14 March, 2011

yellow robe

She woke to the sound of dripping water and smiled. There was a chance it was inside the house, but it was more possible that the ice dams on the roof were finally melting. Winter, her least favorite time of the year, appeared to be winding down. But today, when her Mom's name came up on the caller “identicus,” She assumed the worst: cardiac arrest, broken hip, probably not a car accident unless she had been hit while walking. Not that her Mom walked outside much in the Winter: too darn cold for her old bones. It was surprising to hear her voice. Her mother called rarely, she couldn't remember the last time, and was rarely in a friendly mood. Expecting to hear the voice of a nurse or EMT, her mother's voice bubbled into her ears like a pleasant brook in springtime, full of melting snow. In fact, it was her opening remark, “Is your ice melting?” Neither woman was fond of Winter. They agreed it was better than nothing, but it certainly wasn't as enjoyable as Spring, or Early summer. They were both avid gardeners although neither had all the time and inclination once at their fingertips. Each gardened more in their fantasies, and a few small containers, enjoying other people's efforts, as much as they had one time enjoyed their own. Their relationship had never been easy, her mother preferred her sons. She had grown up with the message-on-a-loop that her brothers came first, that they could do no wrong, and they were exempt from certain responsibilities. Yet her older brother grew up to be a single Dad and could cook, clean and sew with the best of her sisters. Yes, their relationship had always been turbulent as long as she could remember. Maybe they were just too much alike, consequently her mother tried to prevent her daughter from repeating her mistakes. But the mistakes had made her who she was: courageous and fiercely protective of her children. And Jill had lived much of her life wondering what was wrong with herself. Not realizing that the turbulence, the disagreements were evidence that something was very right with her. She was right on track, exactly where she needed to be to become the person she was meant to be since the day she was conceived. Their relationship had brought every out-dated, useless belief they shared into question and at the same time provided a foundation for pushing away from each other. A platform to launch themselves into this next stage of their lives. Now Jill was sitting on the lower stairs as they chatted, about 5 feet away from her new piano. Her new, used piano was a “hand-me-down” from her singing teacher. Now, they could meet for lessons away from her teacher's eccentric, hyper-active bulldog. Her mother had been J's first piano teacher. And she had lobbied the high school choir director to take Jill back into the group after she had stopped showing up for rehearsals. Her mother encouraged her singing; even insisted that she sing. When she wanted to buy a guitar, after saving her babysitting money for weeks, her mother supported her. Her mother was an accomplished pianist, organist for the Catholic Church and choir director. She had grown up in a small town in North Dakota, a few miles from the Canadian border and played piano from childhood. Her mother had given all her children piano lessons. A little heavy handed at first, but by the sixth child, a boy, she had mellowed. And when they didn't want to take lessons from her, she paid teachers for the ones who agreed to practice. She started playing simply for herself, her own enjoyment the main concern. There was a long period of time when they didn't have contact, didn't speak at all. Her mother was silent, disapproving perhaps judgmental. And maybe just down right scared. There was a time Jill was convinced something horrible was wrong with herself. Not just that she lacked significant value, enough to justify her existence, but that she actually had some sort of negative value, as if her assets could never measure up to the expense. One of her earliest memories was of a delicate yellow bathrobe, trimmed with lace, satin ribbons, and pearl buttons. As the oldest daughter she got new clothes, the other girls frequently received her clothes second hand, and many times, before she was done with them. The pain of handing her favorite dresses over to her younger sisters, and watching them spill, stain, and tear was difficult to bear. And she cherished the yellow robe, feeling like a princess when ever she wore it. She was tempted to save it for special occasions, so it would stay crisp and clean. But she had already tried that clever plan. she grew out of the special item, and had to hand it over to the next sister in line before she was ready, simply because it was too small for her. After she started buying her own clothes, she was allowed to wear them until they fell apart. Her flannel shirts and denim jeans were soft form many washings, in the days before pre-washed was available. Perhaps the yellow robe sticks in her memory because she was wearing it the night her older brother called Grandma and Grandpa to stop their parent's fight. Their Mom and Dad were downstairs screaming. She could hear the sounds of hitting, slapping, and punching even though she was all the way upstairs with the door partially closed. Her sister was in the next bed, silent, but definitely not asleep. Then her Mother was standing at the bottom of the stairs, screaming for her brother to run to the telephone, behind our Dad and call Grandma Mary. He was fast, and did it without hesitation, without thinking. Then he flew back upstairs into bedroom his sisters shared. He was shaking, and appeared terrified. Crying, he begged his sisters to come into his room, to his bed, a place he normally guarded as unquestioningly off limits to girls. His explanation for this unusual request convinced Jill, the older sister with the beautiful golden bathrobe. He was afraid their Dad would attack him for making the call for help. And he knew he was safe hiding behind his sisters. His Dad never hit his daughters. So, there was the big brother with one sister on each side, crying, scared, confused. And Jill, wrapped in her precious robe, as if it would protect her from harm. Eventually they heard sounds of their Dad's parents' voices drifting up the stairwell. Both Grandma and Grandpa had come to break up the fight. Then all three kids were crying in nervous relief, as if they had woken from a very unpleasant dream. Jill called out loudly for the comfort of her Grandma, the woman who brought them fresh hot home-baked carmel rolls every Sunday when her Mom was playing organ for the early service in church. But tonight Grandma was occupied with her violent son, and their more reserved Grandpa appeared in her place. He took the sisters back to their own room, quietly, calmly assured them they were safe and tucked them into their beds. Exhausted, they fell asleep.

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