The Museum of Past Grievances by Jax Peters Lowell
Featured Image: “In de maneschijn” by Martine Mooijenkind
My beloved won’t answer the phone. He’s lost access to that fold of the hippocampus in charge of connecting voices with the faces stored in his lumbering hard drive. He lets it ring, waits for me to pick up, make his excuses. No one knows if this is classic dementia or chronic encephalopathy, endgame for a brain that’s been mucked with once too often.
We are settling down to a movie when the phone rings. Caller ID stirs an ache he cannot name.
I recoil as if scalded.
What does she want?
The phone keeps up its bleat. He grabs for it and hits the speaker button. His hearing isn’t what it should be either.
Her voice enters the room, surprisingly forceful for someone near ninety. Stiff, rehearsed, full of everything loved and loathed. Within it, the sound of a Messerschmitt scattering London’s children like leaves.
“John, it’s your sister Dita. I was hoping we could put all that business behind us.”’
Time winds backward on its spool. He remembers the boy he was, bombs falling from above, a gust of wind taking the V2 into the next block, blowing it to bits, his sisters Dita and Kiki, blaming him for all of it. The war, the Blitz, the Nazis themselves. He remembers everything but what stands between them.
An ugly parting. Years of silence.
Do you think she’s still alive?
Now they talk every day, serpentine conversations that seek, but never find their points. Words spoken and forgotten, uttered again and again, as if by repetition, they’ll stick. She calls him Darling. He calls her Ducky. They speak of childhood, their parents, family friends. Theirs is a happiness capable of rearranging molecules.
With fresh grief, she tells him our brother-in-law, Walter, fell to his death on the stairs, Kiki gone to breast cancer, her husband a suicide. He pretends he’s hearing this for the first time. When she asks if he’s ever met her younger brother Tony, he plays along. He understands they are staring into the same abyss; that the air is thinner on her side. He comforts her with the humor that gets him through.
“The thing about losing your mind is everything is fresh and new.”
She mentions their estrangement only glancingly.
“I’m sorry for my part in whatever it was.”
They talk until one of them falls behind, promises to call back, forgets.
A lifetime of enmity erased.
There is no question where I stand.
“She hurt me, too.”
“Don’t ruin this,” he says.
John was a toddler when the war broke out, his father, Baron Hans von Fraunhofer, was interred on the Isle of Man with other Germans living in England. Dita and Kiki were ten and eight. Old enough, their mother must have thought, to fend for themselves. Decades her husband’s junior, my mother-in-law was ill-equipped to manage four children on a good day, let alone during the systematic destruction of London. I doubt she’d considered the consequences of sending her daughters to a convent, while keeping the boys at home. Two young girls with aristocratic German names left to huddle on thin cots in a blacked-out dormitory during the nightly terror.
In John, Hans had gotten an heir. In Tony, too young for their animus, little more than an afterthought. During periods of détente, Dita tried to hide her hostility. But there it was, behind every smile, a speck of blood between tooth and gum, ready to rear up at the slightest offense. Unspoken: Your love for my brother is a sin I cannot forgive. I was an only child. I can’t claim to understand the malice of siblings. Even I can see the impossibility of loving a brother your parents have chosen over you.
John was forty-five when winter claimed him. A tumor said to be in the left temporal lobe the thief that stole his memory, the work he loved; tried and failed to break us. Surgery was not without cost. A life was at stake. We did what we had to do. We no longer speak of that day and its buried secrets, of the truth that came too late. John has forgotten it all. My great failing is remembering too much.
I can recall with photographic precision the light falling on my mother’s hands reaching into my carriage, the glint of my father’s wedding band as he turned the pages of Treasure Island. The scald of embarrassment as I went blank reciting Trees in the fourth-grade assembly. Friends envy my ability to summon such vivid images. This is not the blessing they think. I’ve carried John’s history (and his hurts) alongside mine for so long, I’m not sure where he ends, and I begin. John would be shocked to hear it; there are days I long for a memory washed as clean as his. Some say I should have allowed more space between us. I disagree. If I let his memories go, wedded to mine as one tree is grafted onto the rootstock of another, I’d be as adrift as he.
“What did we argue about?” Dita asks when I join the conversation. “I can’t remember.”
Long before we met, John changed his name to Lowell. Never mind that I am forever grateful to have been spared that mouthful, Kiki never forgave him for breaking their father’s heart. When she died, she left a will that excluded him in the harshest of terms. Lacking one of the required two signatures, the document wasn’t legal. Given her childlessness, the court thwarted Kiki’s intent and ordered the estate split between the remaining siblings. Enraged at having to share with a brother she saw as the reason for everything wrong in the family, Dita instructed her lawyer, a stranger he’d never met, to tell John his sister was dead.
I do not say how terrifying it was to spend money I’d been saving for his memory care on an attorney. How cruel to deceive a man with serious cognitive challenges, let alone one’s own brother. I’m tempted to say, hurt him again and I will hunt you down. But she is the connection to a past he craves. I will not rob him of that. I deliver the truth in a few swift blows which will soon fade from her memory, finish with something trite about life being short, how brave she’d been to reach out and risk rejection. I tell her I’m glad she called.
“I took a chance,” she says. “If you didn’t want to speak with me, at least I tried.”
Our rooms ring with their unlikely armistice, operatic gusts of laughter capable of shattering glass, a sound both bright and terrible. They giggle like teenagers, tease one another with surprising affection. John listens hard, speaks in the halting way of one who knows his words will come loose and fall out of his sentences. They ask me to fill in the gaps, supply a name here and there, as if I were a museum docent, expert on all things von Fraunhofer. Mary Oliver, in her exquisite poem, Don’t Hesitate, tells us “Joy is not made to be a crumb.” These two are feasting on it.
I think of the years we were a family or pretended to be. The fun we had. The tight knot of wound loosens, feels petty in the face of this. If they don’t care, why should I?
The day is chilly for October, the air avid with contagion that will soon bring the world to its knees. The restaurant is steps away. We are known there, looked after, protected when necessary. The velvet curtain shielding diners from the drafty front door is already up. A fire blazes, another hard winter not far off. After months of calls, they will meet face to face. John, goatee trimmed, in his good cashmere sweater and tweed jacket, has dressed for her. He leans on his cane with one hand. I hold the other as we walk up a slight incline to the entrance. He is trembling. Inside, a wheelchair with its back to us, an aide alongside. The friend who has brought her to us touches her arm. They’re here.
She turns, and there is that supercilious swoop of nose, gypsy black brows, hair molten silver. Her brother on a higher flame. She grips the table edge and manages to stand. The accent America never succeeded in softening. “Lovey!”
The children they were reach for one another across the chasm of their grievances.
My eyes well with tears. She’s part of my history, too. The sister I never had.
Afterward, I ask how he is able put all that ugliness aside.
“Hard to fight when you can’t remember the argument.”
I’m reminded of a Sunday in Battery Park before the cloud of ash and bone. The lovers we were slouched on a bench, the sun’s warm muzzle in our laps. Around us, ferries sloshed in their slips, tourists snapped pictures as if stealing secrets. Old men hunched over chess boards, waging separate and ancient wars. Near us, a raw-boned man playing the spoons clacked out Yankee Doodle Dandy against a skinny, ulcerated leg, accompanying himself in a whiskey-coarsened growl. I’m the real live nephew of my Uncle Sam.
Passing dogs set up a howl. A baby, swaying on diapered hips, danced itself into a soft landing. John bowed low, offered his hand. “May I have this dance?” My easy weight in his arms as we twirled to the man’s infectious ditty. Within that peculiar music, the sense of a border crossed, one life slipping into another, scent of ocean teasing at the quay. Something sharp and rotten on a passing scow. The day all the sweeter for it.
Merely a few moments of grace. How eager we were to seize the unexpected pleasure they contained. Not the neon billboard we are taught to seek – Last Exit Before All Your Troubles Are Over. Just a glimpse of joy squeezed in between all that happened and all that would. “Either you see it, or you don’t,” John said. “You do a little dance, or you just keep walking.” Never one to keep walking when something grand was on offer.
We could not have known COVID would come for her that spring. Or that he would leave me on a summer morning, a death both swift and merciful. They live on here, in the breaths between words, forever turning the old saw, forgive and forget, on its ear. John, plunging headlong into this brief and astonishing finale of family estrangement. Lion-hearted after losing so much, beginning again, despite the lateness of the hour. Leaving behind his breathtaking example.
In the restaurant, Dita reaches for my hand across a starched glacier of tablecloth. John looks on, positively beatific.
“I love you,” she says. “I always have.”
I am stunned to hear myself respond in kind.