Today is Wednesday, January 7, 2015, and I’m in my car in Dallas, Pennsylvania while my three sisters, two brothers, and parents are at the hospital in Beverly, Massachusetts.
I wrote that a week ago, on the night my Aunt Margie died. I felt upset that Aunt Margie was dying, and I felt upset that I wasn’t there, with her and with the rest of my family.
I wrote more, both that night in the car while waiting for my daughter’s field hockey practice to end, and afterwards, while coming to grips with the fact that Margie is gone. But I wasn’t ready to post anything I wrote about my Aunt Margie because a) I thought it kept becoming about me instead of about Margie and b) I felt like I was side-stepping the fact that I have not been there for Margie for most of my adult life—that I was presenting her life in my terms, with my memories, and was thus omitting the last 25 years of her life.
And those may be the only two truths I have to offer, and they’re not pretty: That I’m ultimately wrapped in my own perspective and that I wasn’t there for Margie.
But I hope there’s more.
As a kid, I didn’t know that the acidic smell when we entered the house was actually the smell of cats. I didn’t know the stereotype of crazy ladies living with cats. I didn’t know what an “apparatus” might be a euphemism for. I didn’t even know the word “euphemism.”
What I did know was what life was like when we visited Aunt Margie’s house. It was full of sweets and games and loud laughter. We didn’t have a lot of rules and we didn’t need a lot of rules. Janet and Diane and I would stay for a weekend or a week, and maybe we fought and squabbled the way we always did, but I don’t have any memories of that. Instead, I remember that Janet loved to dust at Aunt Margie’s house, and I loved to sweep. I don’t know what chore Diane enjoyed, but I’m sure she did something to earn money to shop.
And shop we did. We’d walk to Bearskin Neck, often stopping at the swings for a few minutes on the way. We’d pass a sign held up by a post that looked like a linked chain; it caught my attention every single time.
And we’d always stop and watch the taffy being stretched or wrapped or boxed in what seemed like magical procedures in the window of Tuck’s. I’m horrible with directions and remembering where things are, but the pattern of landmarks on the way to Bearskin Neck somehow entertained me, nearly as much as the shops themselves.
As a kid, I didn’t know my mom’s hometown was a tourist town. I didn’t know that it’s amazing to live where you can walk to a tourist center of shops where hardly any cars drive. I didn’t know that it’s a big deal to live a five-minute walk from the beach. I didn’t know I was lucky to have an Aunt Margie who lived near Motif No. 1, the most painted building in the U.S. I take that back; I did know I was lucky to have Aunt Margie.
We stopped in shops with names that are on the tip of my tongue…one that had jewelry (was it Krames?), where I’m sure I bought at least one ring with my birthstone. Either that shop or another offered fluorescent coral and sea shells, the kind that were polished and beautiful and that didn’t seem even remotely connected to the purplish sandy clam shells or smelly snails I would collect from the beach.
I looked at miniature doll house figures and furniture in a store whose name I can’t recall (though “Mrs. Something” is dancing in my head; Mrs. Twigg’s? is that possible?), and I probably bought something small and cheap there at one time or another. We always visited The Happy Whale. I regularly spent my chore money on invisible ink books, which are awesome.
Our Bearskin Neck excursions always included a quick look at the lobsters at the Roy Moore Lobster Company. They both fascinated and disgusted me; I could never imagine eating one back then.
But don’t worry; we did not starve. We always stopped at the Country Store where we would each pick out penny candy to take home in a little brown bag. Did it actually cost a penny? I have no idea anymore. But even if it was 3 cents apiece, it was worth it. I chose root beer barrels, circus peanuts (one of the oddest foods ever but somehow delicious), those colored dots on paper (why? I can’t answer that), tiny wax bottles with sweet liquid inside (so cool! you could bite the top right off in order to access the liquid), fireballs (because I was daring! lol), and mint jellies shaped like leaves and coated with sugar.
The Country Store had a player piano. That has nothing to do with the candy. It’s just that my memory is firing as I write, pulling me back to the moments that were not moments at all but instead were patterns, played out again and again during visit after visit.
I never asked why Margie didn’t work. I never wondered if she enjoyed visiting the same shops time after time, with each stop centered on the interests of her young nieces. She had friends who visited her house, and she smoked cigarettes, and she laughed with us. She seemed happy.
When we were in the house, we played Yahtzee and Mille Bornes and other games. Margie prepared tea for herself every afternoon, and the four of us would have tea parties. Janet and I drank hot tea with sugar and milk, and Diane would drink milk and pretend it was tea. All of us had alter egos at the tea parties. Janet was Lulu Luscious. I was Katerina Kaulpepper. And Diane was Deanna DanderFleet. We called Margie “Mrs. Glick” sometimes because we thought she had a crush on her psychiatrist, Dr. Glick. Or sometimes we would call her “Meg,” a nickname for Margaret that seemed so much softer than “Margie” (though we all had Boston accents, so you must imagine it correctly, as “Mahh-jee,” which is sorta soft in its own way).
Janet and I would sometimes pretend to smoke cigarettes to be like Margie. I still remember the faint taste on my lips even though I’ve never actually smoked a regular cigarette. They were Newports. The packages were teal. I wasn’t bothered by the smell of the cigarettes anymore than I was bothered by the smell of cat urine.
Sometimes in the summer, gold sticky strips were hung from the kitchen light to catch flies. They were disgusting. But they didn’t bother me either.
One time during a tea party, for some reason, Janet ran up the stairs carrying her cup of tea, and she farted on every. single. step. as she ran. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! She made it all the way to the top, laughing the whole time, without spilling a single drop. During every tea party, we recalled that bizarre incident. We left out the reason why she ran up the stairs with her cup of tea and we left out what happened after, but we held onto the important parts. Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft Pft! all the way to the top, without spilling a single drop.
Do you want to know the dark part? The part that explains “the apparatus”? That explains why Margie didn’t work? That tells you about her medicine and her overdoses and her days spent in her bathrobe and her very long toenails that I found impressive as a kid but that were probably a sign that she wasn’t paying enough attention to her personal grooming?
I don’t know very much, actually. I know that Margie had a permanent catheter. I actually didn’t even remember that word, “catheter,” or apply it to Margie until this morning. She would disappear to the bathroom for a time saying she needed to take care of her “apparatus,” and I didn’t think twice about it.
Every visit included not just a visit to Bearskin Neck but also a day spent at O’Garden Beach. Janet, Diane, and I would wear clothes over our bathing suits and carry a beach towel. We’d walk part of the way on a dirt road Margie dubbed “The Bunny Trail,” making it seem like an adventure. Sometimes my cousins David and Pipes would come, too; they were often our playmates when we were in Rockport.
No matter the weather, Margie wore slacks with an elastic band at the waist, not shorts. She would take off her shoes at the beach, and she’d sit on a beach towel or on a rock and smoke cigarettes while watching us play and laughing with us. We swam and ran back and forth with the breakers; we made sand castles (that looked more like mountains of dirt, though sometimes pails or Dixie cups helped the piles fit our imaginations a bit better), we dug holes to China, we climbed on a landscape of boulders that stretched over a huge part of the beach.
I know that Margie struggled with depression. When I was in high school and learned some basic facts about psychological struggles, Margie asked for copies of the diagrams I shared with her. That was what rang true for her.
She was smart, and she seemed as able to me as the other adults in my life. When I was in college and heard about her tricking the pharmacist into giving her extra pills, I was angry and wrote her a letter I never sent. I knew how much she had to give. I thought she should volunteer at a daycare, work with children, help out at an animal shelter because she loved cats. I was mad that she didn’t see the value in her life because it was so clear to me.
Sometimes on our visits, Margie would take out big scrapbooks and we’d look through them together. She’d show us the cards and pictures our older siblings had made when she was in the hospital. It was funny for us to think of Carole and Stephen and Michael being the ages of me and Janet and Diane, making cards on folded construction paper. Each picture seemed like a souvenir from a time long past. I didn’t think too much about why Margie had been in the hospital.
Margie had a washer but no dryer. We would help her hang clothes on the line outside or on the indoor folding rack of wooden dowels. She made meatloaf for us with bacon on top. She would take us to the grocery store with Uncle George (her brother), where we could pick out junk food to eat while visiting her.
I never wondered why she didn’t drive. Why didn’t she drive? I still don’t know. Is it bizarre that I accepted so much? Was it a good thing? or not so much? It’s weird to be so much older, with a new perspective, and still to be so damn clueless.
As we grew older, becoming teens and then adults, I saw her less often. But on holidays she was still herself. “Oh, my god, you’re so beautiful—I can’t stand it! You should be a model!” She said it all the time, to each of us. And she always meant it.
She also meant every loud laugh that came out of her mouth.
Sometimes she was difficult to talk to, especially when she was in a nursing home and I would visit. She’d tell me her life was terrible and ask me how I would feel if I were her, trapped, with nothing to live for. I couldn’t respond in any way that made the situation better; I know, because I tried. She would express anger and bitterness no matter what I said.
My husband would come in the room, and she’d laugh and joke with him.
I say that as if I visited Margie regularly, but I didn’t. She spent countless days and hours with me throughout my childhood, days spent doing things that would be enjoyable for me, days spent creating a pattern of memories that are so important to who I am that I have told my kids about them, have relived them with my kids, dragging them from shop to shop in Bearskin Neck, encouraging them to climb on rocks at O’Garden Beach. I’m pretty sure Janet and Diane have done the same with their kids.
Yet I didn’t visit Margie very much in the last 25 years. She added so many good memories to my childhood that I can’t capture them all. And I did nothing in return beyond an annual Christmas card and an occasional 45-minute visit.
Sorry, Margie. You deserved better—from me, and from life.
That’s where I stopped writing several days ago. Even though I didn’t want to write about me, I’m afraid that’s where I keep ending up: My good memories. My appreciation of the time and energy Margie gave to make my childhood better. My guilt that I wasn’t there for her—not just on the night she died, but for the last 25 years.
I think about how I’d respond to a friend feeling what I’m feeling (which is a trick I regularly use: How would I talk to myself if I were a friend? and which an actual friend studying to be a counselor told me is a good strategy, even if it does make me sound crazy).
I bet your Aunt Margie loved spending time with you and your brothers and sisters. I bet you all brought her a lot of joy without even trying to. Isn’t that how you tend to feel when you spend time with kids who delight in small pleasures like invisible ink books and penny candy?
I bet there were people who were there for Margie in the years when you weren’t, just like you’ve been there for people over the years who are not necessarily in your own family. Maybe that’s how human relations are supposed to work; maybe we all need to be kind to the people who are right in front of us because it’s impossible to always be there for every person we care about.
I bet your Aunt Margie understood that you were wrapped up in your own family, not because you’re selfish but because it takes time and energy to build a family and to build a career.
Didn’t your siblings and your parents tell you that you should be in Pennsylvania the night that Margie died because you couldn’t do anything? You have a role to play, but it is often not the starring role. Often, your role is to send a holiday card that will make people smile, to be there for your daughter while she is at field hockey practice, to pick up the phone when your sister calls to say Margie is gone. These are not starring roles, but sometimes, those are the roles you’re meant to play.
And, just like that, I’m thinking about Margie and what it means for a life to matter.
Margie mattered. She mattered to so many of us. She may not have felt like she had a starring role in many people’s lives because she didn’t lead a conventional life: She never married and never had children and never had a career; she spent many years of her life being cared for by others. The truth is, Margie and I were only minimally in one another’s life for a really long time, and it’s not appropriate to suggest otherwise. The truth is, I feel bad that I did not make more of an effort to see her when I travelled to New England over these last years.
But, let’s be clear: Margie starred in a lot of our stories—in a lot of my stories. She struggled and was not well in many ways, for most of her life. But that did not stop her from bringing joy to others in ways that have left permanent imprints on many lives, including mine. She did not have to star in every stage of my life in order to make the years count when she did.
So there are more truths I have come to, truths I of course already knew. Truths Margie has taught me.
So I end, not simply by telling Margie sorry but also, more importantly, by remembering times that were not simply good or bad but instead were full of everyday joys in the midst of all kinds of everyday difficulties.
I end by saying to Margie, thank you.