She was almost three when it happened. They had gone to town for a family photograph...my grandparents, Uncle Raymond, my mother, Vancene, and her identical twin sister, Aleene. The happy outing was cut short when Aleene became feverish. A single photograph of the three children was snapped, then they left. Two hours later the doctor rode to the farm in a horse-drawn buggy and stayed until the early morning when he pronounced the toddler dead. Diphtheria, fast and furious.
My grandparents had dodged the bullet when both of them became ill with influenza during the deadly pandemic that followed WWI. Uncle Raymond, less than a year old, never got sick as he crawled circles around them. This time they were not so fortunate.
The original portrait of all three children, in a wide oval frame with convex glass, hung in my grandparents' bedroom. When I was eleven, my mother carried it to photographer Kimball Thomas' studio. I read a book while they talked, then watched Mother choose another oval frame. Weeks later, she came home with the original framed portrait and another package. Inside the brown paper wrapping, a hand-tinted portrait of Aleene alone. Kimball had enlarged the original picture and Mrs. Thomas had worked her magic with the tinting. I'd expected a copy of the original, not this haunting portrait of a fragile child, eyes already weakened by a fever that would grow in a firestorm of intensity and ravage her tiny body for hours. Before she died, my grandmother talked to me about the twins. Mother, to my amazement, was characterized as the dare-devil of the two.
Don't get me wrong. Mama had spunk. She was fearless in the face of weeds that threatened to encroach upon her beloved flower beds. Slugs and aphids didn't stand a chance. Once, when our radiator sprung a leak while we drove along country roads, miles away from a gas station, her quick thinking saved the day. She stopped at a farmhouse. Handed me two packs of gum and told me to start chewing while she got water. A large blob of Juicy Fruit plugged the hole and held the well-water she added until we made it back to town.
But Mama was also afraid. A senseless, crippling fear. Hidden, sort of. How, I wondered, could a woman - so bright and talented - be riddled with such insecurity? Unable to acknowledge the demons that haunted and isolated her. This year her story became a little clearer through conversations with a cousin. And Aunt Aleene. The mute child in the portrait whispered to me in my dreams. And a friend named Mary translated.
I woke up one morning with a clear image written across the back of my mind. On another morning, almost a century ago, another young girl had awakened, ready to embrace the day. Next to her, an empty spot, where her twin should be. She had gone to sleep with her inseparable playmate nearby, a sister who was her spittin' image. Now her sister/playmate/soulmate was gone. Forever gone. Mama was too young to understand death. No words could reach that childhood void just as none would fill the gaping hole throughout her life.
But Mary's words in an imagined dialog between my mother and me reached me:
Me: What is the first thing you can remember?
Mother: My sister went away. I was so young I can't really remember us being together. We were twins and she was such a part of me that she was like my arm or elbow, always there to play with, her heartbeat a part of mine. One night I went to bed and the next day she was gone. I never understood it, no matter what they said. Little girls can disappear. I could see her in Momma's eyes when she looked at me. Two reflections of myself. Sometimes I would run through Momma's room past her mirror, real fast, and look over. She always looked over, too. I didn't lose my elbow or arm, but there was a hole in my heart I could never mend. It grew so big when I was young that, when I got older, I never even knew it was there. I sealed it closed because I was afraid to open it up. I was afraid I would disappear into it too.
Today when I look at the old portrait that now hangs in my son's home, I ache, Mama. A solitary child, siblings removed from the picture...I should have seen this sooner. You saw yourself in that portrait...vulnerable, lonely. You tried to tell us in the only way you knew. Perhaps you didn't really understand yourself.
We humans can survive almost anything life hurls at us if we know that we were wanted. Love - even love that seems far from perfect - sows seeds that take root. You were always loved, Mama. Across deep chasms. I sense your presence whenever I see a beautiful flower. [Except for African violets. That's a story for another day.] You taught me to say "please" and "thank you". To identify silver patterns from twenty paces. To appreciate beauty, if not imperfection. Acceptance of imperfection came through you, though. Your pain pointed me there. I'm glad that you awoke from the fog of Alzheimer's long enough to answer me when I asked you if you needed anything: "No," you said, smiling, eyes still closed. "God's right here, taking care of me." Peace, blessed peace.
The dialog continues. Granted, it's a little one-sided, word-wise. But I hear you, Mama, more clearly than ever before.
Me: I'm sixty-two now. I think on good things for the most part. I don't want to give the darkness permission to steal another ounce of joy. And I hope I honor the great gift I received because of you, one you found hard to accept. You made me afraid of just one thing: living in fear. A ironic road to faith, perhaps. Daddy gave me the words. You gave me the push. Here's to forever spring, Mama. I love you