Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Sisters with Hankies
By Linda Davis of Grammology
As I peered in her cupboards and dresser drawers, I could tell much about her - but not whether she had died as is, sadly, so often the case. The telltale railings in the tub and the walker told me what her life had become, but it was the rooms filled with her life’s treasures that told the story of the woman she was.
I used to feel like an intruder at these estate sales - taking a much too intimate glimpse of one person’s life. But now, as the years advance, I feel like a loving admirer. I finger the gloves she wore, I touch the top of the tattered pin cushion, I leaf through the monogrammed stationery, I carefully open each change purse as she did, no doubt a hundred times.
These were the women of the past, the women of a generation I simply love. These were the women who wore gloves when they left the house. They tucked handkerchiefs in their small purses and spritzed themselves with perfumes that smelled like lily-of-the-valley. They were the everyday heroes of everyday families.
Fiddling with tidbits of her life, touching the doorways as she must have, I put the pieces of her life together room by room. The hand-embroidered hanky with tiny flowers forming an “R” told me her name. The other one told me she was a “Mother.” Georgia, Florida, Rome, Venice - the box full of magnets told me she was a traveler.
But it was in the kitchen, my favorite place, that I learned of this woman named “R.” Yes, it was often in the kitchen that I learned the most.
The counters were piled high with things that everyone was passing up - they were too worn. Bread pans, cookie sheets, copper molds, cookies cutters in every shape, even aces, hearts, diamonds and spades labeled “Playing Card Cutters!” Gravy basters, wooden spoons, bowls of every size and shape, cookie presses. And aprons. A cook’s favorite apron is a precious thing indeed.
I imagined R: her love showed through her cooking - her hands, I could practically see them, never manicured, they were a cook’s hands. As I sifted through her drawer of spoons, one thing stood out. It was shaped like a U, bright yellow, with a circular-toothed, metal shape in the center. I wondered aloud what this might have been without noticing the woman browsing across from me at the kitchen counter.
“I know what that is,” she said. “It takes kernels off the corn cob. You won’t believe how big that circular thing gets.” The lady sitting at the kitchen table with the adding machine looked up at her curiously. Amazing that she knew this!
“You see,” she said, “this was my aunt’s home and she used that all the time.”
“Please tell me about her,” I said. “I know her name was R and that she was a mother and that she traveled,” I said.
No, the niece explained, her name began with J and she never traveled.
I had it all wrong. “This is my Aunt Joan’s house,” she explained. “She lived downstairs and her sister, Ruth, lived upstairs.”
That precious, well-cared for hanky with the “R” belonged to her beloved sister, Ruth. And that other well cared for hanky that says “Mother” - well that belonged to their mother. Aunt Joan never had children.
And, no, Aunt Joan never traveled. She couldn’t afford to. But her sister Ruth could. So Ruth always brought her a magnet souvenir. Aunt Joan kept every one of them.
And Aunt Joan could cook. Everything. Cookies, roasts, candies. She didn’t buy Christmas presents, she baked cookies for everyone.
I choked back the question, but she offered it: neither of the sisters had died. They are both still with us. But Aunt Joan got sick. And when Ruth saw her sister losing her health, Ruth became very ill herself.
They are both in nursing homes, she explained. But since Aunt Joan couldn’t afford it, she is in a separate home.
I had heard more than I could bear.
Tears stinging my eyes, I went through every room again, imagining these sister’s lives.
The Kennedy Life magazine articles told me that they had mourned the nation’s sons together, perhaps with a singular understanding that only exists between two sisters. I imagined the sisters sitting together drinking out of the delicate painted tea cups that still held their stains.
I saw Ruth’s sparse kitchen. Aunt Joan probably came up here, carrying cookies to sit and listen to Ruth play Rogers & Hammerstein music from the black-and-white sheet music that sat on the organ. I saw them at their card table, Aunt Joan probably used her “Playing Card” cookie cutters to make a special treat to eat while they played Hearts.
The rocks for sale in the basement reminded me of the rocks I used to love as a child - big quartz formations, they looked like “diamonds.” As I remember so vividly how I protected that quartz rock I brought home from Bear Mountain when I was a child - the rock my stepmother still has - I imagined Ruth traveling the world, struggling with a too heavy suitcase filled with these “diamond” rocks, bringing her sister Joan a small taste of life beyond these walls.
As I cuddled my purchases, I wished Ruth’s Daughter and Aunt Joan’s Niece good luck. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll get them back together again.”
Today I came home to a home that is much enhanced, its spirit enriched.
A very worn bowl sits among my own. A frayed apron is nestled safely among my collection. Little hankies, one with an “R” and one with the word “Mother” sit in my keepsake box. Two painted teacups look out from my cupboard: one simple and covered with forget-me-nots, one a bold crimson with a hidden rose inside. Blackened tiny muffin tins await this weekend’s breakfast. And cookie cutters in the shape of “Playing Cards” sit on my counter, inviting me to bake.
And a funny U-shaped thing-a-ma-jiggy sits in my drawer anticipating corn season.
Maybe someday, years from now, my niece will tell a stranger a story of her aunt. Who loved to cook. Who used to cut the kernels off the cob. Who loved her sister. And her Mother. And baked cookies with these funny little cookie cutters in the shape of “Playing Cards.”
And another generation of women will extend a hand to the next.
I look out to my garden, in a shady spot I always see from my kitchen window. Two “diamond” rocks sit under the Hornbeam tree, one purple, one amber.
Reminding me of two sisters. Together. As sisters ought to be.