Updated: Mar 22, 2021
The surgeon called me twice, and the anesthesiologist called me once. They wanted to know more about Nancy, what she was like, and did she have any major medical issues. I assured them she was in good health and that, at eighty-eight years, her main problem was mental; mid-stage dementia. I told them she was a wonderful person, an amazing sister, and I loved her so. They operated, and two days later Nancy died.
Nancy’s death was preceded by sister Anne’s, the baby of our family. Just a year before, Anne’s overloaded heart gave out at her assisted living apartment.
Our family already knew that Nancy was gone. Both my daughter and granddaughter said she came while they were sleeping and said goodbye. That same night I had a brief visit. While dreaming, I felt her presence. The very distinct words “We will meet again” stayed in my head. Nancy was of Hindu/Buddhist inclination, and she believed in the recycling of souls. Although I usually consider religion a litany of consoling stories, I decided that a meeting in which we were no longer Carol and Nancy was entirely possible. As soon as the University of Washington doctors called to say that Nancy was dead, I recalled, “We will meet again,” and the pain of losing Nancy eased.
I told the doctors who had kindly called to express their regrets that they shouldn’t be sorry. They had done their best and my sister had made her choice. Her last six months in “The Hearthstone” assisted living facility had been burdened by Covid 19. She could no longer come to visit me or her son John. She couldn’t walk around Green Lake, the block, to a store, and I couldn’t visit her. She had become incredibly lonely. When we talked on the phone -- we talked several times a day -- she would ask me why we couldn’t get together, go for coffee, why she couldn’t hug me. It’s the Covid, I would say, and explain again. I said that the entire world was living in a giant sea of Covid infection. Then she would forget and my phone would ring. I never minded answering Nancy’s calls; she was my very dear sister. I never tired of hearing her voice and feeling our powerful connection. She had one good friend in the Hearthstone; evenings, they usually watched television together. The night Judy was taken away for a back operation was the final straw. Nancy attacked the fire door that she thought Judy had gone through --- to escape, to follow? -- and broke several bones in her legs and pelvis.
All her life, Nancy had searched for a spiritual practice. After trying various ones, she settled for Adidam, which was started in the 1970s by an American spiritual teacher, writer, and artist initially called Da Free John. More familiar with death than most, she was with her adored husband Pat when he tired of lung cancer, tore out his sustaining tubes, and died. She was also the only one with her eldest son, William, when he died of heart failure in his fifties. After our mother died, the two of us, Nancy and I, sat with her for several days, talking to her and about her, singing to her, as is the Adidam custom and that of the Machvaia Roma tribe, whom I, as an anthropologist, had studied and lived with for a number of years. When Nancy was in her seventies, her religious group elected her to care and pray with those members who were dying; in this capacity, she was sometimes experienced, I am told, as a shining light. If anyone was geared for pre- or post-dying visits and proclamations, my sister Nancy was.
Her near-death experience as a child is likely what steered Nancy toward the spiritual. At three years old, she, Joan who was four, and I, at eight, had scarlet fever. To keep from contaminating others in the hotel where we lived, we were sent to a big brick building outside Spokane called the Pest House. Before she had entirely recovered, Nancy was operated on for tonsilitis. The aftermath involved two weeks alone in the hospital without anyone in our family allowed to visit. During that unenlightened time, the doctors believed that seeing her mother would make Nancy cry and possibly break her stitches. Two weeks of being terrified, alone, and so young. The adult Nancy confessed that, as a child she thought she was being punished and didn’t know why. An aversion to hospitals followed her through her days. She was in her forties before she finally managed to visit a hospital.
I was the first child in our family, and for some time the only child in a hotel of several hundred. In a situation of so many adults, I was exposed to a variety of opinions, world views, and life stories. I remember thinking that the adults I met were somewhat crazy. With no children to play with, I would join ongoing adult conversations and repeat whatever had been said. I usually didn’t comprehend much of the meaning. But adults invariably seemed impressed. Considered clever, I suppose that I was. But nothing like my elders presumed. As a child, I was, of course, dependent on adults, although I often held them in disdain.
I have a snapshot of me at five with a very fat and heavy baby Joan on my lap. I remember my mother’s sister Fran pointing out that I was no longer the youngest star in the hotel and bound to be jealous. Another crazy adult idea, I thought. Instead, I considered myself Joan’s personal protector. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression, and our father lived in terror of failing to provide for his family. He had a dreadful temper that frightened his imperfect children, hollering, criticizing, threatening, but seldom actually hitting us. I think he knew my mother would leave him if he became physically abusive. Our mother’s own father was 100% French, a gentle and gracious man who treated all children like estimable and important people. We idolized our grandfather. Endearing memories of him are one reason that my sisters and I, as adults, spent a considerable amount of time in France.
We had the perfect mother, a mother we adored. The three us wanted to be like her -- except in terms of the man she had married.
Later, I got a brother and another sister. By then, Nancy, Joan, and I had bonded like the Three Musketeers. When my sisters were small, I always made sure that they woke up to candy and gifts on birthdays, Christmas, and Easter. I was always buying them books with my baby-sitting money, and particularly Nancy, who shared my interest in ideas. We read and reread Richard Halliburton’s The Royal Road to Romance, our inspiration for the future. We agreed to travel the world and never be ruled by a man. That is what we planned; eventually, that is what we did.
Joan was only a year older than Nancy. Our mother usually dressed them alike. But they were different. Joan was dreamy, artistic, quiet. Nancy was sociable, smart, chatty, and physically active. As a baby, whenever Mother put Nancy on the floor, she would be across the room in an instant. Once, when our mother was in the kitchen (literally a closet that had been turned into a kitchen), Joan unlocked the door to our apartment and Nancy sailed through it, past the elevator, across the hall, and down a major staircase of twenty steps in her wheeled stroller. Luckily, she only got bruises and cuts.
When they were older, Mother and I would smile as we watched them leave for school, Joan walking sedately on the sidewalk and Nancy on the curb, jumping up and down. My friends always took to outgoing Nancy. I would have to explain to them that Joan was just as wonderful in her own less sociable way.
After I got scarlet fever and inadvertently gave it to my sisters, Mother insisted we leave our one-bedroom hotel apartment for a larger place. We moved to an inner-city neighborhood on a busy city street, a short walk from the Ridpath Hotel and our father’s job as manager there. Summers, when school was out, seemed unending. Although we seldom had an audience, the three of us imagined and acted out plays on our back porch. I was taking singing lessons and dreamed of becoming an opera singer. I shadowed the tragic story of Madame Butterfly behind a sheet, and, decades later, Nancy confessed she never forgot my suicide kerplop. Once a week, I would walk across town to the magnificent Carnegie Library and bring back as many books as I could carry. We longed to escape Spokane; we considered Spokane small-minded and provincial.
Sunday mornings, to get a little rest, Mother sent us to the Congregational Church across the street. To save money, she sewed most of our clothes on her White sewing machine; Easters, we would all have new outfits. I think our mother sent us to bed at night at eight for the same reason . . . she needed some time to herself. Often not especially sleepy, we would take books to read, flashlights, and wadded up pieces of Wonder Bread to eat under the covers. In the middle of the night, little Nancy often had nightmares -- the effect, no doubt, of her earlier hospital terrors. She would sleepwalk into the closet and thresh about among the hanging clothes, rousing Joan and me with her screams.
Mother was pregnant with Marceline (who would later change her name to Anne) when, four years later, we moved to a North End cottage near a park and the extensive pine tree edge of the city. It was a small house with only two bedrooms on the first floor. I slept in the cement basement next to a bathroom. I usually slept with Joan; Nancy kicked. Before we went to bed, I would collect all the earwigs I could find, mostly on the walls, and flush them down the toilet.
My sisters and I were delighted with the park, the great blue swimming pool, the pungent smell of chlorine, the happy greetings from friends sunning on the side. Mornings, I arrived early, before the crowd, for a half hour of laps. For several years, both Joan and Nancy were featured in local newspaper’s Opening Day pictures. My sisters bought pretty bathing suits for show and more practical bathing suits to swim in. While still in the dog-paddle stage of learning to swim, they were already jumping off the high dive.
As World War II began, our family outgrew the house near Comstock Park with its magical pool. When we moved, I made sure that our new house, near another park, would feed my very special sisters into Spokane’s most elite high school. I also told them what to wear. Already somewhat of an anthropologist, I thought fitting in, looking right, and being popular might matter to my sisters.
Despite my dedication to traveling and remaining single, I married at nineteen and, by the time Joan and Nancy graduated from high school, I had two children. My husband, Roger, a Navy Air Corps veteran, was re-drafted during the Korean War and sent to Fairbanks, Alaska. As our youngest child was only six months, I waited until Colin was a year old to join him. By then, Joan and Nancy were both teaching at Arthur Murray’s School of Dance. They liked to drop by evenings, sometimes with their dance partners. Being together was such fun. We would have dinner, talk, play with the children, and Joan, who was the more skillful dancer – she had been practicing longer -- would demonstrate the latest steps. My favorite was the tango.
When the war was over, my husband’s employer, AT&T, sent our little family of four to Seattle and my sisters, Joan and Nancy, spent a year in New York, a distant city that was as unlike Spokane as they could manage. Nancy wasn’t sure, but she thinks she dated a gangster; Joan got a job in the cloak room of a nightclub and the two lived on her tips. Nancy returned to Spokane first and married a military man. Then Joan returned from Manhattan and had an abbreviated affair that ended in a pregnancy. To protect her reputation and avoid causing our parents distress – to be an unwed mother, at that time, was a dreadful shame – she moved to San Francisco and gave her baby up for adoption. By then, Rog had been transferred to Manhattan and we were living in Chatham, New Jersey. I invited Joan to come and stay with me, which she did for a year, working two jobs while saving for a trip around the world. Often, after she left for work, I would go into Joan’s many windowed bedroom to see how she had arranged her necklaces, her scarves, her pictures, and other few belongings. The room was always different and a delight. Joan had a designing eye.
When Joan left, I invited my teenage brother for a summer. I thought that some East Coast contact might broaden his world view.
I found the East, and particularly Manhattan, wonderful, so full of art, music, dramas, musicals, museums, great restaurants, and all kinds of citified excitement. I went to the New York City Ballet and fell in love with Balanchine’s work; later both my daughter and granddaughter would be accepted at his American School of Ballet. I included my children in as many Broadway musicals and dramas as possible; later, my adult son spent several years acting. I met a famous female doctor whose congeniality and success so inspired me that I enrolled in classes at Fairleigh Dickinson University
From New Jersey, our little family of four, over the next decade, moved to Spokane, to Seattle, to Portland. Meanwhile, Nancy married a military man, had two children, and her traveling family was sent to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, the island of Guam, Spokane, Hawai’i, Japan, Hawai’i again, Riverside in California, and then to Oxford, England. Our youngest sister Anne often visited Nancy in Oxford. Anne was living in Paris at the time and becoming very French. It was my good fortune that the year I returned to Spokane, Nancy was stationed there too. Her delightful company made my reluctant return West more endurable. Planning for careers, although uncertain what they might be, we drove together to the nearest university.
Joan spent some time in Europe, Turkey, India, and then confessed in her letters home that the many months on a slow steamer, going around the world, seemed, at times, interminable. When she returned, she volunteered for the Peace Corp, and was stationed in Ecuador. Two years later, home again, she began to study for an Art degree. She was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle when I filed for divorce.
By then I knew what I wanted, anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures. So often on the move, I had accumulated credits from four universities. To become an anthropologist, I needed to remain in one place long enough to obtain an advanced degree. On weekends, I would drive from Portland to Seattle, stay with Joan, and look for a place to live. Only able to afford a one-bedroom apartment, I rented one a short block from campus. Colin eventually got the bedroom, I slept in the living room on a cot behind the sofa, and Leslie’s bed fit into a noisy windowed closet.
That period of my life was marked by new challenges and confusion. I worried that my children would resent losing their friends, their private school, and comfortable surroundings. I was somewhat reassured by the dinner pizza I would share with my sister, the opportunity to sleep overnight on her couch, and the solace of Joan’s warmth and support.
Was it something like two years after our divorce that my former husband arrived at my door one Christmas Eve? I could only imagine he wanted some kind of conciliation. But, considering his tendency to silence, who knows? By then, I was content in my second year of graduate school and enchanted by the Roma families I was studying. At that problematical moment, Ted, a Rom I had met only briefly, called to ask me to join him at a nearby tavern. Had he called at another time, I would likely have refused. But his invitation provided escape from a fraught situation.
Over our beers, Ted proved to be incredibly charming, telling jokes, stories, singing on occasion, and so much fun to be with that I forgot about Roger. When I returned to my apartment, my former husband was gone. A terrible way to end a relationship. I will always long for another ending. I never knew what Roger was thinking because I could never get him to talk. He talked enough, however, to make two more marriages and died of cancer at age sixty-eight,
The Rom Ted was the love of my life. Ted, who was married and the father to an increasing number of children. Part of his allure, I imagine, was his unavailability. But I knew he adored me. Seeing me cost him the goal of all Machvaia males, which is tribal respect and any likelihood of becoming an elder of consequence and merit.
A year or so later, my sister Nancy married Pat. She had left her husband in England and moved back to Seattle where our father, now a lawyer and, as he got older, a kindly and generous man, helped with her divorce. Pat was Irish, a handsome and clever poet. In our thirties, Nancy and I got involved with gorgeous younger men in their twenties. The memory of those major passions was something we would always share. By then, Joan was married to Charles Miller, a remarkably talented artist who was also younger, and she was teaching at a high school on a nearby island. Nancy and I lived near the University District and, in an effort to support her family, Nancy went back to school to become a teacher, then a counselor at a Native American high school while I, still working on my Ph D, began teaching at various community colleges. We were hippies, our children were hippies; we were dedicated to art, the music of the time, to love and peace. We marched for peace across the campus; we marched for peace downtown. As our parents had found and introduced Joan’s son back into our family – Wes spent summers with them -- my sisters and I had teenagers who would eventually be drafted. We marched together, sometimes the three of us, as, for a time, Joan also lived in the University District where sharing food and money when we had it was the norm. I remember the sixties through the early seventies as a time of blissful joy and love, underwritten by the threat of an endless Vietnam War
A magical time, indeed, the most magical time of my entire life. I was fortunate to be part of two communities, insider in the hippie community and Outsider in the Roma tribe I was studying. I vacillated from one to the other. The Roma have a genius for intimacy, and being with them, being with the amazing Lola, was rife with emotional support.
Our parents, however, weren’t hippies. When they visited us from Spokane, they complained about our sons’ long hair. They also didn’t like the way that their daughters were the economic support of their families. Our father thought making money was a man’s job.
I spent the following decades in California, ritual home of the people I was studying. On occasion, some of my family would come to visit. My parents usually came by car and my sisters took the Green Tortoise, a super cheap mode of transport where you sat and slept on the floor of the seatless bus. Years later, impoverished, I tried traveling to Seattle on the same bus and found the floor so noisy, bouncy – I think the bus had worn-out shocks -- and uncomfortable that I sat up the entire night. When Mt. St Helens blew up and volcanic ash filled the Spokane city streets, my parents moved to Seattle where most of their children then lived. Joan and Nancy saw to the move, renting a truck and driving them across the state. Joan found them an apartment with a view of Lake Union, a working lake that our father enjoyed.
The love of Nancy’s life ended in divorce. Her husband Pat tired of drinking, joined AA, and AA became his community. This left Nan isolated from his main concerns. He stopped being known for good times, stories, poetry, and jokes, and began studying for a degree in family counseling. Eventually, many years later, he got lung cancer and returned to Nancy. He confessed that their years apart had been exceedingly lonely and wished, instead of divorcing, they had consulted a family counselor, like himself.
Joan also divorced her husband Charlie, giving him their house in Port Angeles to live in while she continued to teach in Seattle. With the advantage of her artist’s eye, she then made a fortune, buying houses, fixing them up, inside and out, and selling them. When it comes to making money, Joan was always the practical sister. Joan also became my aging parents’ primary caretaker, a job that didn’t prove overwhelming until my father got Alzheimer’s. When, finally, he was correctly diagnosed, I spent a year in Seattle, working part time, staying in a nearby boarding house, and trying to help. For exercise, and so he could sleep at night, his children took turns walking him around the block. We all valued those moments. They gave us the opportunity to establish an affectionate relationship with our now cherished father.
The years I lived in San Francisco, I would often go by bus the short distance to Mill Valley, a town crisscrossed with hiking trails and giant coastal redwoods. I loved strolling through the trees and had always wanted to live there. Now, also a bit homesick for my Roma friends, I moved back to California.
A month or so after my arrival, unaware of the neuropathy developing in my feet, I fell over the front door sill of my new apartment while carrying a giant load of laundry. Having broken both ankles, I was in a wheelchair for a month. Luckily, a video store just a few blocks away was going out of business. Renting movies for a dollar a pop, I curated dozens of old and recent movies. Concerned about my welfare, Joan came to see me. We spent our afternoons sightseeing in my little Honda. When she left, having collected a stack of outstanding books from the local Architectural Bookstore, she was eager to share them with her son. While on the phone for hours discussing Joan’s house renovation projects, she and the adult Wes, now a professional builder, had become truly close and like family.
In their sixties, my sisters retired from teaching and found other passions. Joan, who had never been particularly athletic, became a championship swimmer. Mornings she worked out at the nearby Green Lake Park pool and won an increasing number of ribbons. Summers, when she wasn’t competing, Nancy joined her; the two swam in nearly every waterway, lake, pool, canal, around Seattle. I watched Joan swim in a contest once and, despite the demand for speed, was struck by her shimmering grace.
Nancy, who had previously been the family athlete, joined the Adidam ashram, spent a good share of her time meditating, and became a priest. The ashram was in the University District and on a schedule. She and I often drove to the Farmer’s Market downtown and spent a delightful hour drinking coffee at Maximillian’s while watching the many local ferries crisscross Elliot Bay. Then we would buy armloads of fresh flowers to take back to the ashram.
The Master, now known as Adida, lived on an island in Naitauba. He invited my sister to come to Fiji and help his daughters qualify for a high school diploma. Nancy was there for a year and would like to have remained forever. But she worried about John, her grown son who had had cerebral palsy as a child; all her life, she monitored his care. When Joan wrote that she had a broken leg and that our father was getting worse, Nancy came home.
I spent weeks and months in Seattle, trying to help with my aging, and often ill, parents. When our father died of pneumonia, we all went to the Sunshine House to say goodbye. He hadn’t recognized his children for some time. But he always lit up at the sight of Mimi/Myrtle, our mother. At his funeral, I wished him happy traveling and then I couldn’t think of anything more to say. His entire life, he never seemed happier than when he was traveling. He had visited Anne in France, me in San Francisco and Manhattan, and Nancy in Hawai’i and England. His younger years had been filled with intrepid trips, initially in an open cockpit plane. He and his best friend Claude Owen, a heroic former WW I pilot, flew to Alaska, to Cuba, and to two World’s Fairs. For some time after his trips, our father was exceedingly mellow and unbothered by the childishness of his children. The aftermath of our father’s trips explains much about why his grown children took to traveling.
Frank, my daughter’s husband, died and I moved back to Seattle. Leslie had been married since she was nineteen, her children lived in Manhattan, and I thought she might be lonely. I lived with Leslie for five years; I was still there when our mother died.
Not many months later, Joan was planning a paid-by-Joan trip to France. Advertising as four retired American teachers who were sisters, she traded her house and Toyota in Seattle for a roomy Marais flat with a Ferrari -- none of us ever had the inclination or the nerve to get into the elegant sportscar. However, we grew to love the very old building with foot thick walls that kept us cool in summer’s heat. The appliances, the stove, the washer and dryer were brand new, and so modern and complex that we were required to spend hours reading the directions. Each morning we planned our agenda for the day, sitting around the dining table in our pajamas, a variety of travel books in hand. As two of us, Nancy and I, were vegetarians, we worried about finding appropriate restaurants. But every place we went for lunch could easily accommodate our needs. For dinner, we usually bought a piece of fruit from a street vendor and walked the two short blocks to the Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris. The month we were in France, our Three Musketeers transformed into a loyal foursome. Anne’s facility with the language was a significant help with menus, the directions in the subway, and describing to cabbies where we wanted to go. We agreed Anne should be the one to share the bedroom in our flat with Joan, our illustrious sponsor, as well as the comfortable king-size bed.
Shortly after our arrival, Joan and I took the train south to visit my friend Michele. Michele was a well-known photographer; among her published works are the Roma pictures in Le Vent Du Destin. Each morning, after breakfast, Joan and I walked through the surrounding swampy environs and sometimes spotted the famous Camarque horses – they turn white as they mature. We headed for the nearby nature sanctuary and the welcome arrival of the many pink flamingos. Each evening, Michele would drive into the nearby town of Stes. Maries de la Mer to buy just-caught fish and fry them for our dinner. Michele also took us around Camarque and told us a bit about the area’s history.
When we returned to Paris, Nancy also voted for a side trip. I chose Saint-Remy-de-Provence, a town of artists, largely because Michele said that was where she and her painter husband had gone in winter. We stayed at the edge of town in a hotel with fantastic breakfasts. The day we spent in Glanum, a two layered settlement that thrived from the second century BC to the first, AD, was our most exciting. After buying maps, we tried to establish which of the relics and streets were Greek and which were Roman. I shot a picture of Nancy posing in triumph as Valentudo, the Goddess of Good Health, in front of an ancient shrine.
On the plane flying home, I was sitting next to Joan and I watched her get very drunk. As she didn’t usually drink, I realized she had worried the entire month that the trip might not be successful. What had seemed to me like a can’t-lose situation had not been so for Joan. It was a bit late, but I patted her hand and assured her that she had sponsored something wonderful that none of us would ever forget. Joan had a defensive streak. I could never be sure what she was thinking and she seldom complained. Nancy, like me, put everything into words. I always knew, however, that I could count on Joan. We were a fine-tuned threesome, an integrated unit. We were partners in life’s dance.
A year later, Joan died; she had a hole in her heart from birth and Mother had always suspected a medical problem.
Joan left everything she had made and saved, which was considerable, to us, her sisters. I got some money and my Wallingford condo. After my divorce and without the benefit of a grant, I had studied and written about the Machvaia Roma for several decades. I usually worked part time; my income covered only the bare essentials. Joan’s gift has meant a kind of salvation, an old age of comfort and ease. I have lived in my Wallingford condo for sixteen years – many years longer than I have lived anywhere else.
My sisters are my life’s treasures. Sisters are people you can sit with and say nothing, and yet still feel a close connection. Sisters are people you can joke with, giggle with, pretend with, be ridiculous with, and they always understand. Sisters are dear because they have shared your life, child to adult; they are the epitome of family. Sisters are part of you, like the blood in your veins, forever.
How very rich and fortunate is the person who has, or had, sisters.