Long-lost sisters

A few days after Thanksgiving 2017 my mother suffered a head injury just damaging enough to kick her Alzheimer’s into high gear. She spent a week in the hospital and then, too broken and disoriented to come home, she was sent to a nearby nursing home for rehab. The first time we walked in, my father was shocked to see someone completely unexpected among the wheelchair-bound residents.

Mimi (L) and Marcia, c. 1941

“Did you see your mother’s sister?” he asked with an eye roll, unwilling to say his dreaded sister-in-law’s name out loud. He had managed to duck her; I hadn’t noticed her at all. Dad urged me to “leave it alone” but curiosity got the better of me. I went back to have a look and there she was, my Aunt Marcia, the “she who shall not be named” in the Sommers household, the longtime object of my father’s ire. Now she resembled any one of the maternal great-aunts of my childhood, the Alzheimer’s-afflicted old ladies my mother had cared for decades earlier.

It was a staggering coincidence that these two sisters happened to end up in the same place at the same time after not speaking for nearly 40 years – and that both were now suffering from Alzheimer’s. This had the potential to be quite awkward. But would they even recognize each other?

It was hard to believe we were in this situation. Only weeks earlier my mother could still hold a conversation—sure, the superficial kind, peppered with bromides like “We should all live and be well” and “Let’s hope for the best”—but at least there was still a faint trace of our mother in that increasingly frail body. But after her fall, literally overnight my once-erudite mother became, as painful as it is to say, a simpleton. Her brain was broken, the neurons corrupted. The most basic questions were now met with quizzical stares, forcing us to repeat each word in slow motion. A simple question like “How do you feel?” could be met with a slurred answer along the lines of “Daddy and I are going car shopping today. We want to find something that’s easy to park. Maybe a Chevy.” I have no doubt that this is an actual memory—perhaps from around 1957—but it made no sense in this context.


Capablanca.

Another time I asked her “What’s your favorite movie?” I was trying to gauge just how bad the damage was. It had to be “Casablanca,” of course; she and my father had seen it hundreds of times, reciting practically every line by heart. It was by far their favorite. But now there was no response. “Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman,” I prompted. When it was clear she wasn’t up to the task, I started the word for her: “Casa…Casa…Casablan…” Finally I had to give her the answer. She watched my lips move and tried to repeat it. All she could give me was “Capablanca.” After a few volleys I decided to try another approach: “What did Humphrey Bogart wear on his head in the airport scene?” “Hat,” she answered flatly. It wasn’t much but it felt like a huge victory.

“A la guapa Mimi…”

It was impossible for us to reconcile this shell of a person with the vibrant gal who had graduated second in her high school class of hundreds and gone on to Cornell; the same woman who, as old snapshots testify, had lived quite a life. Rifling through boxes of memorabilia in my parents’ basement (one of my favorite pastimes), I found stacks of love letters from suitors. There was a black-and-white photo from a fraternity formal that featured a cigar-chomping bon vivant with his arm around my mother’s waist. And a sepia-toned candid that showed my mother in stylish, cat eye sunglasses standing somewhere on the Cornell campus next to a bow-tied, mustachioed caballero named César. He wrote a caption below it: A la guapa Mimi, en muestra de la amistad: “To the beautiful Mimi, in a show of friendship.” It was dated May 15, 1954.

At that time Mom had a bright future. Law school was definitely in the cards. But then, the summer between her sophomore and junior year at Cornell, when she was just 20 years old, she met my dad. He was a 33-year-old attorney still living at home with his parents in Albany. He wanted to get married – yesterday – and didn’t have the patience to wait for my mother to finish college. He proposed within six weeks, and they were married three months after that. November 1955. Dad went straight from living with his mother to living with mine.

Moments before this photo shoot, my brothers were pounding the shit out of each other in the den. My mother was ready to kill all of us.

Six years and three kids later, did my mother wonder why she gave up an Ivy League education—for this? A chaotic household with two boys constantly at each other’s throats and a newborn besides? Who knows what she was really thinking, yet somehow my parents managed to maintain a romance. They left us with a babysitter every Saturday so they could have a date night. They went on cruises and exotic trips. They threw parties, attended by all the other young couples from our neighborhood. Precocious little Caroline loved mingling with the grown-ups, and when my parents invariably sent me to bed, I would just sneak right back out of my room and sit at the top of the stairs, spying. I had FOMO before it was even a thing.

My mother was elegant; people thought she had a Jacqueline Kennedy look about her. She was probably quite taken with Camelot, as were many ladies of the day. She insisted I’d been named for my grandfather’s sister Clara but to this day I believe Caroline Kennedy was the inspiration. My father was proud to squire this much-younger babe around town, but my mother was so much more than a trophy wife. She helped him research cases for his law firm. She took classes at our synagogue and a local university. She volunteered. She was a loving daughter. Dad adored every single thing about my mother, with one exception: her extraordinarily difficult older sister, Marcia.

She was born wrong.

Marcia treated her parents and her little sister, my mother, poorly. Mom always said “she was born wrong.” Marcia ran with a fast crowd in the 1950s and then married a nice Jewish boy her parents loved but she didn’t. Thus she was the first in the family to get divorced: an embarrassment. Almost every relationship she ever had went sour. By the time I was in grade school she and my mother had stopped speaking. It broke mom’s heart but everyone was busy and life went on.

Decades later, here was my mother, an old lady trying to speak, only the words were coming out all jumbled. It was as if someone had taken all of her memories, thrown them in a giant bag and given it a vigorous shake. Whenever she opened her mouth to say something it was as if she was reaching into the bag, grabbing whatever words she could, and spilling them out in no particular order.

At one point I said to my father, “I’ll bet when you robbed the cradle, you never expected to end up taking care of her.” He simply shook his head in disbelief.

That first day in the nursing home, my mother arrived around lunchtime. As I wheeled her into the dining hall I came face to face with Aunt Marcia. Even though she probably had no idea who I was, it felt cruel not to acknowledge her. “Hi Marcia,” I said. Then, motioning to my mother, I asked my aunt, “Do you know this woman?” No response. “She’s your sister. Mimi.” “Oh” is all she said. I then turned to my mother. “Mom, do you know who this woman is?” Blank stare. “She’s your sister. Marcia.” Long pause. “Hello,” my mother finally said, without affect, looking straight ahead.

She’s mine.

These long-lost sisters with a shared inheritance of bad genes and bad memories were now sharing bad nursing home food. The nurses couldn’t get over the fact that Marcia and Mimi were sisters so they sat them side by side in their wheelchairs every chance they could. Within a day Marcia was totally attached to my mother, pointing to her constantly and announcing to anyone who would listen, “She’s mine.” She informed the nurses that my mother was her daughter, while my mother would confuse Marcia with one of the three old aunts she had nursed to their deaths—two in this very nursing home. I think they both knew there was a connection between them, but the exact nature of it remained a mystery. Who knows what goes on in the addled Alzheimer’s brain?

My father was not happy about this reunion. He loved his wife, but had no use for his sister-in-law. “Why did you have to tell the nurses they were related?” he fumed. I tried to explain to him that they were bound to meet anyway; I just expedited things. As part of the intake process the social worker had asked if my mother had any siblings. What was I going to do, lie? Yes, I told the lady, my mother has one sister, Marcia, and I just learned that she happens to be a resident here.

After that, the nurses would wheel Marcia over to my mother’s room every time we visited. Why not? They didn’t know from our family drama. Marcia would sit in her wheelchair in the hallway right outside the room, staring in. “Get her out of here,” my father would grumble under his breath.

I will never know why Marcia was the way she was, or what actually happened between my parents and her, but clearly something had gone seriously awry. Now these two women were like human Etch A Sketches, Alzheimer’s having erased all memories, both good and bad. I tried to convince my father that it was a good thing for my mother to have company when we weren’t around. It was so hard for him to accept.

When Mom was released from rehab after three weeks, Marcia was alone again. I was reminded of the movie “Awakenings,” in which unexpected connections are soon followed by heartbreaking disconnections. I’m sure my mother and her sister have no memory of their reunion; it’s as if it never took place. But for me, it seemed that perhaps wounds of the past were healed and scores settled. Even if my father couldn’t bring himself to forgive, at least Marcia and Mimi could forget.

Postscript: My mother died seven weeks after her nursing home stay. Marcia died a year later.

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