I don’t know if this will help me let go, move on, accept, integrate, whatever it is I need to do but here are the words I will never be able to say…
We barely speak now, and never about anything substantial. You take me to one side to talk about Dad’s health and how you struggle to feed him up as he doesn’t like mentioning such things. In many ways, nothing has changed and you’re still dancing to his tune. Except that he did move back to England, just for you and that was a huge sacrifice for him.
My view of you has changed so much over the years.
I came home to you wallpapering the sitting room and hanging up the curtains you had made that now grace my sitting room. You took me to theatres and museums and introduced me to amateur dramatics with your first role as Mrs Noah. Dinner was always on the table; you took me to the library regularly and I could not understand why you were so excited to have a job at a local baker’s once I started school full time.
It was not until years later that you told me that your most serious thought of leaving my father was when he gloated over cheating and beating me at Scrabble. I have never been fond of the game. I would have been about six. You reasonably questioned what sort of person gloated about this but you also made it clear that you would have run away leaving us behind with him so it would have been yourself you were protecting, not us children.
When we moved abroad life changed. So much. Dad became the “big bad wolf” we had to protect each other from. In the evenings he was absent we’d sit and watch hours of television, whether there was anything to watch or not, just because we could. We did things to keep him happy and behaved differently when he wasn’t there. The house relaxed. It seemed like a great sisterly bond between us which felt great but none of this was good.
You could deal with 2sis’s epileptic fits, in those days before her medication worked. You were calm and caring and may well have prevented her swallowing her tongue. But you couldn’t cope with 1sis’s tantrums when she would scream and shout, sometimes throw crockery about. She would eventually calm down and typically be reduced to tears. That you left dad to deal with and, if he wasn’t there, you dealt with badly. You were frightened.
We started up the amateur dramatics. It was a fun release from the every day hum drum. You found it amusing watching me getting chatted up by men three times my age. The first person who said he loved me (and who knows what he meant) was white haired, and lovely. You trusted me to make sense and behave in an adult’s world and I did. I grew up far too fast and never got on with my peers again as they all seemed so childish.
Then there were the trips down to your mother’s, mostly without Dad. The three of us relaxed, drank, discussed everything freely and felt safe in a magical world. When your mother died for me that world crumbled. For you it still is a necessary retreat. When you wrote memoirs about your mother you titled it after the house, not her.
On our return to London, whatever we had left as a family all fell apart. Dad got ill with worry over new job; we didn’t have a house; you had no life and friends; I started a new school most unhappily. He had an affair; you went on anti-depressants for six months and then pronounced yourself cured. You fought to get off them, you said. I often wondered whether anything would have changed if you persisted with therapy or whether you stopped when you realised what you might open up.
At some point we had the conversation about 1sis being yours and not dad’s and why you hadn’t told me although you’d told 2sis, who took it badly. I don’t think I ever comprehended what an unplanned pregnancy did to you and when I eventually met 1sis’s genetic father I agreed that he wasn’t for you. But then, would you have married dad if you hadn’t been pregnant? I think not.
Dad had his affair and when she told you, you didn’t leave him. You decided it wasn’t worth the effort of starting a new life. You eventually forgave me for not saying anything about it long before I did.
I don’t know what discussions you two had about my first “proper” boyfriend but I think you persuaded dad that a boyfriend twenty years older than me was much more sensible than a young thing. No it wasn’t and when I tried dumping him it took a year as he threatened suicide. He did survive in the end but that was the start of a pattern of boyfriends who were emotionally abusive and manipulative, whether they knew it or not.
I had myself swallowed a bottle of pills one weekend. I left a note. I didn’t really believe the bottle was full enough to kill me, but I did think I might have to end up in hospital and have someone pay me some attention. In the end I just had a long afternoon nap. I woke up, put away the note and wondered what to day. I think the said boyfriend told my mother. But at any rate, you found out and when I threw it in your face a while later, you simply said that you knew. That was it. Never discussed since.
Fast forward a few years…
When I told you that I was starting counselling, your immediate response was “Are you going to start blaming us for everything?” My nice answer was that it wasn’t about blame, but about understanding which appeased you awhile. It wasn’t my honest answer.
Your mother got cancer. It became clear that she was not coming out of hospital to live in her home on her own any more. Can you imagine what that must have been like for her? You told me how, that last evening, you walked round the garden, breathing it all in and saying goodbye to the house. After much negotiation, she came back to England for wonderful NHS end of life care and luckily she didn’t quite last a year out but degenerated rapidly. I only went to see her once, what with small children and idiot partner. I should have gone down more but it was so hard. We knew we were saying goodbye and that failing person lying in bed waiting to die was not my grandmother.
I loved her so much and was grateful for all that she taught me. It was for that reason that I spent a whole year trying to explain to you both that when you gave 2sis all the contents of her house after 2sis decided to buy it for a family home that I felt ignored. It wasn’t fair.You were so relieved that you could take it off the market and keep it within the family that all those plans to let us all pick our books, keepsakes and odd piece of furniture in our grandmother’s memory vanished. After a year I got the briefest acknowledgement that you both may not have approached it the right way but it’s done now. End of story. That was the last time I tried explaining anything personal to you.
You used to acknowledge that 2sis spent many years trying to put me down. She never felt that she was the favourite and her answer was to mock me in front of you both as dad had. I let her because I realised it was her self-confidence that was lacking and not about me. At some point you decided to stop seeing any of this and not know what I was talking about. That hurt.
You were never good at emotional drama. A kiss and a hug and a few comments but very rarely were you willing to fight for me, or anyone else.
2sis took the house on and for a few years you and dad arranged summer holidays down there. I’d become single by then and we all shared a house across the road from 2sis and her family in my grandmother’s house. It worked for a few years but then living with my children just got too much for you. Dad made 1son cry once and that was the last time we stayed. It was the same holiday (I think) when I finally told Dad off for telling me to lose weight. I told him it didn’t help and wasn’t doing anything for my self-esteem. He reminded me that you had a brief period feeling depressed but that you’d fought it and won. I didn’t bother saying that maybe you should have stayed in therapy.
That last holiday was also the time when I said to you, and for once 2sis was in the room and supported me, that it was about time you either faced dad or stopped moaning about him. One way or another, deal with it, was my message. I was tired of hearing it. You didn’t like this and it was the first step in my breaking away from you.
The next year we tried having a holiday at your house but my children didn’t all go to bed at 6pm and Dad couldn’t cope. We had that fantastic moment when you sat on one end of the sofa, I sat on the other, Dad sat opposite us and said “your mother doesn’t think you two are talking as much as you used to “. You couldn’t even say it yourself but had to get him to. I said something about how counselling meant you revalued relationships and things changed. That was the second step.
The third and final step, when I heard whatever bond we had left break, was in the Italian restaurant near me. There had been an outbreak of teenage suicides in some village and it was on the news. You tittered and exclaimed how coincidental it was that two of your daughters had tried suicide. I didn’t know about 1sis so I asked and you told me. I sat there thinking “You didn’t go to her bedside. What sort of mother are you?”. The answer came to me, “a shit one” and that was it. I felt free of any sense of duty to honour you or be grateful. I’m not quite sure that’s the right phrase but it will do.
We’ve barely had a conversation since. You stopped coming over to see me or your grandchildren and dad did visits instead, which he could as his mother had died so he had more free time. And yes, I am thankful for the few pieces of her furniture of hers I have as they remind me of her every time I look at them. I’d asked for the one painting your mother had that I really like and you got me a replacement as one of your grandsons had expressed a liking for it so he came first. I hated the frame. I hated the lack of understanding. I still do.
There’s a reason we just have polite empty conversations, why I don’t tell you anything about my life, why I no longer phone up for a chat as you similarly don’t. There’s nothing to talk about.