Thursday, July 3, 2008

The chickadees—and the angels—watch over them

The month of June has been filled with missions and memories.

Mission-wise, I attended my college reunion; threw a joint 80-th birthday party for my parents (who’ve been divorced for 50 years, but who’s counting? It’s the era of nontraditional families, after all); saw my mother through knee surgery; and, last but not least, visited my newly purchased cottage in rural Connecticut.

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, this cottage is not exactly “new” to me—it was my childhood home, decades ago:

What I didn’t mention in that post is the reason that I bought this particular property. I have a strong emotional connection to it, because it’s the home I shared with my sister—Suzanne—who died of leukemia when she was five years old (I was two at the time). She was buried in a little cemetery that lies within easy walking distance of the house. All you have to do is climb a small hill, cut through a wild blueberry patch and a thicket of old forest and you’re there.

My decision last summer to purchase the house last fall was purely, intemperately emotional—of all the places I’ve ever lived in my life, I’ve always viewed this particular place through a gauzy, nostalgic filter. When I conjure up a picture of “home,” I always think of this house, even though we moved away when I was nine years old. For decades, this dwelling has held a special place in my heart. When the property finally came back on the market last summer (I’d been scanning the multiple realty listings for years), I had to have it. It felt as if the house was calling out to me.
Last week, I did my first walk-through of the property since the purchase. (My neighbors must wonder who the crazy lady in California is who bought the old Browne cottage, and has been letting it sit ever since, uninhabited.).

To put it mildly, the place needs a lot of work. A lot of work. The walls are covered with soot; the inside of every appliance is colored orange from exposure to the undrinkable well water. At the very least, I’ll have to sink an additional fifty thousand dollars into the place to drill a new well and replace the septic tank.

I couldn’t care less. That day, I spent very little time doing the actual tour of the property. My real goal was to visit the cemetery where my sister Suzanne is buried.

Suzanne’s headstone looks well-tended and peaceful. It has an inscription on it, “Sleep in Heavenly peace,” which, my mother once told me, was a refrain from her favorite lullaby. Next to the grave is a tall evergreen that was planted at the time of her burial.

I spent a long time in front of my sister’s final resting place, reflecting on a life not completed. What would Suzanne have been like as an adult? What would life have been like for me, if I’d had an older sister all those years? Would her presence have made the trials of multiple divorces, addiction issues, and geographic disruptions any less painful? I feel that it would have. Family stories highlight how special Suzanne was, how gifted, how close we were as sisters. I feel cheated of a future that was lost. Hers was a life that was denied to the world, and to me in particular. Even though I never really got a chance to know her, I miss her. I miss her so, so much.

During visit to the cemetery, I stood silently at her resting place, not changing expression. I didn’t know how to feel. Then, as I was turning to leave, I spotted another grave. This one was much newer—you could tell by the engraved picture of the deceased on the stone facing. It was the portrait of a little boy, about ten years old. His name was Jeremy.

Jeremy died in 2004. On top of his headstone, there was a line-up of tiny toy cars and trucks. One of the trucks had fallen into the dirt; I picked it up and placed it carefully on top of the granite.

At the base of the headstone were several statues—two angels, a cherub, and one of a mother holding a baby. Next to that was a statue of a child holding a sign that said, “Miss You.” Someone—a sibling, perhaps?—had wrapped a child’s magenta fabric headband around the base of the sign.

I looked to the right, and for the first time, noticed a wooden bird house planted in the ground. Sitting on top of the birdhouse was a black-and-white chickadee. I remember chickadees from my days living in the house in Connecticut—if you held your hand out long enough, they would swoop down and sit on your finger.

I stared for a long time at the bird, who stared back at me, not moving. Finally, I got back in my car. As I was leaving the cemetery, I passed another birdhouse. A female chickadee was sitting on top of that one.

Somehow, the presence of the birds comforted me. It felt as if Nature’s spirit was keeping watch over Suzanne and Jeremy.

After all of that, what lingers in my mind is the inscription on Jeremy’s headstone:

“Life is a journey
Our paths are different now
Someday our roads will corss and we will be together again
Farewell my son, my little angel.”

At the base of Jeremy’s headstone was a little plaque that said:

“No farewell words were spoken,
No time to say goodbye
You were gone before we knew it
And only God knows why.”

When I think back on the sister I never had a chance to really know, those words give me comfort.


Camille Minichino said...

Very moving, Kathryn.
I had a brother who died at 2 1/2 of pneumonia 4 years before I was born. It was a life changing event for my mother ... she talked about him every day.

It's nice to have symbols of hope also.

Sheila Connolly said...

What a wonderful post, and a great opportunity for you to keep the past with you.

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries looking for ancestors, and I always feel I am honoring them, and the others of the community buried with them, by being there. I keep their memory alive.

My mother had a late miscarriage when I was in third grade. The child was a boy, and I've occasionally thought, he'd be twenty, thirty, forty by now. How would my life have been different with a younger brother?

Camille Minichino said...

I think of that too, Sheila. Not only what would it have been like to have a brother, but how different my parents would have been if they hadn't lost him.

Linda O. Johnston said...

What a poignant post, Kathryn. Hugs--and chickadees!

Terri Thayer said...

Lovely, Kathryn. I feel this way about my grandmother's house in upstate New York. Luckily one of my cousins was able to buy it for his family.

The real question is how it changes the parents. We can only imagine (if we're lucky).

Nice tribute to your sister.

Betty Hechtman said...

What a nice post, Kathryn. I can certainly understand wanting a place with connections to your past.

When my mother died I kept her Chicago condo and every time I walk in the door, it is like being hugged by her.

Kathryn Lilley said...

Just got back to LA from Boston--Camille, thanks for sharing about your brother. I do cling to those symbols of hope--they help us go on. Sheila, that's what I do, too--project to "what might have been." Especially during times of stress, I find. Thanks for the hugs and chickadees, Linda! Terri, I'm glad for you that someone in your family bought your grandmother's house. I feel a bit odd that our old house is sitting there unused, like a shrine, but I feel that someday it will be a place of refuge for someone in the family. Maybe even for me! Betty, I totally understand keeping the condo, and glad that it helps you feel close to your mother's spirit.

Thanks, all, for the wonderful supportive words!