Monday, March 9, 2015

Childhood Memories of Susan

(Note:  Susan Mary Emond Leonard was my sister, four years younger than me.  She grew up in Bennington, Vermont in a foster home, and I grew up five miles away in North Bennington, in my grandmother's house.  For  most of those years we were not allowed to see or communicate with each other.)

Susan wanted a small, perky nose.  She thought wearing a clothespin on her nose and breathing through her mouth would eventually bring about that transformation.  I only know that because I saw her on a street in Bennington, one day, wearing her clothespin.  She was embarrassed, and I didn't help anything by telling her it wasn't going to work.  She was around 12 and I was 16.  Maybe I needed to seem more wise than she.  It was the first time I had seen her since she was around eight years old.  I was 12 then and had spent the evening in Bennington at a grade school science fair.  I got back to the car before the others.  It was the time of day when dusk is turning into darkness and the car was parked across the street from Susan's house, on the steep hill that was Jefferson Street.  I looked up at her house and found myself looking into a lit up second story window.  There was Barbara Dunham, her foster mother, tucking her into bed and kissing her good night.

It was strange to realize that I was seeing my sister.  All my friends lived with their brothers and sisters.  I felt blank and empty in the face of this fact:  I saw my sister at night through a window, by chance, after years of not seeing her at all.

The last time I saw Susan in a normal way, she was four and I was eight and she was visiting me and our grandmother in North Bennington.  I took her to a little street carnival that was happening in a park a few blocks from our house.  On the way home we held hands and talked about how we would live together when we were grownups and be each other's best friend.  This was the last time she would ever come to North Bennington and the last visit we would ever have, but we didn't know that.  A few days later my grandmother got a letter from Barbara Dunham.  After the visit Susan went home and told Barbara that she wanted to live with us and had a major tantrum when Barbara said that wouldn't be possible.  Barbara said that Susan would no longer be allowed to visit us and I would not be welcome in their home either.  She felt that it was better that we have no contact at all.  She had that power over our lives and she used it.

The  next Christmas rolled around and there was no visit from Susan, but we did get a glimpse of her.  My grandmother and I were in Bennington shopping and we passed by the church Susan and the Dunhams attended.  There was a sign outside advertising a children's Christmas pageant.  We slipped in the front door and stood in the back, in the shadows.  We finally made out Susan, among a flock of diminutive angels.

Susan and I did not grow up and live together.  The tides of life carried us far apart from one another.  Also, somewhere along the line, Susan started hating me, as she herself told me, years later.  She hated me because she had to live in a foster home and I got to live with relatives.  She imagined that I was surrounded by loving family members, as in a 1950s sitcom like Life With Father or Leave it to Beaver.
I wrote a book about my childhood and shared it with her.  I expected that this would lead to understanding and acceptance on her part.  It didn't.  I got an angry phone call telling me that I had destroyed her cherished childhood fantasies.  Maybe that is a terrible thing to do.  I don't know.  I can't remember that I ever had cherished childhood fantasies.  I just wanted to live along enough to grow up.

Susan and I didn't do well together as grownups.  We had missed too much.  A childhood spent together, learning to know each other, working through our differences, sharing important experiences - in the absence of all that we had turned into strangers who didn't have much in common except a few memories.  I was always doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing and finding out only too late that I had been misinterpreted or had tread on sacred ground wearing boots.  She finally admitted that she didn't really enjoy getting visits from me.  But we did talk on the phone several times a month.  That she seemed to enjoy.

Nevertheless, I admire Susan enormously.  She was a person of great courage.  Life brought her a lot of tough times and she fought her way through all of them except the last one - cancer.  That defeated her.  I cherish my few memories of her - the clothespin experiment, the little girl being put to bed, the tiny Methodist angel, the very young mother struggling to make ends meet.  I love you Susan, wherever you are. 

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