On the pigrim way: Revisiting some painful memories
For most of this 15-year stretch my parents lived next door to my eldest sister, Mary, and her husband and five children. A big covered veranda was built across the back of both houses signalling that this was one extended family. My sister, a doctor, worked part-time doing three surgeries a week. She died of cancer in late 1976.
That is why I am not looking forward to reading about this period, and yet I soon find myself addicted. My mother is depressed by the state of the country – high unemployment, weeks of teachers’ strikes. I am amazed at her energy – looking after grandchildren, hosting visitors for a day or a week, visiting her list of housebounds, tending her garden, spring cleaning , knitting endless jerseys, reading , enjoying breaks in the Highlands (often including a visitor who needed cheering up). Then I remember she was actually younger than I am now. I have to go behind my dominant memories of her as an old lady.
But it is the picture of my sister in 1974 that is the surprise. Her life is crammed full to the brim – taking children skiing, or camping, or to the seaside, or up the Pentland hills: parents’ evenings at school, teaching in Sunday School, attending public meetings on the future of the school or the Biafran crisis: keeping an open door for visitors – the children’s friends, relatives from far away who stayed for weeks: the stressful business of buying shoes and clothes for children with strong views: but also concerts and plays with her husband: and, in addition, her three surgeries a week.
Of course she also got frazzled, screeching at the children as she tried to get them all off to school. Then my mother would step in with an offer of breakfast at Granny’s for a few days for either the most needy or the most troublesome of the five. I wonder now if Mary already sensed her time was short.
The sharp pain of grief is still there, hence my reluctance to revisit these years. However, with the passing of so much time, these letters now allow me to get behind the memories of her illness and death, and all the consequences of that, to meet her again in her prime. Rather than dwelling on what was lost, I find I am now, at last, able to bring her life into sharp focus, faults and all, and simply be proud that she was my big sister.
This article appeared in the April 2013 issue of Reform.
Read more articles by Sheila Maxey