Last Chance for Peace
The day of our mother’s death, my sister and I went to see her at a retirement community outside Wilmington, Delaware. My older sister had been estranged from our mother for some time and had only recently started to chisel through the ice shelf that separated them. Often, she would throw up her hands and say it was impossible. But our mother was failing fast, and at the last minute, Karen agreed to visit. I had always been the go-between, and this final reunion would be an important bridge for all of us. "It’s easier to burn them than to build them," my sister said. I told her that maybe it wasn’t too late to make peace.
I met Karen at the entrance of the Stonegates luxury condominiums, a lavish bunker for the aging well-to-do. I noticed my sister’s beat-up car, as did the security officer at the front kiosk, who looked her over for longer than he’d interrogated me when I had arrived in a late-model airport-rental car. Her clunker was an eyesore in their parking lot. The ceiling fabric had come loose to reveal the yellow foam insulation underneath. It was another reminder of how her life was a little more shabby than most people’s. Because our mother had favored me, I sometimes thought I must be responsible for each cash deficit that befell Karen.
When Karen got out of her car, her streaky blonde hair made her look sort of like Meg Ryan, but her face was more haggard than ever. She told me she’d been having some thyroid trouble, but I wondered if it could be something more serious. She never complained about her problems, and I didn’t ask. We embraced and I said, "How can you see out your rearview mirror with that fabric hanging down?"
"I taped it, but it keeps coming loose," Karen said.
"We should just tear it off completely, don’t you think?"
So our first item of business that day was to strip the interior ceiling from her old Mercury Marquis. We yanked and tugged until it peeled away. I remembered when we had shared a room and Karen had taught me how to make my bed, careful to fold the sheet down so its hem was even. My sister had few safe havens in life, and her car was where she would escape after our ordeal with our mother was over. Now, without the ceiling fabric, it seemed even seedier.
I waited while she stamped out her cigarette, in no hurry to go inside the building. We were nervous at this milestone — the impending death of our matriarch, the femme fatale and dangerous axis of our lives. So much harm can happen in a lifetime, how would we ameliorate all our wrongdoing in a mere teatime? After decades of our mother’s indifference toward her, it was amazing that Karen had even showed up.
When she was 14, my sister vanished.
A Tense Reunion
Now struggling with end-stage liver disease, our mother had been moved from her pocket-of-posh apartment to the "Life Care" unit. We found Veronica propped up in a hospital bed. I thought, this is the sterile gateway most people are forced to depart from, and I’d rather die on a busy street corner. I was surprised to see that her lovely shoulder-length hair had been clipped by nurses, who thought a military hairstyle more appropriate for someone waiting on the tarmac of The Beyond. Seeing her with shorn hair instead of her Lauren Bacall coiffure, I remembered the first time she was hospitalized, for heart surgery. She insisted that I go home to get a negligee from her armoire. She hated to wear a hospital johnnie. She had been a coquette through and through, even in the O.R.
Veronica was happy to see me, but when Karen entered she blinked as if a pepper-ball deterrent had exploded in her face. Recovering her composure, she said, "Oh. It’s you. What a nice surprise."
Karen said, "I’m missing work to be here."
"I didn’t expect the casino would let you off," Veronica said.
"They’ll dock my paycheck, but I guess I’m here now."
I saw that they would have a jousting match until they found their footing. But it wasn’t a real battle cry; not yet, anyway. Karen and I flanked either side of the hospital bed. I took one of my mother’s hands and Karen took the other. I noticed how we were suddenly connected like a strip of paper dolls, the three of us holding hands again. We used to cross the city streets like this, our tripled shadow spilling across the concrete in a whimsical zigzag.
Karen felt the connection, too. She’s trying, I thought. This will work out. But Karen’s childhood is like one of those meteor craters that formed at the bottom of the ocean. Scientists like to calculate how the world was different before and after the impact. My sister’s disappearance was the linchpin event of her childhood, and mine.
In my family, girls disappeared before their coming of age. As in the story of Snow White, our mother banished us as soon as we reached our sexual maturity. Our new, womanly bodies upset the apple cart. Having been abandoned by her first husband, she felt threatened by other women, even her own offspring. When Karen left home, I knew that I, too, would be shoved out of the nest. It was just a matter of time.
Once, I took a part-time job grading tests for a firm called National Educational Testing. The famous Iowa Tests were distributed to grammar-school kids nationwide, and the scoring was done by college students who assembled in three shifts at an old, abandoned A&P where they had set up Formica tables, Xerox machines, and coffee urns. We were grading a fifth-grade essay exam which asked students to describe what was happening in a line drawing. The picture showed a hot-air balloon floating beside a two-story house. The balloon had a basket for passengers, but the basket was empty as it tipped against the eaves of the house.
Some children wrote that the balloon had arrived to take the family to a picnic; some wrote that it had just delivered a new baby, or a puppy. But others wrote that the balloon had crashed into the house and the mother had been killed, or the baby kidnapped, or that police were inside the balloon and had come to capture the father who owed money. Some even said that the balloon was really a bomb dropping onto the building. I might have answered, "The balloon took my sister away." Karen might have written, "The balloon came to rescue me from my empty house."
Why Karen Ran Away
I noticed our mother’s eyes looked strange. She had once had gorgeous glass-green irises, rimmed in topaz with gold flecks. Our father called her "Green-Eyes." But in her last hours, her eyes were flat slate buttons, leached of color. Karen recognized the change, too. Whatever physiological aspect of the death process it was that had stolen her vivid eye color, the vixen at the center of our lives was, at last, neutralized.
After Karen ran away, I maintained my neutrality in my mother’s kingdom by acting like a tomboy or a stable urchin. As a saddle bum, doing chores and whitewashing fences, I masked my gender so as not to be identified as a threat to my mother.
When Karen became an overnight bombshell, Veronica sent her to the doctor to get diet pills to reduce her bustline. She bought her unfashionable jumpers that hid her figure. She sorted our Halloween candy and gave me all of Karen’s booty. At 12, I was still the "cute one," still flat-chested. By the time Veronica started seeing me as a threat two years later, Karen had become an authentic FBI case. She had walked off without a word; we later learned that she’d met a man at the Bowl-o-Rama. He took her across state lines, where she worked at a porn theater and brothel in Virginia Beach. Once, she was raffled off as grand prize at Shriner Nite. My parents left it up to the authorities to try to find her, and I watched my mother to see if she seemed guilty. She’d sip her scotch and turn the pages of a new mystery novel. Veronica was hiding behind her normal routines, maybe for my sake.
The Last Supper
A nurse brought a dinner tray. Tepid chicken goo, and a bowl of fruit salad. The peeled grapes reminded me of a childhood game where Karen blindfolded me and told me to hold "eyeballs" in the palm of my hand.
Karen asked Veronica, "How can they feed you this wallpaper paste?"
"I guess it’s easy on the stomach," I said.
Veronica said, "The cuisine here is not worth the detour."
I was glad to see her sense of humor surface.
"Not worth the detour" was Veronica’s refined complaint against eateries or anything that didn’t meet the standard.
"Let’s get out of here," Karen said. "We’ll take her back to her apartment. We can fix her a nice dinner there."
I said, "Take her out of here? They won’t let us — "
"We’ll sneak her out. I’ll go find a wheelchair."
"I’ll get her a bathrobe."
I walked over to the closet where a few of our mother’s garments were arranged, as if she had come for a weekend holiday.
Veronica said, "I read in the newspaper about an inmate’s request for his last meal — "
"Don’t talk like that," Karen said. "That’s morbid."
Veronica went on, "He wanted fried chicken. Ho hum. But the funny thing about it was that he ordered a Diet Coke. Now why do you suppose he’d want a Diet Coke to wash down his fried chicken?"
"For my last meal I’d want the Real Thing," Karen said.
The mood had suddenly shifted the way sunshine stabs through bamboo blinds. We giggled like three girls planning a party. Karen and I decided to wheel Veronica back to the apartment. Then I would go to the market next door to buy the fixings.
"What do you want to have?" I asked Veronica.
"Whatever you girls want. My treat. My wallet’s on my bureau."
We lifted her from her narrow bed and lowered her into a wheelchair. She weighed less than 90 pounds and her bones felt like the poles of a tripod tangled in her hospital gown.
I looked up and down the hall until the coast was clear, then Karen whisked her down the long corridor.
In preparation for our mother’s departure, our half-brother had gone through all six rooms of the apartment, making lists of estate heirlooms for immediate appraisal and collecting all secondary items in boxes. Without the usual clutter, the place looked robbed of its history, like a furniture showroom. But Veronica was glad to be home.
Back from the market, I poured our mother two fingers of scotch in her favorite tumbler. She sat beside Karen, happy to be planted on her own living-room sofa. "Cheers and jeers," Veronica said, lifting her drink in a salute to us. The toast, or jab, got a laugh out of Karen.
A stray cat waited at the patio door. Karen let him inside and he weaved in and out of our legs. His long fur was matted with clumps that were so tender to touch, he hissed at us each time we tried to pet him. Some tangles are too painful to inspect. Karen found a can of tuna in the cupboard and we watched the tom devour it. Then, he wanted nothing more to do with us and we let him outdoors again.
Veronica said, "Go get my jewelry box in my bedroom. I have some rings — "
"Keep your rings, you might still wear them," Karen said.
"We don’t want your jewelry." I said. "I wish you’d just talk to us."
"Talk about what?"
"I don’t know. This is a chance for us to connect the dots. Maybe you have some advice, I mean, woman to woman — "
Veronica said, "Woman to woman?"
I knew that she was always bored if we talked about our kids or our domestic routines, so I told her about my last trip to New York. I said, "My boss came to my hotel room. Do you think I shouldn’t have let him in?"
"He came to your hotel room?"
"Yes. Suddenly, he’s standing there. What would you have done?"
"That depends. Is he worth the detour?"
Karen was laughing between pulls on her Newport.
"Worth the detour? I don’t know," I said. "The jury is still out."
"It’s a bend in the road, so watch yourself," Veronica said.
"I shouldn’t be telling you this," I said.
Veronica tried to rise to the occasion. Talking to her daughters "woman to woman" was not easy for her, but she said, "I’ll tell you one thing about men. I once took a car trip with your father. Back roads all the way from Chicago to Detroit. It was a blizzard. The snow was coming down like chicken feathers and we got stuck. It was the middle of nowhere. I thought we would freeze to death that night. But you know what he did? He unbuttoned his coat and I got inside with him. We were together in one coat. They said if we hadn’t worn the one coat, we might have died. That’s my advice, find someone like that."
Karen stared at her in amazement. Veronica had said little about our father, who had succumbed to cancer eight years before. I wanted to think that her metaphor could go a different way. In one coat you could put man and wife, or mother and child, or even two sisters, right?
The nurse squad would soon be looking for our mother, so I broiled a lamb chop and carved it into pink snips so Veronica could chew it. I steamed asparagus, only the tips. As Veronica picked at her food, Karen and I tried to tell her what was in our hearts.
I thanked her for small things she’d done for me when I was young. She sewed my first pair of bell-bottom jeans. She taught me how to speak correctly. She made a peach pie for an English teacher I had a crush on. Only later, I recognized that Veronica might have had a crush on him, too.
Veronica asked Karen, "Do you want some of this dinner? You look like you’ve lost some weight."
"I look thinner, really?" Karen said, pleased by the compliment. She took a fork-full from Veronica’s untouched plate, just to be polite. I felt the magnitude of the instant when Veronica offered nourishment to the daughter she’d once given diet pills.
Veronica looked directly at Karen and said, "You know, I loved you." The past tense was confusing, but Karen nodded.
"Me, too," Karen said. That was going to be the sum total. Maybe it was good enough.
Then Veronica said, "You know what I need?"
"What?" Karen said.
"I need a new Maidenform or Vassarette."
"You want a bra?" Karen said, her voice cracking with a compressed laugh.
"Mine are all ratty. Do you think you could go to Wanamaker’s and get me something nice?"
Karen looked at me. We understood that our mother wouldn’t need any foundation garments for what lay ahead of her. "What size are you now?" I asked, in a tiny voice.
"I’m not what I used to be," Veronica said.
"They have nice things in all sizes," Karen said encouragingly. "Underwire, push-up, Cuddleskin, whatever you want."
"I saw an ad, what was it called? Wonderbra? It’s that showy push-up that’s all the rage," Veronica said.
I saw she was getting weaker. We wheeled her back to the Life Care unit.
One Last Gift
In the lingerie department at Wanamaker’s, I flipped through the tiny plastic hangers holding hundreds of diaphanous bras and panties. Karen found a pretty set and held it up to show me.
"Too pink," I said. "She’s not into pink."
"How’s this one?" Karen said, holding a Bali creation of creamy white satin. Tiny cups with a plunging front closure. Karen seemed suddenly animated, as if she might find the perfect balm or succor in just an ounce of nylon. Our excursion to a department store to shop for a failing sex kitten, an incorrigible temptress — our mother — was funny and heartbreaking all at once. Karen’s eyes were brimming.
We sorted silky items, holding them up against our own bodies, trying to choose one. Karen said, "At the funeral home, do you think they bother to put underwear on people?"
"I don’t know. I guess they do what the family tells them to do. It all goes into the urn."
Karen and I stopped to imagine our mother no longer with us. Despite the harsh decades of silence and the different reasons Karen and I shouldn’t miss her in our lives, we would. We left Wanamaker’s with a tiny paper sack, as light as a dandelion puff.
Back at the Life Care unit, we found our mother drifting in and out of sleep.
"Is she napping, or do you think we should call the nurse?" Karen asked.
I nudged Veronica until she opened her eyes.
Karen said, "We found something you’ll like."
Veronica said, "It was a silly idea to send you shopping. On a goose chase — besides, who’s going to see it but us?" She always felt despair having no current man in her life. She plucked sheets of white tissue from the little scrap of satin. "It’s perfect," she said. "It’s what I would have chosen myself."
Maria Flook’s nonfiction books include Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod and a memoir, My Sister Life. Her new novel is Lux.
Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2005.