It was a family function, a wedding shower for my grand-niece, about 25 women packed into an overstuffed-furniture suburban living room, with all the various and complicated how-are-you-related conversations going on, some people that I've known for 40+ years, others more recent, and still others whom I'll probably never know.
One woman, a few years younger than me, the sister-in-law of my brother-in-law (and how that relates to me by definition is anyone's guess), sat on the next sofa over. We've never actually met, but I went to her husband's funeral two years ago, and know so many details of the decades of her late husband's leukemia, the two sons they raised, the struggle. She was engaged in an animated discussion with her sister-in-law, and from the gist of it (and from the size of the diamond on her left hand), it sounded like they were talking about a new husband.
I was only able to glean fragments of their conversation, but it was enough to get a read on the level of hope, of let's-do-life-over-while-there's-still-time gist of it. Boy do I get that — made my own stab at it a few years back. I know the space that opens up, that gapes in front of you, where you know you can take that leap if you dare to. She seemed to sit smack in the middle of it, stacking up various types of mid-life healthy successes.
But the long years of protracted grieving hung about her like cigarette smoke; I swore I could smell the slow burn of it, the way it swirled around her with its own gravitational pull, a grey aura that seemed to emanate from her every cell. I was fascinated and also deeply moved by what I witnessed, and I've carried a wisp of her essence with me all through this day.
The best part of the afternoon, though, was that three of my sisters and I sat side-by-side for the duration, nestled in amongst each other, with lots of tête-à-têtes. I kept looking over at them, and found myself repeatedly doing a head count. Missing: Patty and Lorraine. One on the east coast, the other away for the weekend three hours away.
For years, in my hometown, and especially in the Catholic parish where we grew up, we were an entity with a title: The Clear Girls. Often we were recognized by no other name, as if we were an amorphous lump of female flesh (and I suspect my brother to have entertained similar notions). The farther down the line of sisters one was, the smaller the chance that someone would know your name. It was easy to disappear among the folds of made-over Easter coats, among the pleated skirts of an older sister. It's taken me decades to claim my selfhood in this community, and yet still I know I can rely on a certain invisibility if I so choose.
But I'm rambling.
I find that, more and more, I want to be in the presence of all of my sisters, all at once. The years are beginning to stack up, and the once-unthinkable is now clearly baring its teeth in the not-too-distant future: we're not all going to be here forever.
Which of us will be left to drag behind us the vapor trails of lost sisters? (I can't believe I just typed that.) This I do know: whoever it is, it will be as visible and palpable as the one I witnessed yesterday afternoon. If it's me, I know I'll be able to feel it, like a veil, a netted mist about my face, through which the rest of my life will surely have a decidedly altered focus.