The year I was born, my eldest sister Lisa was signing her yearbook and trading senior portraits with her graduating friends at Grosse Point South High School in Grosse Point Michigan in 1970.
As far as sisters go, she had already lived almost a lifetime ahead of me, and I would only gather her to me as a sibling from pieces of stories, images inside of photographs, and short visits shared together when she would come home throughout her college years and then later throughout her life.
My mother and father seemed rather "strained" by her visits and it was only when i turned eight that and her biological mother passed that I began to really pay close attention to not only the hushed words that seemed to be spoken when my parents thought no one was listening but also to the body language that seemed to say more than words ever could. One rare Sunday afternoon when our family was cleaning out the downstairs basement I came across a box of old photo albums that I quietly took out and looked through. I recognized a younger Lisa sitting beside her brother Larry, and holding her baby sister, Mara. The expression on her mothers face was kind of vacant and the angles of her features seemed sharp in contrast to the cherubic rounded faces of her children, and I understood for the first time then, that something was amiss. Grace ( left) Lisa ( Middle) Larry (Right) Mara (Front)
My fathers reaction to my finding only further confused me as he grabbed the album from my hands, and threw it across the room giving me a look I tried never to evoke again as long as he lived. When i think back, I understand now that it was a look of pain, fear, regret, and denial... and a look that told me that it might take me a half my life to finally unearth the full extent of it's meaning.
For years it was as if I lived a split existence. My explanation to the normal questions that might be asked at a friends dinner table seemed more complicated when i brought my other half siblings into the discussion so it seemed easier to just pretend they did not exist. It occurs to me now, that they may have also felt a similar way. It just seemed easier to pretend lots of things, rather than talk about how come no one ever really wanted to talk.
I remember a few details of being with Lisa. I remember that she was always happy and laughing, always radiantly beautiful, and always kind of sad.... all at once. I have some memories that I cherish. One such memory she took me on a bike ride to a health food store (I must have been around four and rode in a seat on the back) to get some Toms of Maine toothpaste before it was famous or even popular. Having grown up in the heart of the 60's and 70's she was a true radical hippie and never really strayed too far from the roots of free love, drugs, and incense. As i read through her journals I feel like I am reading something out of Almost Famous and casual entries of smoking grass with Jim Morrison, and seeing the BEATLES live at the Olympia Stadium in 1966.
As a family we always summered in Kennebunk Maine and occasionally my elder siblings would join us at various points but it was incredibly rare for the entire family to all be in the same place at one time. Lisa was always good to me, and always tried to make a connection with me when she was home, telling me stories about her "wild years" and having the body conversations with me that kind of left me feeling rather grown up and oogey all at the same time. Maybe she thought it was her sisterly duty, but as the years passed I think it makes more sense to me that she'd had enough experience with my own mothers feminine conversational drawbacks to realize that she'd better take the opportunity to enlighten me lest i also end up with a small babe and clueless in my teenage years as she had found herself. I can remember laying on Parsons Beach in Maine learning about ovulation as she casually rubbed suntan lotion on her hippie hairy beautiful legs, every so often taking a sideways look at me to make sure i was taking it in. She'd smile her squinty sparkly smile and reassure me that it was "all very normal."
Dad Lisa and Mara in Kennebunk at Mothers Beach
When i finally did learn what took place in their lives before I was even a sparkle in my Dads blue irish eyes I sadly realized that she must have been quite brave, and alone in life, and never once complained or caused much fuss with her "new" family. She never spoke ill of her mother, and never once ill of my father, and always kept a positive note in her voice, and optimistic words on her lips...even after she was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease in 2006.
If pictures could tell stories they might tell me that looks can be deceiving, and that when you've lived with the kind of pain and heartache she must have lived with that over time... it can make you sick. Maybe that's untrue and a bunch of hogwash... but I know enough now from my own experience that when you shove something down inside yourself for long enough it shows up somewhere in your body and makes you sick. In her case it slowly paralysed her limb by limb until she could do nothing more that accept her time when it arrived last Tuesday morning to take her back to a kinder place where she could move in freedom again and rock her gypsy soul.
Lisa was my blood, and my flesh and bone. We had the same father, and yet two vastly different upbringings. Her mother had been a major alcoholic and child abuser. By the time she was fifteen she had considerable experience with "checking out" through drink, LSD, cocaine, pot, etc. She had been raped while out scoring and virtually abandoned by her mentally ill mother to raise her younger sister, and had had her needs repeatedly neglected by our father who was unable to rescue any of them from the hell they were living while he immersed himself in his work as a surgeon. To add insult to injury once his wife was properly institutionalized he married a woman only twelve years older than Lisa and proceeded to start over to make a new life, and a new family (insert wince here.) Larry and Lisa 1956
When you are left to your own devices to raise yourself and your younger sister you can make some fairly large mis-steps... and so she did.
Seth and Sara... her children, I write this part to you....
Your mom was a beautiful person who brought light to so many people who met her. I hope you'll remember her for her shining moments, and work to forgive her for what she lacked.
I can't pretend to know why she made some of the decisions she did- I can only tell you that I believe she did the best she could under the circumstances, and did the best job she could do with the information she had. She loved you both SO VERY MUCH and she is in a place now FREE from all the pain, and all the hurt. Your mom was so courageous and so strong and in the grand scheme of things never lost her sense of humor, and never once complained about her lot in life.
I like believing that there are no accidents, and that as individuals we are born into our spiritual "family" each with our own role to play. Even though Lisa was not an actual consistent physical presence in my life she was highly instrumental in so many ways in helping me put so very many pieces of our family life together. Her story, her footprint, and her existence has always made a HUGE impression on me and I'm sure that even though I say goodbye for now, that she will forever be a part of my life and certainly a piece of my heart.
Lisa @ Maryjanes 60th Birthday Party 2000
I want you to know that WE ARE YOUR FAMILY and I wanted you to know this side of the story so that it might offer you some comfort as to why some things happened the way that they did. Your Pip (grandfather) loved your mom, my sister, and wanted to make things right, but he was aso weak in many ways and limited in his ability to communicate because he lived with such guilt over her childhood, and the many things that happened to all of them while he was "away."
I want you to know that I love you, and that even though things have maybe been strained throughout the years it has been because no one had all the pieces of information that may have made for a more involved relationship - all of us. I am not much older than you, and I too was very much in the dark to what you yourself lived through your upbringing.
In saying goodbye to Lisa, I want to make sure i tell you again that I love you, and that I want to continue to know my sister and continue to try to bring healing and humor to our family's life in her memory.
I wanted to leave you with this song because it reminds me of her...
and I also want to offer to TALK and SPEAK openly whenever you may need it. In saying goodbye to your mom, I want to say goodbye to the silence that has been the legacy of our family. I will tell you everything you want to know and if there is anything that haunts you & we don't have answers for i will do my best to get them for you.... xoxoxoxox all my love, Aunt Monica
and I also want to offer to TALK and SPEAK openly whenever you may need it. In saying goodbye to your mom, I want to say goodbye to the silence that has been the legacy of our family.
I will tell you everything you want to know and if there is anything that haunts you & we don't have answers for i will do my best to get them for you.... xoxoxoxox
all my love,