We, the family re-union crowd, are driving together around the family’s old stomping grounds. We are a car full of mourners. In the last year, three of the four Darling siblings had their spouses die – all in the same year. One spouse (my Dad) died at the end of several months of cancer and the other two died unexpectedly. All in the same year. 2008 has not been good for the Darlings. And in this car full of people in mourning, we are laughing and joking, moments before invading the house of a stranger.
George, the oldest living sibling, is 78, quiet, and wry. He, like me, is a constant recorder of life – though his medium is film. He has been taping family events since he was a teenager. As we drive, George points out the buildings where, when he was younger, he “liked to smooch all the girls.” George is either quiet or hilarious and he plays the character of the “old lech” well. He refuses to let me help him down a steep hill until I say “Would you like to take my arm,” and then he winks and grins like a panther, “Oh, I’ll take your arm all right,” he says. “George!” my Mom shouts through her oxygen tubing, “Remember that’s your niece!”
June is the oldest sister with us. She is thin, immaculate, and high strung. She likes to sit in a rocking chair and rock at a pace that makes me violently dizzy and which moves her chair across the floor. June seems dainty and fragile but in all my Mom’s childhood stories June is the bully terrorizing the sisters. As an adult, June will say or do anything. A neighbor paints their house Pepto-Bismol pink and then asks June if she likes it. June says, “No.” and a few days later, as commentary, June puts a chair on her lawn with a giant stuffed Pink Panther sitting in it. The neighbor, obviously, stops speaking to her.
Sue, my mom, is the good one. This would shock anyone who knows her out of context of her siblings. To me, Mom is a feisty, sarcastic, practical joker. When compared to her siblings, she is the rule follower who mediates arguments. She is the nice one. Nice. My mom. I still haven’t recovered from that.
Lynn, the youngest sibling with us, is strangely Southern. Though the rest of her family grew up in Indiana, Lynn was still young when both her parents died. She was raised by her sister and brother and spent a good portion of her life in Tennessee. She has a strong Southern accent and where her brother and sisters can be biting and sarcastic, Lynn is both more sensitive and more concerned about what other’s think. Unless it is about wrestling, in which case she can scream, “Slam him, baby boy, slam him!” at her grandson’s wrestling match louder than anyone else. Did I mention Lynn is Southern?
This was the crew of mourning, laughing, reunited siblings as we pulled into their old neighborhood, as we got out of June’s Mercedes, as we circled the small white house that the Darlings were raised in. We all pointed and talked. We leaned on the fence. We paced the sidewalks. I took pictures with my giant camera. George took video. Lynn smoked hurriedly. Then, Lynn and I saw a curtain move in the window. Someone was in there. As the rest of us climbed back into the car, Lynn walked up the front steps, knocked on the door and told the man who answered why we were staring at his house. And the man, he told Lynn he had lived in the house for 40 years and in cleaning out the attic had found some old school medals, maybe they belonged to her family. This is where the story becomes muddled – perhaps he invited Lynn in, perhaps he invited us all in, perhaps he expected her to wait at the door while he retrieved the school medals. Instead, we all lunged out of the car and came tumbling in. You can imagine the procession – Lynn drawling “yes sur, thankya sur”, June with her perfect makeup and sunglasses, George with his shuffling walk and a giant camcorder, me pushing my Mom in her bright blue wheelchair and hauling in three oxygen tanks and a giant camera lens.
And this is how I got to see the inside of the house my Mom grew up in. Mom is a storyteller and in that house I got to see the physical proof of all of the stories I grew up with. There is the handle-less door to the bedroom shared by four girls. There is the heating grate where Mom dropped her crayons. There is the recessed bookcase filling the hole kicked in the wall by her wrestling brothers. There is the “walk-in” closet that is shorter than a person and is really just a long dark hole in the wall. There is the kitchen counter where “spaghetti sauce” was made from hot water and ketchup. There is the cinderblock in the basement where all the kids stuck their used gum – amazingly, the man who owned the house had only painted over all the gum for 40 years and we could still see the gum bumps underneath. I took flash photos. George took video. And all of us crawled over every inch of this stranger’s house.
For me, it was my Mom’s past brought to reality and I loved it. For my Mom and her siblings, it was exciting but mostly sad. June called the man a “Junker” because he had the house overfilled with old stuff from flea markets. For the Darling siblings, the house was all about what was no longer there: what happened to the French doors that once closed off the kitchen? What happened to the cornice boards George built over the windows? What happened to the bright colors that their mother constantly repainted the walls? And maybe, not as obvious, what happened to their four missing siblings, their Mom and Dad, and all the years. What happened to the years? Maybe that was the biggest question of all.