By Sheryl Rivett
I watch, face pressed to glass, as the rolling hills of Miller county Missouri give way to breathtaking glimpses of sandstone river bluffs. A cloying sweetness wafts through my parents’ open windows, and I watch my mother hold her hair back from the wind, her manicured fingers shiny and smooth. I feel as if we, my mother and father and brother and I, are adventurers traveling the world in search of twilight sunsets and golden apricots, not the mere four hundred miles that lie between our home in Northern Illinois and my great-grandmother’s home in Missouri.
Addie greets us, rooted in St. Elizabeth like an ancient tree with hardy, sprawling branches.
We relax into small town life. Days inch by in the way that summer days pass. I play on the lawn in front of Addie’s clapboard house, while my father packs and lights and cleans his pipe and talks to farmers and neighbors passing by. The dolls I assemble on the lawn were once my mother’s, Addie their caretaker. She keeps them tucked away in a cedar chest, only unpacking the dolls for a special occasion. She lifts the top of the chest to reveal their shining faces, excitement lighting her own face. There is a magic in playing with the dolls my mother’s own hands once tended, a magic that opens a portal to her girlhood, and it’s as if I am playing side by side with another little girl, a girl with perfectly curled hair and wide, questioning eyes. The little girl frozen in the black and white photographs in an album that sits on a bookshelf back home.
2008. In the middle of the night, chest pressure and a feeling of suffocation. My diaphragm is locked tight. I leave my four daughters in the middle of the night when I ride by ambulance to the local hospital. The swoosh of the blood pressure cuff, the cool oxygen in my nose, blood snaking through the plastic tube. An xray.
My father takes me by the hand and we walk to the Exchange, a farm cooperative at the center of town. I see harnesses hanging from high ceilings and smell the pervasive perfume of leather that envelops the store. The hard candies that fill round, wooden barrels with glass lids. Dry goods sitting on open wood shelves high above my head. I stand beside my father, looking at the store through the glass counters just above me. The shapes shift as if I am turning a kaleidoscope when I move from foot to foot. Colorful images change in response to my moving feet. It’s here that I learn we are “Addie’s people,” that we belong to the German farming village going back several generations. It’s here that I learn that being Addie’s granddaughter means a kind smile and a nod.
I see my mother and her grandmother sharing a kinship in the kitchen and garden, their movements synchronized in a genetically choreographed dance. A familiarity. Addie more like mother than grandmother. Damp sheets snap in the humid air when my mother hangs her grandmother’s laundry in the backyard by the garden that brims over with green peas, rhubarb, and tomatoes—like the garden my mother tends back home. The damp air of summer leaves beads of moisture like tears on the peas and tomatoes, and the elephant ear like leaves of rhubarb wilt under the weight of the Missouri heat.
The fainting begins. During yoga, rising from bed. I hold on to walls, afraid of the black outs. Choking, difficulty swallowing. A seizure. Then two. One after another. Chest pain, skipping beats. Give me a drum to slap, palms against hide, deep timbered rhythmic beats to ground me. Tender spots on the back of my skull, spots on my vision. Confusion. Who am I?
The four-poster bed looms large in the sleeping room. My brother and I pretend we are sailing in a ship high above the open sea. From the bed we can see Addie’s wedding portrait, taken at the turn of the last century, her dark hair styled in an Edwardian pompadour, framed in white flowers, with a full-length veil. She stands stiff and straight-backed next to her husband, a slender man with large ears and riveting eyes that pierce through time and space, almond-shaped with dark pinprick pupils and a glimmer of light. He sits on a stool, dressed in a homespun suit. Addie’s white-gloved hand rests on his shoulder. Later I will pass this image every day. Framed in white, it will sit on a ledge in my dining room. It will become commonplace, familiar, a piece of what I will call home.
Addie’s movements are slow; an unmistakable air of resignation follows her through the small rooms of her house. Despite being a large woman, hardy and big-boned, her reserved nature and disappointments make her appear smaller. The slow slap-slap of her lace-up shoes on the polished wood floors. Her thin salt and pepper hair pulled back tight in a bun, two bobby pins in an X at the base of her neck. Her worn dresses—small patterns, generous skirts—sewn from feed sacks. The pervasive quiet of the town, of her home, occasionally broken by a hint of guttural German riding on the notes of southern twang.
Why do I remember this? And not other things, like the memories my brother has of riding a horse at Addie’s sister’s farmhouse, or attending mass in the brick church on the corner, or the chickens that strutted about in her backyard.
Pounds disappearing. Will I disappear? A hospital stay, a CAT scan, an MRI, sinus arrhythmia. No diagnosis. A bath one day, my hands moving through warm water, my fingers palpating my hip bones that jut above, stomach once round and healthy, now shriveled, shrunken. An outsider in my own life. Wanting to find a way back.
Grief and hardship fixed into Addie’s life. Even as a child, she lived in poverty, her father a drunk and unreliable provider who spent his days at Wilbur Tavern. Addie and her siblings often walked to school barefoot, carrying the mantle of shame that comes with alcoholism. But it was when her husband, still a young man, died of congestive heart failure and left her with two young daughters to raise on her own in a time when land was only worth something with a man to farm it, that Addie would know true hardship. She would move to town and sell sundries from her porch, and with her knobby, arthritic hands she would sew baseballs and launder others’ laundry to afford an education for her daughters. She lived and died in Miller County, a life led without expectations.
Years later, an intuitive would tell me that Addie never wanted to return to an earthly body. I understood this. And later, when I journeyed with a shaman in search of healing, I sensed Addie near by, although I couldn’t see her until I journeyed farther into the spirit realm, rhythmic drum beats pulsing me closer and closer until she appeared as I knew her when I was a young child. Dressed in a feed sack dress, strong square jaw—the only attribute I share with her—her salt and pepper hair in a tight bun, the shine of the two bobby pins in an X at the nape of her neck.
Pulmonary hypertension. Is that why I can’t breathe? Congestive heart failure. Thyroiditis. One day, a stroke, painful spasms of my blood vessels, loss of feeling in my arms, a seizure that doesn’t stop. Ovarian failure. A life fallen apart. Fragile and vulnerable. The shell of my body broken in pieces. Can it be put back together? “I’ve never seen someone so near death walk through my door.”
On the day my parents pack up the station wagon for our journey home, Addie asks me to join her on the porch swing. Her soft voice, the way it raises at the end of the question like a young girl’s voice, quavering a bit.
This. This is the memory I circle toward. The memory that pulls me so close, I feel as if I am there again.
Oppressive Missouri heat. My feet swing from the porch swing; the soft cotton of Addie’s dress sleeve brushes against my small and tanned arms. The warm sun dances on the porch floor and we sit in companionable silence, eating dried apricots, their taut, iridescent orange skins the color of the summer evening sky settling around us. I feel a child’s awe in the presence of her ancient-ness: her tired skin, her shrunken frame, her thin and fading hair, the many thoughts she keeps to herself. Addie reaches into the pocket of her dress and pulls out a silver bracelet. She smiles at me and her eyes dance behind her pointy glasses, which are pricked with tiny specks of light.
“Would you like to keep this?”
I take the bracelet from her hand, a silver chain at the clasp swinging, and examine it with a young child’s curiosity. My heart swells at the idea of having something of hers; I throw myself into her arms and give her a big hug. Her hug, like her nature, is reserved, and she laughs in surprise at my enthusiasm.
“It’s nothing fancy.”
Bitter seeds between my teeth. I know how close death lurks. I know how fragile life really is. The chasm of loss opened in front of my family. I want to spit out the seeds, ignore the chasm, but I can’t. I can walk short distances now. How do I resume life, how do I act as if nothing has happened? What do I say when I see an old friend and she asks, “How have you been?” Do I answer, I almost died, I’m still very weak, or do I say, fine, just fine and swallow those seeds deep.
A dream. I walk across the hills of Miller county with the women I come from, women who have all passed away, but who once lived in the familiar lush, green hills. Soft grass tickles my bare feet that move below a brown calico skirt. Next to me walks a young-adult version of Addie and beside her walks a teenage version of my grandmother. Ahead of her walks Addie’s mother and Addie’s sisters. I’m vaguely aware that we are on our way to Addie’s grandmother’s house. I’m at home in the presence of so many of the women with whom I belong. Like an ancient biblical tribe, we travel together by foot.
At one point in the dream, Addie turns to face me. I see her clearly in front of me: wavy brown hair, broad shoulders, square jaw and gentle eyes. A ridge of trees sways behind her. Her voice travels softly over the space between us. “Didn’t you know?” The moment is so clear, I feel the summer breeze blow against the ridge of my nose.
With a smile, she opens the palm of her hand and reveals the bracelet that she had given me that afternoon on the porch. She closes her fingers over the bracelet and opens them again. In the bracelet’s place is a silver silhouette of a feminine figure, goddess-like in shape; its shiny surface reflects the sunlight.
“It’s been here all along,” she says. A knowing smile spreads across her face.
A few weeks before, my grandmother, Addie’s daughter, had been killed by a drunk driver in a car accident. More mother than grandmother. Mothering that skipped generations. The grief about broke me.
A shaman, cognitive therapy, iron therapy, hormone therapy, a new diagnosis. Reversal of heart failure, stamina builds, neurons heal. Pound by pound I return. Slow crawl back into life. Letters to my children tucked away, forgotten. A thin connective thread of hope. I will live.
An event, a social engagement, the first since my body broke down in the spring. My husband’s employer, a British aerospace corporation, rented a museum for their holiday party. Airplanes would soar above our heads and fill the empty spaces between each cluster of the hundreds of guests. I am still weak, my vision still unstable; my heart still swooshes and accelerates at random. The thought of small talk, or the hundreds of smiling guests who haven’t yet looked into the face of death, terrifies me. I vacillate between wanting to appear normal, to experience normal, and wanting to say shocking things, like, “I’m skinny because I almost died,” or “Wipe that smile from your face, something will happen to you too someday,” or “Nothing separates us from the dead fox that was lying in the road this week. His death could be your death.” I am raw, vulnerable. Struggling to re-enter life.
Before leaving for the museum, I rummage through my jewelry box, nervous and unsettled. At the bottom I see a glint of silver, a slightly tarnished bracelet. I extract the bracelet from tangled chains and hold it reverently in my palm. I stroke the accordion overlay and open and close the clasp, watching as the accordion moves and stretches like a snake’s concertina slithering. Intricate geometric etching covers the inside, etching I had imagined as a secret family language when I played with the bracelet as a child.
I slide the bracelet over my wrist and snap the clasp closed, a circle of strength given to me by a woman who had endured much, a woman who would have understood how fragile and afraid I felt in that moment. I feel the chimeric cell line that runs between generations of women.
Throughout the evening I finger the ridges of the bracelet and visualize myself linked to the matrilineal circle, to the stories of each of my grandmothers—Louise, Addie, Jane, Wilhelmina, Mary, and others who came so long ago that I have no names to call them—binding us together. The connecting chain of the band hits against my wrist bone throughout the night, a beacon signaling from a lighthouse filled with my grandmothers.
Today I imagine Addie, in her ancientness, standing at a dresser, looking through the drawers for something to give a little girl on her porch. A little girl who would one day grow into a woman, a mother, and face challenges and heartache and tragedy, as well as equal amounts of love and joy. I imagine her assessing her meager possessions and settling on the bracelet. She had so little yet gave me exactly what I would one day need.
One day I’ll hand the bracelet to a daughter or a granddaughter yet to be born. A girl on the verge of her life, as yet unsullied by pain and tragedy, my cells and the cells of our grandmothers already dancing in her tiny body. We might be on a porch swing, warm Virginia sunshine dancing on the floor beneath us. We’ll eat dried apricots, their iridescent skins the color of the summer sunset.
Sheryl Rivett has worked in technology, healthcare, and education. She holds an MA in nonfiction writing from Johns Hopkins University and an MFA in fiction from George Mason University, where she taught as a Sally Merten Fellow and served as the 2013-2014 blog editor for So to Speak. Her work has appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine, So to Speak, This I Believe, and Midwifery Today, as well as anthologies such as (T)here: Writings on Returnings. She serves on the editorial team of ROAR: A Journal of the Literary Arts by Women and as editor and story ambassador for Youshare. She is currently at work on a memoir, Misperceptions, and a novel titled Finding Evelyn.