May 29, 2022
“Please mom, leave a few for us!” But each Memorial Day she would cut all the beautiful new Peonies in our garden to decorate Alice Marie’s grave. The drive to the cemetery was a treat in the freshness of spring. The trees lining the roads seemed dazzling, and the grass was so tender and fresh that I could smell it through the car’s open window, and the sky was cleaned of winter drabness to intense blue by a soft spring breeze. At the time, I processed the dissonance of new life with death as disappointment. It took decades before I noticed the irony.
Alice Marie was my infant sister who died a few days before we moved back to Denver Colorado from Vallejo California. Even as a child, I discovered that Alice Marie deserved to take everything potentially good and beautiful from our lives because we couldn’t save her life.
Mom sealed her infant’s fate before birth by taking a Sulfa drug prescribed by her doctor when she was pregnant with my little sister. This was before the discovery of penicillin. Despite this tragedy, my mother never quit believing that doctors were touched by God with divine knowledge. Instead, she blamed herself and tried to compensate for her perceived failure as a parent by depriving us all any peace or joy in life out of respect for Alice Marie.
My baby sister was born with a defective heart, and only lived two or three months. Barely out of toddlerhood myself, time stretched very far and thus I don’t know her exact age. Alice Marie’s room was a sacred shrine. I could only enter when mom fed and washed her in the morning. I wanted to touch her but wasn’t allowed. She was like refined porcelain, and I was a robust danger. Mom said she was too sick to touch. People had given mom shower gifts of baby toys that she stored at the bottom of a small chest of drawers. I was fascinated by the colorful toys but was only allowed to touch them a few times under mom’s supervision. They seemed like holy objects of worship.
Over the years Mom accidentally poisoned all our pets, with unconscious
carelessness. None of them died outright except a baby bird we were caring for.
It had fallen from its nest. We were feeding it in a cage, and then one
afternoon, mom decided it would like to be out of its cage for a while and
turned it loose. It fell into the commode and drowned. Willy was a cocker
spaniel and her special companion. He kept her company while dad was at work,
and I was in school. She poisoned him twice by leaving rat poison in an
accessible spot. Willy would eat anything! My parents typically went limp and vacant
at such times, but I was determined that Willy wouldn't die.
I was a preteen at the time and totally focused on saving Willy. There were directions on the package of poison for flushing everything out of the stomach as soon as possible. This took several hours of forcing saline solution down his throat again and again until he threw up only water. I was equally dedicated in treating the other animal victims of our curse. Our sweet tabby cat, Bows rolled in the soft earth near rosebushes where mom had distributed a very strong insecticide. After finding her almost comatose, we deduced the cause and took her to the vet. There was no effective antidote, but our vet gave me something that would neutralize much of the toxin, and again I medicated her day and night at the recommended intervals. Bows (so named because of a pattern on her shoulders) sustained some permanent nerve damage but lived another ten years. Later, I went through the same routine with Joker, our Labrador Retriever. Mom seemed always to forget that she left poisons where the animals would find them.
I was three-and-a-half years old when my baby sister died. Mom was ill throughout that pregnancy. While we were in California during the war, she was far from her own mother and the only world she’d ever known. In retrospect, I can see that she was experiencing a perfect storm emotionally.
Following Pearl Harbor, my dad was drafted as a skilled metal worker to repair damaged warships at the Mare Island Naval shipyard near Vallejo, California. Neither of my parents had ever been out of Colorado before, and much of the time my mom was terrified. Adding to her fear, her brothers were both on active duty in the Pacific. It was in this environment that she conceived my baby sister. I remember being pushed to the side as my mother was taken away on a hospital gurney. When she came back, Alice Marie was with her. I never really had her again until I was almost an adult.
Through the years, I’ve given, lifesaving rescues to chickens, horses, other dogs and cats, and a husband. Right now, I’m trying to save a very sick tom cat, and I have no idea what to do with him, if I do succeed in saving him. As I write this, I’m wondering for the first time (yes, it may be obvious, but I didn’t notice) that nobody else in the family was motivated to respond to these situations unless I pleaded and then took control. Dad was wonderful with mechanical breakdowns and fixing all kinds of mechanical disasters. Mom was very generous with friends and relatives who needed every other kind of help, but both became disengaged and remote about life-or-death issues. Even as a child I was puzzled that mom took me to doctors frequently for what seemed to me imagined problems but ignored real injuries.
On our last night in Vallejo, we went to the mortuary to view my sister’s body. At three-and-a-half, I took this visit as another adventure. I remember the three of us waiting in our old ’36 Dodge for a long freight train to free the railroad crossing, then to a parking lot where we caught a ferry boat to cross the bay. I still remember lights sparkling on the black water as if it was last week. Apparently, our destination was a mortuary to view my sister’s body. I said, “she is so pretty why don’t we take her home”. Many years later when I talked to mom about that night, she told me that her knees buckled, and she struggled not to faint.
The next day, as I looked through the screen of our back door, I heard mom and dad arguing over what to take with us to Denver and what would take up too much room in the rental truck and must be given away. I remember dad saying, “we can’t take her red wagon,” and he and mom argued about it, but dad prevailed. I was holding onto its handle as I listened. I had personalized that wagon, as I did all my favorite toys. To me it was a living being, a companion and the only one I could talk to as all the adults around me had more important things on their minds. It was as if someone kicked me in the chest and I couldn’t breathe for a while. I never really trusted dad again.
After my sister’s death, I became terrified of trains but kept it to myself. It was a new fear that arose shortly before we left our Vallejo home. I didn’t know trains couldn’t leave their tracks and imagined these huge black locomotives crashing through our house, just because they could. Next, I remember Mom, Grandma and me walking across several railroad tracks and up a stairway onto a Pullman car. At one city the train stopped and a great number of young men in uniforms boarded the train. They packed the hallways and stood all night. They seemed like mysterious ghosts milling and mumbling throughout the night.
I didn’t sleep that night. Our sheets were sprinkled with uncomfortable cookie crumbs, the result of a goodwill gift from one of the friends as we were leaving. We arrived at Salt Lake City at sunrise. It must have been a switching point, because our train stopped, and a conductor came to our car and said, “you must go outside now and see the sunrise.” The view was breathtaking and surreal. Our train seemed to be hovering between air and water, deep purple, magenta, gold, and turquoise colors filled the entire world above and below.
I don’t remember anything of the next few days. While I remember our journey on the train, I have no recollection of getting off nor of what happened next. There is a photo of me standing beside an older cousin on the day after we arrived. Mom told me years later that I stayed with my paternal aunt and uncle while she and dad were at my sister’s funeral.
The weeks that followed were a blur. I stayed with another aunt and uncle for two or three weeks. I remember my uncle being angry all the time because he felt put upon with a responsibility he didn’t want. I stayed out of the way as much as possible. Mom and dad were frantically trying to find a place for us to live. I don’t know where they were staying during the search. Later, I stayed with my grandparents and that was easier but still lonely. Dad turned the car over on a wet road during one of their forays and mom’s arm was broken. This meant that I had to stay with grandma and grandpa another two weeks.
I remember mom as always frail. During this time, she was very thin, and worried about everything. For many, many years she would look through me with unfocused eyes when she talked to me. I felt invisible as if I was made of a transparent material.
When my parents finally found us a house it was quite different from our government quarters in Vallejo. It had only two rooms. The main one had an alcove with living room on one side and my parent’s bed on the other side. Our kitchen was a precarious lean-to jammed against the main house. It was so low on the far end that I could barely stand straight up straight at age four. There was one cold water pipe jutting up from the kitchen floor. All our appliances were from the previous century. I slept on the sofa and listened for the sound of trains at night.
Mom was always sick. She could seldom keep her food down and suffered with ulcers. Often, she was in bed. I remember running up to her bed to show her something. She moaned in pain and my grandma pulled me back and told me mom was too sick to see me, and I should leave her alone. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I soon learned to be silent and stay out of the way. I was fortunate that the neighborhood was semi-rural, and our house was on half an acre of land. I learned to entertain myself in the neighborhood and with my invented games and stories.
Death seemed to be attached to us like an idol. I remember attending many funerals before I was ten years old. I judged them by the music and flowers. Unlike most young children, I didn’t consider anyone old before the age of sixty-five. Of course, that seems middle aged to me now. I walked for miles in our neighborhood and often stopped to contemplate and pray over the bodies of road-killed animals.
Although I had virtually every childhood disease, and was often miserable with fever, aches, and pains, I enjoyed being sick because I could spend the day in a real bed and indulge in my love of paints, crayons, my own imagined stories, and books—all things otherwise judged as a self-indulgent waste of time. Childhood illnesses became my ticket to a personal life. They were perhaps also a payment for the sin of being a survivor. I never for a moment thought I would die from any of these sick times even when the pain was so great, I wanted to disappear. In retrospect, I recognize this as payment to the Lord of Death for the sin of being strong, resourceful, and basically healthy.
I was only three years old when Alice Marie briefly passed through our lives, but she became the focal point for the rest of our life as a family, even though often intangibly. She shaped everything about my life and relationships. I wonder if I will meet her when I pass over. I would never have been who I am nor struggled against death and depression to follow my heart without her. Perhaps we worked as a team of sisters all along.