Two Cousins Take their Landscape with Them

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Sadie and Eleonora, younger and older, first to die at 86, second to die at 95, I’ve known since my earliest memories. My father’s first cousins who grew up down a hilly Pittsburgh street from him, whose adorable little mother was tiny as his, Josephine and Rosalie, another Italian sister pair, the older dead first–the grandmother I hardly knew. The younger, Sadie and Eleonora’s Josephine, who lived well into her 90s and was my grandmother substitute.

     Sadie and Eleonora, who lived together and took care of tiny adorable Josephine, and teased their cousin, Leonard my father, for his terrible driving, confirming my terror since childhood. Sadie and Eleonora, whom I visited when they lived in Washington, D.C., and I went to college in Baltimore. Then when they moved first to Arlington, then Silver Spring, Maryland, I introduced them to my daughter and first husband.

     Sadie and Eleonora, whom I visited most often in their last location, a senior-living complex in Dover, Delaware. Finally freer to come more often, and almost always alone, I drove south from Philly down Hghwy 95, then sequed to Hghwy 1 and over a soaring bridge of golden fluted wings, until I was almost there.

     Sadie’s dying in 2008 enriched her rather tart, emphatic personality with slow languor, with acceptance one would not have predicted. Her last few weeks were threaded with agony as her lungs needed to be drained, and she could no longer eat or swallow much. But earlier she gave in to death. She became simply more quiet, more langorous, sitting with us, nibbling saltines, sipping water, looking at us intently. I mourned losing her humor and insightful political mind. But she left me Eleonora, her older sister, who then blossomed even beyond her previous vibrant strength.

     Her death was protracted, crazy, stubborn with pain. I saw her between bouts of wrestling with dementia, cancer pain, incontinence, depression. When I last saw her alive, she’d survived a face-out with death where, had there not been her good friend Jo beside her, the nurses would have had to tie her down.
At the end she moaned solid for nine days and finally was gone.    

. Now I’ve discovered that the landscape and social ties which I treasured and enjoyed so much when they were alive–the walks around the Electric Company grounds, with its buffer of feathery white pines, the friends of theirs who sat with us for lunch and dinner, whose stories intrigued me, who gave other faces to age, and the kind, attentive nurses and aides, the activity director Linda and her little dog Molly–whom Eleonora smothered with hugs–I have lost them now.

     My last visit for Eleonora’s memorial service I tried to believe that if I visited again, I could enter that envelope of love in which these two sisters surrounded me. But I am reminded of Charleston, South Carolina, where my parents lived on after I moved away, of how this most charming of Southern cities also lost its power to comfort and delight me in a deep and life-giving way. How slowly the magic that touched every leaf and rooftop, every tree and singing bird when they still lived to set it ablaze, how that gradually diminished, because they were no longer there. Now though I occasionally return and recognize the beauty and kindness of the city, yet they no longer ease the ache of care and affection. They no longer belong to me or I to them as I once did.

     This is because the center of affection is gone and no other has taken its place. Because I came to where they lived until they died, but never put down my roots myself. They watered the place for me, even though I thought I walked to escape from our intense togetherness. How odd, now, to find I simply spun the thread of their love out into streets and by-ways, how it wove me into the arms of every crossroad until they, dying, cut it.


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