It is my habit each Saturday morning to make a cup of my favorite tea, Earl Grey, and sit on the deck in my backyard to make a list of the reasons to be grateful. Other times the Kansas wind was far too fierce for even my heaviest coat, so I would find myself in the kitchen nook, sitting on one of the benches. I found this space quaint and inviting, and I used it on mornings just like this one—too cold to sit outside—when I have counted it as one of my blessings.
On this particular morning, it was difficult to find something to be thankful for. The week at work had been pure torture, and Chloe, my daughter, had a stomach bug and was home from school on Monday, refused to go back to school on Wednesday, and insistent that she go on a last-minute playdate earlier this morning. It was no wonder I was finding it difficult to nail down any reasons to be grateful.
I sipped my tea, pet my little springer spaniel, Lacy, who was lying down on my feet, and let my mind drift—which was not out of the ordinary for me—to the past. There have been occasions when my husband has told me I live too much there, but I would tell him, that is where my childhood family lived. Unlike Paul, my husband, my family had all passed away. There was no mother to ask for recipes, no father to look to for financial advice, and no siblings. My only sibling had been Angela, my older sister by exactly four years—we even had the same birth date, May nineth—and she had been deceased for over thirty years.
I sat up straighter—startling Lacy who had been contentedly napping—and realized I could not remember the contours of Angela’s face. That beautiful girl had chased away my nighttime fears of ghosts, demons, and anything else my tender mind could conjure. I put down my cup of tea, and ran to the master bedroom, into the cedar-scented closet where we kept our photo albums. In a time before digital photography could keep thousands of pictures on our phones or laptops, I still enjoyed my traditional camera.
The album I was searching for was one I had assembled decades earlier. It had been the only one saved from the awful fire which had engulfed my family’s home when I was fifteen. Looking back now, I knew it was stupid, but back then that album was the one possession I had refused to leave to the flames. When my father burst into my bedroom, yelling for me to get out of the house, I took one precious extra moment to retrieve it from beneath my bed before running barefoot out into the street.
There it was at the very bottom of a plastic storage container we kept all of our albums in. I sat on the bed and once again admired its textured blue leather surface. I traced my finger over each embossed gold letter of my surname on its cover. It was a photo album I had won in a photography contest when I was twelve or so, and at the time, I treasured it dearly and vowed the only photos I would insert into its plastic sleeves would be those I had taken myself. It was a vow I did not keep after I quickly realized I needed someone to take pictures of my friends and me. At the time I meticulously studied each photograph before choosing the best ones for my treasured photo album.
Now, I took it back to my special bench, placed it on my lap, tucked my legs underneath myself—away from Lacy who was annoyed with me for disturbing her peace again— and opened it to the first page.
To say ours was not the typical childhood would be absurd as there is no typical childhood. Everyone must walk through the hills and valleys of their early years of life on this planet. The early years depicted by Norman Rockwell simply did not exist, or if they did, I never saw that anyone around me was living like that. My parents drank too much, bickered too often, and left all care of myself to Angela. I have memories of her teaching me to brush my teeth, get ready for school, and administering medicine to me when I was sick. My parents provided me with food, clothes, and shelter, but it was sister who gave me comfort, listened to my prayers, and watched over me. So, it should come as no surprise I was feeling the loss of Angela, rather than my parents, on that frigid morning.
My eyes jumped to my sister’s image. Her long auburn hair in feathery delicate soft ringlets framed her face as she looked into my camera lens. I could hear her voice echo through time as she told me to make sure I got her best side.
“Jeez Lueez, Mandy,” she would exclaim. “No pictures of my left side, only my right. If I’m going to be a movie star, I don’t want any bad pictures of me out there.”
I remembered how I would shake my head and tell her no, she had no bad side, she was as pretty as Sigourney Weaver. This statement always made her laugh, a sound I often craved.
“Yeah, that’s right,” she might have replied as she strutted in a small circle, her hands holding an imaginary gun, trying to look dangerous. “That’s me. I’m a badass. No aliens are gonna mess with me.”
I touched this picture as I reached through the years, yearning to hear that laughter once more.
The next photograph showed the two of us together, arm in arm. My dad or Mama must have taken this one. I saw how alike we looked. Two skinny girls, one dark-haired, the other fair, both in cutoff jean shorts and bright tee-shirts. I looked to be twelve or so which meant Angela would be fourteen. I noticed my two braids which were meant to keep my unruly hair in place.
“Come here. You have such a pretty face, Mandy,” Angela would say, “but your hair gets in the way of seeing it. Let me braid it for you.”
I slowly turned the page, lingering on each photo, wanting to memorize the detail of every shot: the turn of her head, her crooked smile, the faraway look in her eyes when she thought I was not noticing her. These pieces came together to form memories so bright in my mind, they burned as hot as that terrible housefire I had saved them from.
The next page was full of Christmas photos—taken by someone outside my immediate family—of the four of us together, dressed for Christmas dinner. These were the pictures of my parents being as normal as everyone else’s parents, or at least, how I envisioned other parents. My father bends down in this one so he can wrap the two of us in his arms. Another one shows the four of us in a conga line, like the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
Angela had been determined to make me believe in Santa Claus year after year by writing on each gift tag which adorned the many presents under our Christmas tree, “From Santa”.
“Let’s make your Christmas list to Santa Claus,” she would say each year. “Remember to tell him which present you really, really want.”
Each year “Santa” brought exactly that for which I had been hoping. I learned later that my sister would beg my mother to give her money so she could buy me that extra special gift.
The page after the Christmas photos is full of pictures from my birthday party. There is my sister, amongst a gaggle of adolescent girls, juggling a huge cake with fourteen candles on top. She is smiling down on me as I prepare to blow them out. I notice the affection that smile holds and I become overwhelmed with emotion, a tsunami of mixed feelings. I was happy to see her beautiful face but so sorrowful to have lost her that young.
It was as if these pictures were competing with each other, every one of them jostling for extra attention, for that extra moment of exposure.
As I dab at my eyes with a tissue, I come to the last page of photographs containing pictures of my sister. She was eighteen. I know this because that was the last year of her life. The photograph of Angela, sitting in her new car, conveys her joyous personality at its best. Her smile, so big, makes my heart swell with happiness.
As I go to tuck my photo album back into its home, I stop. Why should I hide such sublime memories? Instead, I place it in the center of the coffee table in our family room. With it in such a prominent place, I can open it and scan my treasured photographs whenever I want, like on days such as this one when it is tough to find something to add to my list of blessings. I close my eyes and say thank you to the universe because I am beyond grateful to have had such a marvelous sister.