Like many of our neighbors, friends and strangers, we are sorting through the fading photographs of a life recently vacated. Picking through memories and the detritus of hopes for some tomorrow that came and went — or never arrived.
Add to that the clutter of possessions once prized but now having little use to anyone, and it says something about how a death — two, in our extended family over a span of just a few days — can make you consider once again the real value of material things.
What is the cost of an empty house?
Services for my sister, Donna, were private because of the looming threat of a vicious pandemic. It’s an added insult to the indignity of the departure because she was a social person who would have enjoyed a party in her honor. Perhaps friends and those who cared for her will have a time and place to gather informally and share some of the better memories of her life.
For my part, I’m visiting with her as I go through the photos that she collected in her life — the proverbial faded photographs of the best moments in a good life. Good, if not perfect. She could have been loved more.
For her part, she was generous. She was free with her affection for her assorted cousins, her sisters in adventures going back to before high school days, colleagues and those who she embraced as family whether they were related by blood or not.
This made her vulnerable to a few inclined to take advantage, but she accepted that as part of the bargain of any relationship.
She began life with little, and took nothing with her, donating not only her time and advice — she was more than generous with opinions — but her sense of humor. Even with money tightening, she had enough to donate to charities and to anyone who hit her up for a loan or a handout.
In the photos that filled albums, boxes, bags, and shelves in the house her parents built in 1950, she preserved a record of people from early childhood days of dance classes — tap and modern — and through the difficulties of teen years and a couple of marriages.
For me, it has been like a long-distance phone call recalling those days at our grandmothers’ cabin at the lake in Ohio, or Bill and Aunt Mary’s home on Seabright Lane, or the caravans with friends of our parents to Caledonia park in Pennsylvania, or Alpine Beach on the Chesapeake Bay.
She often remembered the time I pulled her to the surface of a stream and held her head above water to keep her from drowning until adults could come and pull her out of the water. She added, with every telling, that it made up for the time I was pulling her around in a wagon and let it tip, dumping her out on her head.
Like many siblings, we often just tolerated each other, but she looked up to me and sometimes sought advice on matters of importance. She would ignore me as often as not. Independence is a family trait.
Her health was poor, but she slogged on, determined to get through any temporary hospital visit and get back to her home, where she dwelt with memories of her childhood, the house her parents built and where she was raised from the age of 4 until her first marriage. She was able to acquire it after our mother died and left it largely unchanged.
Her life was not that of a princess living a fairy tale, but it was largely on her own terms, sorting out her own choices, good and bad, in her hometown among friends and familiar faces. Not always deliriously happy, but for the most part content.
Most importantly, I think it can be said that she helped people as she could, and although she suffered some wounds now and then, she never deliberately hurt anyone, or wished them ill.