After our parents broke up a half-century ago, I didn’t see much of my sister Eli, the other sibling. I settled in Spain and she in Florida, So it was a pleasant surprise when she sent us an email invitation a few months ago to visit her in Sarasota. It had been six years since we last met, at our mother’s funeral in Maine.
With Ma’s death, family contacts were reduced to occasional email messages across 5,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean to Eli and some of her offspring in New England and Florida. America too seemed more and more remote; I’d come to feel that I’d never return again.
A bit more background about that loss:
During the last two decades of Ma’s life, we visited her in the little northeast seacoast town Kittery, Maine, for a month every summer, bringing along our children in diminishing numbers. “Grammy” was a cheerful, warm and generous host. Her cozy house, on a quiet country road where deer abounded, was like our second home. We grew close to her neighbors and friends and even registered the kids and I in the Town Hall as voters for U.S. presidential elections.
The last years were quite different as Ma’s health and mind declined. She was often hospitalized for falls, but recovered quickly, and stubbornly returned to her beloved cottage rather than enter a nursing home. Then came the fall of no return that had me flying over on the next plane. At York Hospital she didn’t recognize me, or even know where she was. I quickly sold her house and set up a trust fund with the proceeds to pay for care in nursing homes. She died, age 94, in one of them at North Hampton, New Hampshire, only a few miles from her granddaughter Pat.
Now, Eli’s invitation stirred and loosened my sense of detachment. Rosina and I accepted, and decided to go for the week of Thanksgiving, the November holiday that is the essential moment for family reunions.
After a lifetime of hard struggle, Eli lives in a very nice, three-bedroom house, surrounded by large trees and gardens in a quiet residential area of Sarasota, an hour’s drive south from Tampa on the Gulf Coast. “This is like Grammy’s,” Rosina said as soon as we looked around and saw some of Ma’s furniture and captured a general atmosphere of comfort and informality that made us feel again right at home.
We were astonished by my sister’s energy and enthusiasm. She is five years older than me, but avoids any mention of age. Officially she is a licensed professional in respiratory assistance, but now she devotes all her time to providing personal care for elderly residents at an exclusive assisted-living complex in Sarasota. (In some cases the helpless clients are not much older than her.) She works seven days a week, on-call around the clock for emergencies. Up at dawn and out of the house with a Bluetooth wireless, cellphone connection sticking out of her ear; zipping in and out of the house throughout the day to help clients with their pills, dressing and meeting medical appointments. She works for herself, and business seems to be good.
There was lots of important news to catch up on. Before moving into this house less than a year ago, she lived in terror of a serial killer who was attacking solitary old women in her previous neighborhood. Her closest neighbor had been strangled to death. The terror ended this summer when police at last caught him.
More recently, in April, she had another terrirfying experience. For a few days – she can’t recall exactly how many – she was unconscious in bed; couldn’t move, couldn’t even hear her cellphone or the alarm, or make a call for help. If her two little dogs barked during that time, she didn’t hear them; although she does recall at one point crawling across the floor to open the garden door and let them out. When she finally was able to see a doctor, the diagnosis was swine flu.And so serious that her heart was enlarged from the struggle to stay alive. She was back to work in a few weeks, but full recovery took four months.
Other news involved her diet. I knew she was a vegeterian, but was unaware that she had been born one. There are memories of my mother always nagging her about leaving her food. “It was meat,” she told us. “I never liked meat, even as a kid. Everyone thought that was unnatural and tried to force me to eat it.” Could she be “genetically” vegetarian? In any case, she still eats little of anything, usually once a day – if she remembers it – and preferabley peanut butter sandwiches, plus fiber and vitamin supplements. Who could argue with that snacking if it keeps her as wonderfully fit as she is.
Ballroom dancing has been her passion for about 30 years, and three of her trophies are displayed in the living room. She showed us the dance shoes that are custom-made in England, and for the first time we saw videos of her performing in contests. She took us to meet her closest friend and maestro, John, at his Sarasota dance studio. He's won many national awards as an outstanding teacher and admires Eli's talent and grit. Even though she's cut back from three practice sessions weekly to one, she insists, “I’m getting better.”
There were other holiday guests and visitors. Eli’s eldest daughter Pat and her 18-year-old son Ryan had driven down from New Hampshire – 30 hours on the road! Dropping in from Tampa was youngest daughter Tami, with husband David and three-year-old Anthony. And there was granddaughter Tabitha with husband James and their two-year-old Sophia. A group of us had a picnic at nearby Siesta Beach, a vast marvel of silvery sand. We visited Scherer recreational park where a sign at the pond beach warned. “Alligators. Caution while swimming.” Hmmm. We didn’t swim, but a few teenage girls did – until Ryan secretly threw a rock in the water and made an ominous splash that made them scurry out. We also went to a Sarasota aquarium and saw manatees, huge, friendly mammals that resemble seals and are a protected species. Tabitha and James gave us a tour of bayside Sarasota, which is indeed lovely.
Eli and friends
On Wednesday night, the eve of Thanksgiving day, we picked up of the pre-cooked, 12-pound turkey that Eli had ordered at the local Publix supermarket. She appointed me carver. OK, I agreed, but on one condition: carving must be done before the meal is served. That is sort of heresy, because the most sanctified image of Thanksgiving is of the male head of household slicing into the bird right before diners’ expectant eyes. A nice picture, I admitted, but the result is always cold turkey and slow, disorderly service. The ladies assented, with some misgivings.
I didn’t know how to carve a turkey, so I asked Ryan to search the web for instructions. In less than a minute he found some how-to videos that I followed with deep interest. In close to three hours on Thanksgiving morning I reduced the bird to two trays of white and brown meat that definitely looked appealing. After pre-heating in the oven, the turkey, along with the gravy, pre-cooked mashed potatoes and pumpkin, were laid out, steaming hot, on the kitchen counter, and everyone served themselves in a jiffy.
We were 11 for dinner. Eli pointed out that the artificial red flowers on the table were from Ma’s graveside (it had been too cold in Maine for real ones that winter of 2004). “It makes me think she’s still with us,” she said, and Rosina, who is quite spiritual, found that inspiring. A cellphone phone was passed around as we ate; it was Pat’s son and daughter-in-law Rob and Jill from Massachusetts with holiday greetings for one and all.
I made a few announcements:
1. This was my first Thanksgiving in the United States in 49 years.
2. The first American Thanksgiving was actually held in Florida. Yessir. A half-century before the Plymouth banquet, Spaniards in their Atlantic coast fort at St. Augustine, had celebrated traditional thanks for a good harvest (although sans Indians). Not even the Floridians at the table knew that. Nor had I until a few hours before when I found it on the internet.
David and me. photo: P.C.
After dinner there was live entertainment: rugged David tumbling around on the floor with the two squealing kids, tossing them around like rag dolls. We all observed that David was just one more kid, and he didn’t deny it.
So Rosina and I had a great time. It was well worth crossing the Atlantic to learn that I still have close family ties on the other side.