Sisters in the Garden

Sisters in the Garden August 3, 2022

Yesterday I drove back from Columbus to Steubenville, remembering.

The aunt who wrote to tell me I was disowned last week is the oldest living daughter of my beloved grandparents– Grandpa told me they had two miscarriages before they got my aunt. Then they had my mother. Then, a daughter whose nickname was “Sister B,” because my mother was my aunt’s first sister, Sister A. Sister B was called Sister B so often that she never heard her actual name for the first few years of her life. She went to the Catholic kindergarten convinced her name was Sister B. When the nun called the roll, she didn’t answer because the nun didn’t call Sister B.  When  she was in her forties, just before I ran away from home, the family still referred to her as Sister B. Shortly after the birth of Sister B came two more sisters, C and D,  then the only boy, then one last girl who was still a child when I was born. My granny was called “Granny” partly for a joke, at first, because she was still very young and pretty when her oldest daughters began to churn out babies. I was the second eldest grandchild and the first girl. All together, on that side of the family I have thirty-four living cousins, plus too many miscarriages to count. Seven children, seven spouses,  thirty-five grandchildren and an unknown number of ghosts.

My earliest memory of my aunt is from when I was three or four. I was a bizarre little girl: hype-verbal, with a nearly photographic memory, so sensitive I cried at the drop of a hat. I was also an insomniac who barely slept at night and never took a nap. My mother was used to this. She would tell me “go have quiet time” and I would sit silent in bed with my picture books, while other children were taking naps. Quiet Time was a fixture of every day, and the whole family knew it.

My aunt was babysitting me while my mother and Granny went to run errands. I was sitting at the big round table in Granny’s farmhouse kitchen, coloring a book of scenes from The Wizard of Oz with the big round cookie tin of crayons my grandmother kept for children to use. My aunt was sitting at the table with me, and we were chatting like two adults.

And then my aunt said “Okay, it’s time to take a nap.”

“I don’t take naps,” I explained. “I have Quiet Time. I’ll have Quiet Time now.”

“No,” said my aunt. “It’s time for a nap.”

“I don’t take naps,” I repeated.

“Time for a nap!” said my aunt.

Next thing I knew, I was being lifted out of my seat.

No one had lifted me up punitively for quite some time, and I objected to the indignity. I went stiff as a board and started yelling as I was dragged away from the table and up the staircase to my youngest aunt’s old room, where my aunt shoved me in and shut the door.

I don’t think the door was really locked. I don’t think it locked from the outside. But I was three years old, and I THOUGHT I’d been locked in a bedroom. So I did the only thing a trapped, non-neurotypical three-year-old could do. I had a meltdown. I beat on the door with both fists and screamed for thirty minutes straight until my aunt opened it. Then I went to get a book, and have Quiet Time.

I thought of that anecdote as I packed up Adrienne and the guinea pig, and drove back down 70 to where the state of Ohio stops being the Midwest. Then I got on Route 7 and drove up through the dirtiest part of Appalachia, to Steubenville, the place I live that will never be home. We’re already planning our next trip to the Witch’s House on the South Side. Maybe at Halloween so we can celebrate Samhain together. The only way I can stand to leave Columbus is to remind myself over and over that it’s not forever, just until the next visit. Someday we will come to stay.

I thought about it as I unpacked the car and greeted my husband, did the shopping and went to the community garden.

The marvelous Mammoth Gray Stripe sunflower has lived out her life now; she is drooping, dropping petals on the squash bushes in my Four Sister patch.  Soon she’ll be ready to cut down, and I’ll make that beautiful round center into a bird feeder. The other three Mammoth Gray Stripes are not nearly as tall as she is, but they’re budding. The next of the Four Sisters, the corn, is so tall I had to climb up into the raised garden bed to hand-pollenate the cornsilk. The third sister, pole beans, is beginning to blossom. The fourth, winter squash., has one flower. The sunflower attracts the birds away from the corn. The corn grows tall and strong so that beans can climb up its stalks. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil to replace the nitrogen the corn devours. The squash shades the ground to keep it moist. Each sister cares for the other three in her own way. Everything grows up strong in its perfect time. This is what families are supposed to do.

There is something strange and magical to me about a family growing up and dying together in the same patch, doing no harm.

Meanwhile, Lemon Queen and Red Velvet sunflowers have started to pop. The potato vines are spilled over and blossoming. The tomatoes are getting ripe, but cracked from the odd rainfall we’ve had this year. There are so many peppers and swollen giant zucchini I’ll never catch up. Four days away from the garden was too much: exactly what I needed for my health, but too much to keep up with the plants. They are taking vengeance on me for being neglected, by putting out bushels of fruit.

I harvested it all, bagging up enough for a dinner for the family and putting the rest by the fence for neighbors to share.

I prayed in the shadow of the sunflowers.

I thought of my grandfather, the wonderful gardener, and missed him again.

My aunt hasn’t changed a bit.  She remains the family tyrant. She bawled me out for not being a Republican a few years ago, ranting about feminists. She berated me for cashing the checks my grandmother sent without asking if we needed them. She bosses around the whole family, arranging everything according to her specifications while the others do as they are told. I wonder if she makes them take naps. I wonder if they know all they have to do is throw a tantrum and keep it up for half an hour.

I have not changed a bit either. I am bizarre person, hyper-verbal, hyperlexic, with a near-photographic memory. I am so anxious I cry at the drop of a hat. I am an insomniac and I don’t take naps.

I am learning to be a cycle-breaker.   I wasn’t supposed to have children of my own in the first place; the family always assumed I’d be the crazy old maid who works in an elementary school and writes poetry. And if I somehow had a child, I was supposed to raise her on the straight and narrow path. That’s why they were so offended I didn’t give Adrienne a First Holy Communion according to their schedule and aesthetics. But I dug in my heels. A sacrament is a sacred thing. It’s not right to force a child into one under circumstances that will only make her anxious and helpless.

Maybe I’ve changed a bit after all.

I don’t know what we’re going to do, this month or the next or ever afterwards.

I don’t like the life I’m living. It’s not what I wanted it to be.

Maybe God and the ghosts of my grandfather and all those miscarried children were with me in the garden cheering me on, and maybe they weren’t. Maybe it was only the rustling of the corn in the Four Sister patch.

I will never see my grandmother or most of my family again, and that hurts.

But it also feels right.



Image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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