In this short story, two sisters confront memories and their strained relationship.
Sarah Bright opened the door to her sister and gave her a welcoming hug. Hugging Rebecca was like hugging a straight-backed chair. Rebecca had never been affectionate, even as a girl, but Sarah tried to act as if the sisterly bond she so much desired actually existed. “Your house smells like cats,” said Rebecca before she removed her coat.
“How’s life at Westside Manor these days?” said Sarah, trying to rescue her sister’s visit from early disaster.
Rebecca rejected Sarah’s offer to hang her coat in the closet. She painstakingly draped the pale-blue coat over the back of the chair nearest the front door, as if to be ready to leave any time.
“I’ve joined a new duplicate-bridge group. They were eager to have me, but I didn’t know whether I’d enjoy a group Marge Amstel organized. She always has to be the center of attention. I decided to go ahead since Helen Clark was joining too.” Rebecca finished smoothing the pleats in her gray skirt and sat down with her handbag beside her on the chair.
“Relax, Rebecca,” Sarah wanted to say. “You look as if you’ve come for a job interview.” Rebecca did not take kidding well, so Sarah said instead, “I don’t believe I met Helen when I visited you last summer.”
“Yes you did. She was at our table for at least two meals. She’s the tall, well-dressed woman—a little younger than you are—who always wears beige.”
Sarah recalled a woman who had not spoken to her except to request something from across the table. “How come your friends seem so unfriendly?” she asked, knowing she was venturing into a risky area.
“I prefer friends who know how to keep their distance. Rebecca looked around at Sarah’s tidy but battered living room. Sarah was still using some of the same furniture their parents had brought to the cottage when it had been the family summer home. “I suppose we’ve each selected friends appropriate to our personalities. That woman I met at your house last year—what was her name—Louisa something?”
“That was it. She looked as faded and sagging as some of your furniture.”
“Louisa’s my closest friend. You’d like her if you got to know her.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to get to know her.”
“We’re picking at each other already. Come sit over here by me on the window seat. I want you to see how pretty the mountain looks with snow on it.”
“I saw snow on the mountain last year,” said Rebecca, but she moved over next to Sarah. Rebecca brought her purse with her to the window seat and placed it between her sister and herself. She straightened her skirt again. “I’ve got to look decent for dinner. I’m sure I won’t get back in time to change.”
“You only come to see me once or twice a year, even though we live just fifteen miles apart, and then you can’t even stay through dinner time.” Sarah gave up pretending to be pleased with her sister. “Every time we finally make arrangements to see each other, I hope this time the visit will be different, but you never change.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t come to see me any more often than I come to see you.”
“That’s because you can never find time for me to visit. In the past year I can think of at least five occasions when you called at the last moment and told me not to come.”
“Things come up,” said Rebecca. She examined the nail on the ring finger of her left hand, took a file out of her handbag, and repaired a corner of the nail that had not been to her liking. “You know how busy I am. I have responsibilities. Why don’t you give up this place and move out to Westside Manor yourself? You complain about not seeing me. Seems to me you couldn’t see much of anyone way out here. One reason I don’t come more often is that terrible road. I’m sure it’s damaged the suspension on my car already.”
“I have lots of friends, and Louisa lives less than half a mile away. We walk over to each other’s house nearly every day.”
“You’re not a young woman anymore, Sarah. If you’re not careful you’re going to turn into one of those eccentric old ladies who live in some forsaken hovel with a dozen cats—the kind who keep money in the mattress and never wash the dishes.”
“Perhaps I am an eccentric old lady, but I keep one cat, not twelve, and you know I’ve always been as neat and clean as anyone. You’re the one who never straightened her room when we were growing up. As for my home being a hovel, have you forgotten that our own father built this house?”
“For a summer place. It was never intended for year-round living. What if you were sick or fell? Who would find you out here?” Rebecca picked up the cat that had jumped on the window seat to greet her and threw him to the floor. “After I visit you, it takes me a week to get the cat hairs out of my clothes.”
“Why do you dislike my home so much? Every time you come to visit you try to talk me into coming to live in your retirement community. I can’t believe it’s because you’d like to see more of me. When we were little, you never could stand it when I made up my own mind about what I wanted. I don’t think you’ve changed a bit. I was your big sister, so I was supposed to be ready for all your commands. If I wanted to ride my bicycle and you wanted to play princess, I had to play princess with you because you needed me to be the ugly stepsister, or the prince, or some other undesirable part. If I didn’t do what you wanted, you ran to Mother, and together you shamed me into compliance.”
“I won’t have you criticizing our poor mother,” said Rebecca. She had turned in her seat to face out the window at the snowy meadow, with the woods and mountain beyond. She stared at the scene as if it drew her into it. Sarah had seen that vacant, distracted look many times before, however. Rebecca was not absorbing the natural beauty; she was doing her best to shut out a discussion she did not want to continue.
“I’m not criticizing Mother,” said Sarah. “I’m talking about you and me. You even told me where I had to go to college. I was accepted up at Bates, but you fixed it so I had to stay home and commute. That way I could continue to be at your service.”
“I didn’t make you do anything.”
“You got Mother and Father to talk to me about responsibility and how you needed me. Sure you needed me—to do your homework for you, to do your chores, to drive you on your dates. I think you still can’t stand not to have me standing by just in case I might be useful.” By now Sarah, too, had turned toward the snow and the mountain. She looked at the scene for the courage to keep trying to tell her sister what she had been attempting to tell her for more than fifty years. At eighteen Sarah had finally begun to understand that Rebecca was controlling her life and that—as much as her parents believed it and forced her to believe it, too—Rebecca was not helpless.
For more than fifty years her relationship with her sister had shifted back and forth from anticipation of her visits, to tolerance of her insults, to determination never to see her again. She did not know what had made her feel so resolved to try once more to explain, unless it had been going through the old picture albums yesterday with Louisa: all those pictures of people who were gone; all those people she had loved, tried to understand, and too often resented for the ways they had sometimes made her childhood difficult. Her mother had been a woman who never seemed to want anything but what was best for her family. She had not seen that by making Rebecca the eternally helpless darling, she had doomed her daughters to spending their adult lives as distant acquaintances. Their brother, Jeremy, had left home as soon as he was eighteen because he thought he was a failure in his parents’ eyes. Her father had loved his older daughter best and then, because he was ashamed to have a favorite, had expected more of her than she could give. Her father had never forgiven his son for leaving them and had never stopped blaming himself.
She and Rebecca were the only ones left, but when she looked at the photographs, Sarah could barely connect Rebecca to the tiny girl in the white ruffled dress and pink hair ribbons. They had all loved her so dearly. And finally Sarah had seen photos of herself, almost as tall and big boned at fourteen as she was now at seventy. After Louisa had left yesterday, Sarah had gone through the pictures again. It was something much more than a little lingering resentment that made her ache.
“Do you think Mother was happy?”
Rebecca seemed startled by the question. “I imagine so. She loved our father. She loved us. I suppose Jeremy’s leaving so young and moving across the country hurt her. She never talked about him much after he left. I guess she was about as happy as most women of her day.”
“Yes, but what did she want out of life? What did she want to achieve? You wanted the prestige of a wealthy husband and socially prominent friends. That wasn’t for me, but I always assumed you found pretty much the life you were looking for. I wanted a career, and the chance to be as independent as I pleased. I’m still living that kind of life. I even feel I’ve been a little bit useful to some of my students and not such a bad friend to my neighbors. But what was Mother looking to find? We always just expected her to be our mother, even after we were grown. The year before she died I was still calling her up for advice about handling my students.”
“What’s gotten into you, Sarah? I think you’re making a whole lot out of nothing. Women’s lives were different then.”
“Their lives were different, but were the women themselves so different? Inside, what did they think and feel? We never asked ourselves that about our own mother.”
“I’m getting uncomfortable sitting here,” said Rebecca, who had turned back away from the wide window. She picked up her purse and moved to an overstuffed chair by the stairs. She sat forward in her chair, as if she were waiting for a convenient moment to stand and say goodbye.
The big Burmese cat settled into Rebecca’s vacant spot on the window seat. Sarah scratched him between his ears. She forced herself to keep talking. She had lost the chance to say all she wanted—all she wished she had said—to her parents and brother, but Rebecca was alive. “For years I’ve been saving some things to show you. Come with me. Don’t worry about your purse or your coat. Willy doesn’t claw things.” Sarah walked over to Rebecca and extended her hand.
Rebecca stood but ignored Sarah’s hand. “I really can’t stay long. I promised to pick up a pair of gloves for Helen at the new shop that just opened next to the bookstore.”
Sarah led Rebecca up the stairs to the large bedroom over the living room. “I bet you haven’t been upstairs more than a dozen times since the summers we spent here as girls. This was our parents’ room. Do you remember?”
“Of course I remember. I’m not senile, although I’m beginning to wonder about you. You’re starting to live in the past. The past is dead and gone. Why bring up what can’t be changed or brought back?”
“Mother and Father kept this wedding picture here. I’ve tried to keep everything on the bureau the same as it was. I guess it’s because Mother’s fancy little bottles, and Father’s mirror and brush, and the wedding picture are part of the people Mother and Father were, part of the complete human beings, with likes and dislikes and disappointments and plans for the future that I never thought much about because they were just Mother and Father. They fed me and kept me safe and made me be nice to you when I wanted you to disappear. In my world they were just parents.
“Now when I touch this little violet perfume bottle, I see Mother picking it out and setting it here so the room will be pretty and homey. I imagine Father brushing that wavy dark hair of his each morning so he’ll look handsome for Mother.”
“What else do you have to show me? I don’t have much more time.”
“Remember that wicker chair by the window? You probably hated it because Father made you paint it once. That was the only real work I ever remember him asking of you, but I had the flu and for some reason he wanted it painted right away. Do you recall how you and I used to pretend that chair was a throne? We’d put our dolls in it so they could hold audiences with their subjects. Of course your doll always got to be the young queen. But we didn’t fight every time. We made up some lovely stories using that chair. Beyond the mountain was the Kingdom of Flavoria, and we had to protect our people from the evil Flavorian count.” Rebecca looked at the chair, but Sarah could not guess what she was thinking.
“Come across the hall a moment,” said Sarah.
Rebecca stood at the door, and at first Sarah thought she would refuse to enter the tiny room that Sarah now used as a study because it had the morning sun. “I told you I don’t like to think about the past,” said Rebecca. “Why have you kept my room this way when you hate me? I think you’ve planned this little tour so you could have lots of opportunities to remind me how awful I’ve been to you. Do you think I need reminding?” Sarah was not sure, but she thought Rebecca’s voice was a little unsteady.
Sarah sat down on the single bed in the far corner. “I know you won’t believe it, but I kept your bed just as you had it because I like to think of you in this room the way you were when we first started coming here. You were the daintiest, prettiest little girl I’d ever seen. I was so proud of you. I wanted all my friends to see my beautiful little sister.”
“I was five when father finished this cottage,” said Rebecca. “Mother and Father let me pick out the bedspread and bring up my favorite doll to set on the pillow. Why don’t you get rid of that spread? It looks as if it will disintegrate with one more washing. I don’t know why I liked that silly doll so much; she’s really quite hideous.” Rebecca picked up the cloth doll and turned her over to examine the back. “There’s the place where I ripped her dress trying to yank her away from you. I wouldn’t stop crying until Mother made you mend the hole. I could be a brat sometimes, couldn’t I?” For the first time all afternoon, Rebecca smiled.
Rebecca continued to speak as she sat down on the bed next to Sarah. “The first summer here doesn’t seem like over sixty years ago, does it? I don’t remember when I stopped playing with this doll. One day she wasn’t a toy anymore, just a decoration for my room, and then before long my room wasn’t my room any longer. I married Jim, we made a life together, and then that life was over. You think I’ve just bulldozed my way along, getting what I want and not caring about anyone but myself. If I’m so selfish, why is it I feel so terrible right now, thinking about everything that’s gone by?” Rebecca stood and walked over to the side window, where she looked down at the brown remains of the garden poking through the snow. Sarah came up beside her, and Rebecca let Sarah put her arm around her waist. Unlike earlier, Sarah felt she was holding a living woman and not a piece of furniture.
“Even by the time we started coming here, the losses had begun. Jeremy had left the year before. That’s one of the reasons why Father wanted to build this cottage, so Mother could get away from our house where he had grown up. We only saw him once after that, so I always felt I’d lost my brother before I could ever know him. At least you were old enough to remember him.”
Without conversation Sarah led Rebecca into the third bedroom and sat down on the battered hope chest at the foot of the twin bed that matched the one in Rebecca’s old room. Rebecca sat beside her.
“Sometimes when I was sure you wouldn’t catch me, I used to come in here and just sit,” said Rebecca. “I used to imagine that I was you, that I was tall and sophisticated and beautiful like you, and that I was smart in school and had lots of friends. I was sure you’d marry someone handsome and rich and then you’d leave me. I thought I’d be stuck at home and be the baby sister forever, always waiting for you to come back and pay attention to me so I’d be happy again. I envied you because you always knew what you wanted to do without asking anyone. Mother even helped me choose my clothes until I was married, and you told me which boys were nice and which ones to watch out for. Except for painting that one chair, Father never made me do any real work. I just helped with little chores like making beds and setting the table. I remember when you and Father built those bookcases you still have in your living room. I thought I’d never be old enough or smart enough to do something like that.”
Sarah and Rebecca sat quietly. Sarah could hear the old clock downstairs tick and then strike the quarter hour. When they had been girls that clock had stood on the mantel in their home outside Manchester. Sarah remembered early mornings when she would get up before the rest of the family in order to sit on the red velvet sofa and read while the clock made its comfortable, family sounds. Sarah had liked being up alone but knowing her parents and sister were just up the stairs.
“I could never live here,” said Rebecca eventually. “There are too many ghosts.”
“It’s because of the ghosts that I want to be here. I can look at the mountain and think of climbing it with Father, and whenever I bake bread I imagine Mother’s perfect loaves in place of my lopsided ones. Even Jeremy’s here a little. That desk in your old room used to be his. And just as much as I think of Mother and Father and Jeremy, I think of you.”
“I’m no ghost.”
“Until today, you were to me. I sometimes walk through the house thinking of all the things I might be able to tell you to bring you back so you’d be my sister again—not just some woman who disapproves of me and whose life I can’t understand. Mother and Father and Jeremy are gone, but we still have time together.”
Once again Rebecca was quiet. She let Sarah take her hand.
The clock struck the half hour. “I have to be going,” said Rebecca. “I promised Helen I’d be back through town before that shop closes.”
Sarah followed her down the stairs. Rebecca checked her coat for cat hairs, let Sarah help her into it, and picked up her purse. She was almost to the door when she turned back to Sarah and gave her a tentative hug. “I may have a free afternoon next week,” she said. “Do you still have those picture albums Mother put together? I might like to see them.”