and as Edith died it wasn’t just that only three legs made the whole precarious, the family seat itself apparently vanished.
“Family” must have stayed a comforting, covering notion if it was a disturbing jolt to lose it.
How can I have not recognised that a childhood belief in family was carrying on?
Mother simply stayed there to claim and remain full of welcome at each return.
Until her bright smile faltered.
Death wiped out Edith and much of Mother’s spirit.
That appetite for life, which revived quickly after our father’s death, stays crushed two years on from Edith’s. And the warm-hearted woman who made sure her small children and grandchildren had a lot of fun has faded.
Edith’s death is not to be shared – it’s as if her loss must stay singular.

Despite feeling excluded from Mother’s preoccupation, increasingly I speak of my sister.
Edith, who inherited our mother’s skill in making and painting but not her delight in family, married abruptly and surprisingly. Jim is a man quite unlike my sister’s several other suitors.
Though Jim saw Edith as easily distressed and delicate, rather as our father did.
With Jim she could be difficult yet expect to be adored.
I never risked that much!
And now cannot resolve whether my sister was often mean-spirited or better able to expose the fine fractures running through love.
I generally saw myself as having more of our mother’s generosity, but it now seems my loving was also sentimental.

It is a sadness that Mother rarely saw Edith where she flourished. I’d like her to glimpse the party girl who discovered her element around seventeen.

When I left home at nineteen, Edith was still self-conscious, though already sewing suits to dress well.
It seemed only months later that she stepped into behaving as though certain she was desirable.
And despite marriage, Edith did not give up flirting. That lasted a lifetime, though it became coy and hard to watch in those menopausal last few years.
Something in our family life cramped Edith – a pattern repeated in her marriage.
Jim speaks of Edith freely, ringing me regularly, but his is a limited picture of her sensitivities and style, with himself too blundering and brutish.
He leaves out how Edith danced on, hours after the rest of us flagged, how she could slam a ball at tennis and was a ruthless card player, out to win.
She liked winning at bridge with a handsome male partner and continued running the social side of her tennis club though, after beginning to lose too often, she gave up games of mixed doubles.
In her several clubs Edith repeatedly found those who deserved harsh judgement. She liked to play sides and a righteous battle energised her. Every time I got home she had a new tirade against some impossible woman’s unacceptable committee behaviour.

Although she and I fought, we also found our shape and recognised differences by coming up against each other, sharing parents, brothers and that room where her wanting order made her furious with my mess.
She went eagerly to school, it suited her. I went without much fuss but felt constrained.
While at home, and unlike me, Edith had no compulsion to join in. She preferred to draw, then learn to knit or sew. She only intermittently followed our brother, a natural leader, with his strong opinions, his games and sufficient kindness to keep me behind him.
Our baby brother also came to belong with him and we three were the family team players, where Edith pulled back to her own pursuits.
It didn’t occur to me to do that. And it took years to unpick how I’d uncritically joined the shared pictures about our family and those around us.
My brother has kept his decided views on people and loyalty to him had for years required my agreement.

Edith seemed our father’s favourite, or at least the one who most needed him. Not that he was particularly present or observant and if Edith really required help it would be our mother running.
Did Edith know that Mother would be there without any effort on her part and so sought our father’s admiration?
It certainly looked as if she felt little need to please our parents the way I did, making them many cards stuck with coloured paper, and those efforts to stitch Mother lavender bags or pot holders each birthday.
I often envied that Edith, while appearing more dainty and always thin , could stamp her foot in protest rather than “behave well.”
Later I felt freer to also dislike her and decided she was too quick to block out possibilities, then grew steely when faced with the limits she had imposed.
There seemed so little animal in Edith – and more of those pretty, brittle china plates. Mother got in blank ones to paint and sell. They made money, her artwork rarely did.

Perhaps our father, seeing the robust physicality of three children and then watching Edith, saw only vulnerability and felt a china plate is more easily broken.
“Be careful of her,” we were told as we made dens and climbed trees, outside whenever possible, while she mostly stayed in.
I have clear memories of Edith’s license to resent the last baby, born days before my eighth birthday. When convenient I took him as “mine” but Edith did not want him at all.
I must have assumed our parents saw most things, and the realisation that Edith could get away with plenty they failed to notice hit with some force. She removed the baby’s toys, pulling them out of his hands, put mud on his head and said he did it to himself, or pretended he didn’t exist and ignored him.
He was soon sturdy and rarely made a fuss if Edith was nasty. Eventually they grew fond of each other and Edith liked making clothes for both her brothers’ daughters.

Edith left no room for speculation, making it explicit, soon after the birth of her only child, that she did not like sex.
My husband, Peter, who saw little reason to love her, said of Edith that in another era, without pressure to marry, she’d have stayed a tease or possibly become a dominatrix.
It seemed that she’d been happiest in late adolescence and did not like losing that phase.
Since my marriage looked full blooded, as probably her own had been, Mother’s worry passed over me; my life seeming more straightforward than Edith’s.
“Naomi will cope”, was a frequent parental refrain, and when everything turned difficult it felt unfair that “suffering” had become Edith’s prerogative.
I didn’t tell of Peter’s affair. Maybe there was hesitation to shatter Mother’s expectation that all was well. And she might not be there for me with her biggest smile if I ran to her all crumpled.
Besides, if her response had grated, I might have faced sooner that I had to be the last resort without any back up – faced that maternal protection was a phantom.
And now that her arms are no longer as wide open for me, fear slips in that she begrudges it’s me still alive – she knew the way I loved, that there was no doubt I would have called for her had it been my death. And that would have been easier for her to survive.

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