Edna was my sister, but I didn’t know that for the first two decades of my life. Over time, I caught slight drifts that a sibling existed, in very vague terms, but nothing more.
Edna was listed in our father’s obituary as Mrs. Clifford Miller, but I didn’t see that obituary until I was 22 years old.
I found Edna through a very odd combination of circumstances in 1978, only to lose her again in 1990.
What I wouldn’t give for those first two precious decades. I feel like I lost her twice – once through family circumstances and then, ultimately, to death.
Edna died unexpectedly. No time for preparation or goodbyes.
Edna and Clifford Miller, her husband, are pictured above in a photo taken in 1986 for their 50th wedding anniversary. This is how I remember her, except smiling. Edna was always smiling.
I was there that day, with them – one of the few life events we were able to celebrate together.
If you’re quietly thinking to yourself that there’s a BIG age difference between us, you’d be exactly right.
Edna’s story and mine are both messy, thanks in part to the same man – our father.
Edna and I were separated by many years and a lifetime we had missed. But we were joined by common bonds. Not only our blood relationship – we discovered many things we had in common and how much alike we were.
Edna was born on May 22, 1920, the daughter of William Sterling Estes, known as Bill, and Martha Dodder.
Our father was in the Army and stationed at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Martha, shown above with an unidentified soldier, was a volunteer at the hospital there.
In August of 1919, my father was hospitalized as the flu epidemic swept through Camp Custer.
He thought he was dying – with good reason. He nearly did. He ran dangerously high fevers and likely had encephalitis.
Our father was hospitalized 3 times over that summer, the last time in August for 3 weeks. He wrote desperate letters to his sweetheart in Indiana, Virgie, who had rejected him. She simply stopped writing – ghosting as we call it today – probably the most painful rejection of all.
My father did plenty of boneheaded things in his lifetime, but it’s hard not to have compassion for a young man, just 17, far from home, gravely ill, and all alone.
Two of his grandparents had already died of that horrible flu, and the remaining two would just a few months later. He must have been terrified.
Martha was 5 years older than Bill and was born with a cleft palate. Edna was conceived about the time of his hospitalization, or immediately thereafter. I’m not sure who was comforting whom or the expectations within the relationship, but a few months later, my father had another new problem.
You see, Martha wasn’t the only female comforting my father. So was Ilo Bailey, who also became pregnant. I’m not sure if my father simply married the first of the two women who presented themselves “in a family way,” or if other factors were involved.
I have always suspected that he was still “waiting” for Virgie to come to her senses. For the record, he did marry Virgie, in 1961, more than four decades later, but I digress.
Father married Ilo Bailey in December 1919 and their baby was born in February 1920. Edna was born to Martha just three months later, in May of 1920.
At one point, it appears that both women showed up at the courthouse for the same proceeding. I bet that was something to behold! I would love to have been a fly on that wall.
Eventually, though, Ilo had enough.
In March of 1921, Ilo wrote a letter to my father who was still in the military, although at that time, in the brig, telling him she was leaving for Kentucky with their son and had filed for divorce. Ironically, that letter came to me through Martha.
On December 12, 1921, Bill married Martha Dodder.
The New Problem
Now, the couple had a new problem.
When Edna was born, Martha listed a different man as her father. Soon after they married, Martha and Bill filed to have Edna’s surname changed and have him listed as her father, stating that the birth certificate was incorrect. A “mistake” had occurred.
I could never understand why Edna’s birth certificate wasn’t filed in the clerk’s book and index with the other babies born in May of 1920. Instead, it was out-of-place, filed more than 18 months later. Now, with this additional information, the filing order makes sense. The father’s identification and name change had to be approved by the court and was in essence treated the same, in terms of the recording, as an adoption. The records were also sealed.
Edna’s original birth record lists her mother as Martha Dodder and her father as Edward Polushink. The baby’s name was listed as Edna Marie Polushink.
Why would Martha do that?
Of course, it’s possible that Martha wasn’t sure who the father was, but I thought, all things considered, it was more likely that my father talked her into that in order to keep him out of hot water with the military who frowned upon soldiers getting local girls “in trouble” and then marrying someone else. They probably would have doubly frowned on getting two women in trouble at the same time – and that was in addition to his indiscretions for which he was already confined to jail for 6 months in 1920. His escapades read like a very bad, or exceptionally good, novel.
I shook my head, thinking what a bad influence my father was on poor Martha.
Edna never knew most, if any, of this. I didn’t make most of these discoveries until after her death.
I don’t think Edna knew that her parents weren’t married at the time of her birth. While relatively common today, at that time, it was socially very awkward, horribly embarrassing, and humiliating. To put this in perspective, some photos of Martha’s children were taken beside a horse and buggy. I discovered that information when I visited the local archives and located Martha and Bill’s divorce file, which included their marriage date and location.
Of course, I didn’t yet know about Ilo Bailey, and that both women were pregnant at the same time. For Martha, that would have made the situation worse, much worse – and then he married the “other” pregnant woman, truly leaving her stranded. My heart aches for Martha!
I discovered the information about Edward Polushink on Edna’s birth certificate in the 1990s, not long after she passed. I was working in Calhoun County, where Edna was born, and on a fluke decided to visit the clerk’s office and request a copy of her birth certificate. That’s when I discovered the discrepancy and the odd filing date. The original entry in the index had been lined through, which was even more confusing. As it turns out, the employee in the clerk’s office was confused too, which is the only reason I was able to view the two index entries.
Why would one entry be lined out with a new entry recorded months later? An adoption or court-ordered amendment of the birth certificate – that’s why.
That information always made me wonder, but I certainly did not want to create additional family drama. Edna and her family had already been through enough and all of that past history was water under the bridge. Edna was gone and I loved her regardless.
Plus, I figured Edward Polushink was simply a created alias. I casually asked around and no one had ever heard of anyone by that name. Neither were there additional records for him. My Dad was the king of aliases and how to use them effectively. Yes, that’s surely what it was.
Years later, after a multitude of records began to be available online, out of curiosity, I checked that name once again. Much to my surprise, I discovered one Edward Palushnik, a forestry engineer, who arrived in Battle Creek, Michigan in May of 1919 to live with his brother at 25 Margerie Street. Additional research in the 1915 and 1918 city directory shows both men living at 25 Marjorie Street.
Further research shows that Edward was discharged from the military in June of 1919.
Hmmm, maybe Edna really WAS Edward’s child. Could this be?
Surely not. Probably just a coincidence, right? Even though it does place a man with a similar name in Battle Creek at the same time.
This really nagged at the genealogist in me.
Then, in the 1920 census, I discovered Martha living with her parents, quite pregnant in April, of course, at 23 Marjorie Street in Battle Creek.
This is not a coincidence nor is Edward Polushink an alias.
Further research on Edward shows that he didn’t stay in Battle Creek. He married in September of 1921 in Wayne County, Michigan.
Talk about a can of worms!
My father and Martha had married in December of 1921, a year and a half after Edna’s birth, but that marriage didn’t last long.
On February 26, 1924, the divorce between Martha and Bill was finalized amid allegations of infidelity. He accused Martha of cheating which, even if true, knowing my father, probably fell into the category of the pot calling the kettle black.
She accused him of cruelty and alleged he was lazy and because of that, she had to work.
Reading the documents in that file was just painful. It became evident that Martha and Bill had a tumultuous marriage that probably should never have happened in the first place. It was abundantly clear that both people were miserable.
Martha filed for divorce in September of 1923. He did not contest the divorce and apparently, left.
I say “apparently left,” because…well…with my father, you never really know.
In May 1925, fifteen months after the divorce was final in February, a daughter was born to Martha who had not remarried. That child eventually had the surname of Lindsey, but I can’t help but wonder if my father was involved.
Whose child was born in May of 1925 and what surname did she use when the child was born, given what we discovered about Edna’s birth record?
In 1934, after the birth of three additional children, including one who died at 13 months of age, Martha married Marcus Lindsey as (at least) his 3rd wife. All of Martha’s children born after Edna carried the Lindsay surname, at least in adulthood.
Martha had a very rough life.
She died unexpectedly in January of 1943 at only 45 of a coronary occlusion. Her obituary said she had been ill for several months and had gone to stay with her sister for care. She left 3 young children at home ranging in age from 4 to 18.
I don’t have the details, but I know there was a great deal of “churn” surrounding Martha’s life, and Martha’s death.
Edna Grows Up
Edna was a joyful and beautiful child, raised for the most part by her mother and grandparents.
These photos were taken when Edna was 4.
By 1934 when Edna’s mother, Martha, married Marcus Lindsey, Edna would have been one of 4 children, the oldest at 14, and the only step-child. It’s not surprising that Edna married Cliff two short years later.
I don’t know exactly how or when Edna met Cliff. I do know that he was 8 years older than Edna, exactly 8 years – to the day.
Edna married Cliff on the third of July, 1936 in Howe, LaGrange County, Indiana, just across the Michigan/Indiana border – a Gretna Green type of destination with little or no wait to obtain a marriage license.
Yes, I do believe they eloped in Cliff’s car. She was 16. He was 24.
These grainy, sweet, photos were taken on their wedding day.
A year and a few weeks later, their first child arrived.
Cliff was always a hard worker – an industrious farmer who owned his own sawmill in addition to working at and retiring from Upjohn. A good provider, he was still a product of the time in which he was born and had specific expectations about what a wife, his wife, should and should not do.
Edna was 23 when her mother died, with three young children of her own – and expecting a fourth. Edna felt exhausted, orphaned, and alone.
Dad Visits Edna
Even though our father and Edna’s mother were divorced in early 1924, he never lost track of Edna entirely and had the habit of dropping in unexpectedly to visit people from time to time. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been welcomed by Martha, but he found Edna as an adult about 1950 when he searched her out and stopped by their farm.
Edna was angry with him for his 20+ year absence in her youth and Cliff was none too happy either. He never trusted Bill.
Edna’s oldest daughter says she remembers his first visit when she was in the 7th grade. She came home from school and he was sitting at the kitchen table, talking to Edna who introduced him to her children.
After that, he visited regularly.
Edna took photos of our father with her kids in 1953. During that same visit, he took her photo standing between her two oldest girls.
I so love the mischievous expression on Edna’s face.
It was during that time that Mother met Edna. Only two years apart in age, they wrote chatty letters discussing their children and exchanged photos for at least a decade. Edna told Mom about the farm and that her oldest daughter was going to college. Mom told her that my (half) brother was going to barber school, that I was potty trained and my father had been ill.
We lived in central Indiana. Edna and Cliff lived in Michigan. Mom was busy with me and Edna was busy with several children, including a daughter of about the same age. In fact, then as well as years later, we could have been mistaken for twins. I’m at the right, below.
Both Mom and Edna had fond recollections of each other. Edna did not, however, feel fondly towards my father, and neither did my mother nor Cliff.
At some point, Mother and Edna met when I was young, likely accompanying my father at some point when he visited. Edna said she remembered me as a baby. I wish someone had snapped a picture.
I have no recollection of Edna in my life when I was young, but that’s probably because my parents separated when I was about 18 months old, Bill died a few years later, and both Edna and mother were extremely busy.
Our father died in 1963 following an automobile accident. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but he bled to death from internal injuries. That’s not the whole story though. His death was actually a suicide. Edna never knew that either.
I don’t know if Edna attended the funeral, although I suspect not. Mother did not take me, probably simply because we didn’t have the gas money, although attending his funeral was something I really needed in order to accept that he was dead and never coming back. I was only 7. He was often gone for long periods, dropping in at will. It was natural for me to believe that we were just “waiting” and he would one day show up again. Except, that wait was forever.
As a young child, I adored my father, unaware that he left a trail of carnage and broken hearts behind him in terms of the women and children in his life.
Mother resented my father’s behaviors and the fact that he walked away from responsibility. She discovered the “other woman,” along with the “other child,” Dave, born just 5 months before me.
Yep, my Dad did it again – two women, both pregnant at the same time. You’d think he would have learned in the space of thirty-some years…but no!
To say Mother was furious, not to mention crushed and embarrassed is an understatement. Mother entered into that relationship with the intention of “forever.” Every other woman who had children with my father assuredly felt the same way, with the same set of expectations – living happily forever after. That never happened.
There weren’t hard feelings between Mother and Edna, but their letters became fewer and further between, then stopped. Edna had teenagers, then grandchildren and so did Mother. Plus, Mom worked and eventually remarried.
Growing up, I didn’t realize that I had a sister, although I don’t think it was actually a “secret.” It was more like a vague sense that drifted away in time.
Years later, when I actually read my father’s yellowed obituary clipping tucked into his American Legion hat with his tie and pin, the fact that another child, a sister, was listed hit me like a ton of bricks.
I found Edna through a series of “coincidences” that served two purposes. Not only did I meet Edna, but I also accidentally became a genealogist.
I think both were my fate.
I knew little about my family on my father’s side. Truthfully, I knew nothing. My father’s family was from far-away Tennessee and my mother was not in contact with any of his relatives.
When I was pregnant and suddenly found myself out of a job (yes, they could do that back then), I decided I wanted to know a little more about my father’s family and had unexpected time on my hands.
My step-mother, Virgie, a lovely lady, was still living, but she didn’t know much about the Estes family.
Virgie provided me with my father’s obituary, along with his hat, tie and pin that she had been saving for me until I was an adult. In the obituary, Edna’s name was given as Mrs. Clifford Miller of Vicksburg, Michigan.
I was stunned.
I was immediately skeptical because there were several errors in Dad’s obituary. To begin with, my mother was listed as my father’s daughter and I was omitted entirely. I called Virgie and asked about that, and she said she didn’t know what happened, or why.
I now know that three other children were omitted as well. Or at least, people my father believed were his children.
Additionally, my father’s 4 full and 3 living half-siblings are omitted, and his half-sister is listed as his step-sister. But hey, it’s close, right?
Is it any wonder I was confused? What little I had been told didn’t line up with what I saw in writing. Did I really have a sister? Who was she?
Virgie suggested that I call my father’s family in Tennessee to sort things out and learn more.
Was that a solution or jumping from the frying pan into the fire? I recalled some of the things my mother had said, mostly in passing, about my father and his family. It also concerned me that Virgie didn’t know more. She was a lovely lady. Why was she not involved with these people – and why did none of them seem to care that my father had a daughter?
After a day or so, I gingerly picked up the phone, dialed “0” for “operator” and asked for anyone with the Estes surname in Tazewell, Tennessee. That’s all I had, that one town name. The operator in Tazewell, a local lady, was extremely helpful.
She asked me “which Estes” I wanted to talk to. I told her that I wanted to find out about my family, and who my father’s family was. She said, “Oh, you need to talk to George,” and connected me. Uncle George, who was really a first cousin once removed, told me, among other things, that my aunts, my father’s sisters, were still living. I was dumbstruck. So was he – that I didn’t know about them. He gave me a phone number.
I connected with my elderly, somewhat eccentric aunts, whose favorite pastime it seemed was doing battle with each other. As it turned out, they knew “all about“ me and had a LOT to say, trying to outdo each other. They told me “stories” about siblings and such, some of whom did exist and some who may not. I’ve never been able to substantiate much of what they said, although it wasn’t all bunk either. It was then and remains difficult to sort the truth from the fiction.
I’m still waiting for that DNA surprise sibling I’m just sure must exist someplace!
A little more sleuthing netted me another phone number.
Finally, after an appropriate amount of grilling and questioning me, one of the aunts grudgingly gave me a phone number she said was my sister’s.
The aunts were masters of giving you almost what you wanted, but not quite. In this case, I received the phone number for one sister, but they would not provide information about other supposed siblings, although they made it very clear they had that information. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, but in retrospect, I was very fortunate to receive that one phone number and name.
I debated about calling. My mother was very uncomplimentary about my father’s family and that conversation with my aunts confirmed some of what she had said.
My grandparents had in essence abandoned my father and his brother. My grandfather was not a nice person. The aunts clearly suffered through similar situations from the same parents. They were manipulative enough that I was concerned about the rest of the family. Were they the same? Or worse? What was I getting myself into?
Did I REALLY want contact with this family, or did I just think I did? Maybe I just wanted to know about them, not know them.
Finding lost relatives is much like opening Pandora’s box. Once opened, it can never be closed. After much introspection and endlessly staring at the phone number written on that pad of yellow paper, I summoned all my courage and decided to call the woman who was supposed to be my sister. I picked up the receiver and dialed. There was no turning back now.
I finished dialing. I heard the phone ring on the other end.
My hands were shaking.
What if she hung up on me?
What if she was crazy?
What if I was sorry?
I knew, based on my mother’s very guarded behavior about my father, as well as comments that other people had made that this family was “difficult” at best. I had no experience with their flavor of “difficult” and was clearly outgunned.
Was I making a huge mistake?
Should I just hang up?
The Phone Call
Cliff answered the phone.
My voice was quivering.
I told him who I was and asked if his wife was the daughter of William Estes.
I sounded ridiculous and stumbled all over my words. I should have practiced.
He asked why I wanted to know and what I wanted.
This was not going well. I wasn’t prepared for this very direct question.
He was clearly NOT friendly.
I explained that I wanted to know about my family. He immediately sounded very “odd,” his voice quite strained. He paused, then told me to hang on a minute.
That was the longest minute ever.
Muffled shuffling and muted voices. I knew he had covered the phone with his hand.
A minute or so later, although it seemed like forever, Edna came to the phone. Increasingly nervous, I stuttered and stammered.
I’ve always disliked phones and phone calls.
I had the distinct sense that this was a one-time shot. No repeat if I somehow screwed this up.
Edna was nice and pleasant, and I finally relaxed a little. Her voice was soft and reassuring. I didn’t feel like she hated me from the onset.
We visited for some time and she told me that they were in the process of moving, and retiring to Arizona. Had I not called when I did, I would have missed them entirely and would probably never have been able to find them. They had sold the farm and were leaving that upcoming weekend.
That’s how close I came to missing Edna.
But that just-in-the-nick-of-time call wasn’t the oddest part. It turns out that I had actually been given the wrong phone number by the aunts. Was that intentional? I had repeated it back to them. However, in my nervousness, I had accidentally inverted those two “wrong” numbers when dialing, and had, by happenstance, reached the right number.
That “coincidence” still gives me cold chills.
Edna mailed me this 40th-anniversary photo of her and Cliff. I studied this picture to see if she looked like me.
I couldn’t tell.
It seemed and felt odd to have a sister that was my mother’s age.
Edna and I wanted to meet, so we decided that she and Cliff would stop by during their travels that summer, after my baby was born.
Cliff and Edna arrived a few weeks later pulling their 5th-wheel and camped in our driveway.
That was the first meeting of many. We bonded immediately and felt like we had always known each other. I was sad that they were moving so far away, but we made the best of the situation. We visited in person when we could, wrote letters, and talked “long distance” on the phone nearly every Sunday when they weren’t on the road.
Edna and I spent time getting to know each other, chattering like magpies, and cementing a permanent bond.
Both of us agreed that our mothers had done a pretty good job of raising us. She felt that she was much better off for not having been involved with our father…and she was probably right. She knew him as an irresponsible parent and had of course heard at least some stories from her mother and maternal grandparents. Edna had the advantage of having known our father as an adult herself.
He was taken from me when I still adored him as a child. I wasn’t old enough to comprehend that he caused the pain of his absence and was innocently ecstatic to see him again – just like an abandoned puppy waiting eternally for their uncaring human to return.
Hearing what Edna had to say as another of his children helped me understand the situation better. She also wasn’t speaking as an “X,” but as his child.
I understood why the trail of women he left, several with a child, felt so negatively towards him with his string of broken promises and betrayals. Edna, as a child was hurt by his absence too. Neither of us knew at that time about the horrific childhood he had endured and somehow survived.
I do believe he loved his children…just not in a responsible way. If he hadn’t, he simply would have never come back, risking slammed doors and outright rejection.
Perhaps the best thing about our father was us finding each other, like lost pieces of the same puzzle.
Edna and I discovered much common ground. Both of us had found our voices as artists.
Edna created beauty using lots of varied media. Her most incredible pieces were wood carvings and burnings.
I love her bird carving, shown here, but her creation I found the most moving was a carving that depicts 3 people of different races, white, black, and Native American, all looking upward to the same distant location in the sky. An exquisite spiritual piece, it spoke to my soul. I knew it emanated from hers.
Edna and I had more in common.
We had both raised orphaned animals. She was showing me photos in her family scrapbook and there was a picture of her with a young deer following her around. She then told me about bottle raising that orphan deer, and other animals as well.
My children and I rescued and raised orphaned and injured animals for years. How we both came to that rather unusual commonality is just another of those uncanny coincidences.
Some years later, one of my father’s nieces told me that in the 1940s when my father came to live with their family for a few weeks, he rescued a group of baby ducks. She and he, together, raised them. She said they had those ducks as pets on their farm forever until they died of old-duck age.
Our father wasn’t all bad.
Edna and I nurtured our new relationship and made up for the lost years as best we could. I was more the age of her kids, slightly younger than her youngest child.
We spoke nearly every Sunday. Phone rates were cheapest on Sunday and that’s when everyone made those expensive “long distance” calls. We visited when she and Cliff came back north in the summers. They wintered in Arizona and came home and “camped” in their 5th-wheel at the various kids’ and grandkids’ houses in the summer.
We always managed to get together at least once each summer.
We couldn’t talk during the summer months as much. Cell phones didn’t yet exist, at least not on a wide scale. Edna was great about writing letters though, and I wrote a few too. I loved those days of finding an envelope with her familiar handwriting in the mailbox. It always raised my spirits and was the highlight of that day.
After I began to fly with my career, I scheduled flights to connect through Phoenix so I could overnight with Edna and Cliff before catching my flight the next day. We saw each other when we could and never expected our time together to be so short. We always had the future in front of us to be enjoyed, and we certainly planned to do so.
I’ve often wondered what she told her kids before I met them. They always called me their “Baby Aunt Bobbi” because I was younger than all of them. I was welcomed always and made to feel like a family member. I never felt like I hadn’t been a family member.
The 50th Anniversary
One of my favorite memories is with the whole family.
For Edna and Cliff’s 50th wedding anniversary, the family held a big reunion picnic at one of the kid’s farms outside Battle Creek. We thoroughly enjoyed the day, did lots of good-natured teasing and visiting, and played volleyball in the large front yard between the tree-shaded circular driveway and the road. Edna and Cliff had 6 children – 5 of whom lived to adulthood and more than a dozen grandchildren. By their 50th wedding anniversary, they had several great-grandchildren too.
Friends were invited as well, so their 50th-anniversary celebration picnic was bustling, with cars and trucks parked up and down the road for half a mile or so. One man even arrived on a tractor.
I’ve never been a part of a large family, so this was something new for me. What fun, and I was saddened that I had missed so much for so long.
Edna’s sons and grandsons were busy grilling hotdogs and hamburgers. Everyone brought dishes for the buffet tables which lined the driveway in the shade beneath the huge maple trees, their leaves fluttering from time to time in the gentle breeze.
We all grabbed paper plates and enjoyed a wonderful summertime feast, sitting on scattered chairs and on blankets and quilts on the grass. Edna and Cliff, as the guests of honor, got to sit on folding chairs at a real table. They had very specifically said, “no gifts,” in the invitation, but people didn’t listen very well, me included. We “paid them no mind,” as we said on the farm.
A card table covered with a red and white gingham tablecloth held beautifully wrapped gifts and cards, many handmade.
I stitched a commemorative sampler celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary which corresponded with the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.
Cliff returned the sampler to me after Edna passed on. It was painful to him and he wanted to be sure I had it. Returning it was an act of love, but the day it arrived back home was one mighty sad day. When I made it, that possibility never occurred to me. I have now passed it on to one of her grandchildren who will, in turn, pass it on again.
After lunch at their anniversary celebration, someone erected a volleyball net.
The younger family members, of which I was then one, distributed themselves on opposite sides of the net and a good-humored but competitive series of volleyball games began.
Fourth of July weekend is hot. Between games, we all made beelines for the table with the cold drinks.
Several coolers held lemonade, iced tea, Koolaid, pop, Hi-C, and other cold treats. On the table with the cups, ice floated in a punch bowl with sliced fruit and some sort of red fruit punch. It looked luscious and icy cold. I filled a red plastic cup with ice cubes and ladled punch into the cup. I drank the whole thing in one long gulp, filled the cup, and did it again.
After each person had something to drink and cooled off a bit, we wandered back onto the front lawn, preparing to play another game of volleyball. It had sprinkled a bit while we were getting refreshments, and maybe a bit of dessert too, but the sun was out once again.
Someone served the ball and off we went.
The ball was coming straight for me. I had the perfect shot. I leaped my best Olympic leap into the air…
The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, looking up at everyone in a circle, staring down at me.
“What happened?”, I asked.
Seems my family was wondering the same thing.
My nephew helped me to my feet and walked me to one of the tables with chairs. Edna and Cliff were concerned, although Cliff was laughing and Edna was poking him to stop.
I asked where my cup was and could someone please get me some more of that tasty red ice-cold punch. I thought I might be overheated.
My nephew looked at me skeptically. “How much of that red punch did you drink?”
“Two cups. It was really good,” I answered.
He started to laugh. Then he started to laugh so hard he was crying and couldn’t breathe. Cliff was guffawing.
He told me to sit still. He called his brother over and started telling him something. His brother started to laugh uproariously too.
I was irritated. I was still thirsty and wanted something more that was cold to drink. I stood up, only to sit back down again. I felt queasy.
Something wasn’t right.
One of my nephews finally went over to the table, I thought to bring me some more punch. He reached into the cooler and brought me something else to drink.
Then he picked up a mason jar from behind the punch bowl, out of sight, and brought it over to me.
“Know what this is?”, he asked.
It had a clear liquid in it that looked like water.
“No. Is it water?”
“It’s White Lightening,” he said.
My eyebrows shot up.
“Moonshine? Oh, I don’t want any of that. I just want some of that punch.”
“Ummm,” my nephew stammered, trying not to laugh, “You just had two cups of it.”
“Yep, the punch is spiked, heavily spiked” Cliff chuckled, “I thought you knew.”
“No more punch for you,” my nephew pronounced, “You’re relegated to lemonade or iced tea. And no more volleyball either.”
I remember smiling a lot the rest of that hazy afternoon. I sat close to Edna and Cliff so lots of people talked to me too, although I don’t remember much of what they had to say. I simply remember how happy I was, sitting with my sister.
Cliff bought Edna a beautiful new diamond ring which he presented to her, saying she deserved it for putting up with him for 50 years. Let’s just say it MIGHT have been me who laughed out loud and snorted my lemonade through my nose. White Lightening will do that to you!
I’m still laughing, sitting here writing about this today. So was Edna, then.
That’s such a good memory. Everyone had a lovely day.
Other times, we’d just sit and visit wherever we were. It didn’t matter.
One time, I went to meet them someplace where they were camping and we made goulash. The only veggie she had in the camper was carrots, so our goulash had hamburger, macaroni, tomato sauce and mega-carrots. We laughed, but enjoyed cooking and eating together regardless of what it was or how many carrots.
I loved being with my sister. We thought we had forever.
A year or so after the anniversary party, Edna called with some not-so-good news. She had cancer.
That C word will stop you in your tracks and steal your breath. Cancer will steal life as you know it, if not life itself.
My chest tightened. I sat down before I fell down.
“Whhh – wwhat? Where?”
Very long pause.
“Oh God. NO! NOOOooooo…” I screamed.
I tried not to sob uncontrollably but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stop the tears.
Over the next two years, Edna underwent a double radical mastectomy and chemo. I didn’t see her during this time. Not only did they not return north, she didn’t feel like having company in Arizona. Fortunately, one of her children lived there and others visited from time to time to help.
It was living hell.
The surgeries and treatments didn’t just affect her breasts and chest, but her arms due to the extensive surgery to remove lymph nodes. The chemo made her deathly ill. We feared she would die as a result of or during the treatments.
We still talked on Sunday when she could and felt up to it. We planned for the future – where we would meet and what we would do. We talked about making crafts together, perhaps, or her favorite place in the mountains.
I would ask her opinion about things and she would share her wisdom.
Sometime in 1988 or 1989, she got the all-clear. Cancer free. What a horrific journey, but worth it. Life could resume, although Edna always seemed tired. She was quick to remind me that she was no spring chicken and everything she endured had aged her.
The House in the Mountains
Cliff and Edna had purchased land in the mountains near Tucson before Edna’s cancer diagnosis. After the all-clear, Cliff built a house, their dream retirement space. I know Edna missed the adults-only modular retirement community where they lived before, but they both loved the peaceful, beautiful mountains. Edna’s stamina was slowly returning, and just as soon as they got unpacked and settled in their new home, she wanted me to fly down and visit again. The drive back north was more than she felt she could handle.
I delayed that visit because I knew she was still struggling with the move and fatigue. I didn’t want to be a burden and as soon as she was finished getting settled, I would visit.
They decided to take shorter driving trips in their 5th-wheel, closer to home. In May of 1990, Edna went for a checkup with her oncology team in Tucson. When she got home, they decided to head out for a few days, someplace in the mountains.
Edna set about cleaning the house and packing. Cliff got the 5th-wheel ready. A day or so later, they took off.
June 1, 1990
On Saturday evening, June 1st, 1990, my husband and I went to dinner with friends.
When we returned home, there was a message waiting from Cliff that said Edna had a heart attack. I still remember with horror hearing that message. I rewound and played it again – unsure I had heard correctly. Maybe I had missed something.
After all those months of being chronically frightened, I had finally relaxed a bit, but apparently, too soon.
He left a phone number which I called immediately. The number was to the nurse’s station at the hospital and they went to find Cliff. There was no phone, they explained, in Edna’s ICU room.
ICU? My sister was in ICU? Those words and that realization struck me like an icy slap.
Cliff repeated that Edna had a heart attack, but that she was relatively stable now. Although she was understandably upset and in some pain, she was taking a positive view of the situation. I asked where they were and he said they were at a small hospital in the middle of noplace.
He didn’t know much more.
ICU. My sister was in ICU.
After talking to Cliff, I was very uneasy, although I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why. Cliff didn’t seem terribly worried and he was there in person. Why was I?
Who knows what “intensive care” was like in a little local hospital. Did they know what they were doing? Should she be transferred? Was she really mostly “OK’ or was she just putting on a brave face for Cliff? Did she not want me to know because I would worry? What caused the heart attack? Were diagnostic tests being run?
Of course, that was before widespread cell phones and one could not talk to patients in intensive care.
She wouldn’t have been in ICU if it wasn’t serious.
ICU. My sister was in ICU.
I needed to be there. For her and for me.
I called the airline and the first flight out was about 9 AM the following morning. I booked it and went to bed for a very restless night.
I couldn’t sleep.
The Next Morning
When I got up early in the morning, I decided to call the hospital to check on Edna before I left for the airport. Once I left the house, I was pretty much out of touch until I actually arrived in Arizona. I had rented a car for my arrival and wouldn’t be in touch with the family until I got to the hospital someplace in the mountains in the afternoon.
I talked to the nurse at the nurse’s station. It was 3 hours earlier in Arizona. She said Cliff was sleeping in the lounge. Back then, family members didn’t get to stay in the rooms with patients. The nurse told me that Edna was “resting comfortably” and was stable. That was certainly good news and made me less anxious and somewhat hopeful.
Between talking with the nurse and Cliff the night before, I got no indication that Edna might not recover. Everything seemed calm and routine, as routine as something like that can be. Edna was a survivor by all accounts. Cautious optimism was the watchword.
I should have felt reassured, and I was trying to.
Still, I just could not shake this feeling.
As I was talking to the nurse, I heard the speaker at the hospital. In fact, it was so loud, I couldn’t hear anything else. I still hear it in my dreams.
“Code blue, code blue” it screeched, “code blue.”
The nurse either dropped the phone or put it down. I wasn’t clear whether she was going to get Cliff or if she was responding to the “code blue.” The phone was a wall phone beside the table. I sat down in a chair at the kitchen table.
I understood all too well what “code blue” meant.
I waited, but I already knew.
I waited…and waited….and listened for any glimmer of hope.
Maybe I could hear something.
Maybe Cliff would come to the phone.
Maybe it wasn’t Edna who had coded.
In the pit of my stomach, I knew.
I wasn’t fearful, it was more like dead certainty. I have always called those events “knowings”, and they are never wrong.
I closed my eyes and waited as the hot tears slipped down my cheeks.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably more like 20 minutes, someone came back and picked up the phone. I don’t think it was the same person, but they probably saw the phone laying on the desk off the hook. They picked it back up and said, “Hello?”
Icy fingers gripped my heart.
I asked if it was Edna who coded. The nurse said she couldn’t tell me that. I asked again for Cliff who they said was “busy.” No doubt he was. Desperate for anything, I asked, “If it wasn’t my sister who coded, you would tell me that, right?”
She paused for a very long moment, then said “Yes, yes I would.” I can still hear her voice.
I asked if Edna was gone. Like before, she said she couldn’t tell me that…I would have to talk to Cliff, who was of course “busy.” So once again, I asked the same type of question.
“If my sister wasn’t gone, you would tell me, right?” Once again, she softly said, “Yes, I would.”
Edna was gone.
Somehow, I had known since the night before.
I have always wondered if she would have fared better had she been in a major metropolitan hospital, but none of that mattered anymore.
I vividly remember sitting alone at the kitchen table in the early dawn hours, struggling with what to do. I would liked to have asked Edna for her opinion, but that would never be an option again.
Should I go to Arizona anyway? A plane ticket and rental car were horribly expensive for a young family counting pennies, let alone dollars. With Edna already gone, it seemed an unnecessary expense.
In retrospect, I probably should have gone ahead and made the journey. At least I would have gotten to see her body one more time in person and not just in a photo. I could have supported Cliff and her 2 daughters who did manage to arrive in time. But I didn’t realize any of that in that moment. I still couldn’t talk to Cliff and I had to make a “go, no-go” decision.
The Real Struggle
The real struggle though was how to deal with the unexpected death of my sister. Edna was twice lost to me.
This all seemed so horrifically unfair.
It had only been a year or two since her mastectomy and chemo for breast cancer. We thought she was cancer-free, although I came to doubt that as did the rest of the family after her death.
Cliff told me that he thought she had been told the cancer had metastasized during her checkup in Tucson. That’s why she came home and wanted to leave immediately on a camping trip. One last time before she had to tell him about the cancer and go back for more treatments.
Or, maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t going to take any more treatments. I believe that’s the decision she was weighing.
If that was the case, her death by a comparatively quick heart attack was probably a blessing, an odd sort of cosmic gift.
After her death in Arizona, the family was faced with the quandary of how to handle the funeral arrangements. Cliff discovered that transporting her body back to Michigan for burial would cost thousands of dollars. I just had cartoonish visions of Cliff pulling the 5th-wheel, with Edna in her casket, back home. Had they allowed that, I’m sure that’s exactly what he would have done, talking to her all the way.
The decision was made to cremate her remains, then bury the urn in Michigan.
On the day of Edna’s funeral, schedules and resource juggling worked out such that Bagel (our beagle) went to stay with a friend for the day, my former husband went sailing instead of with me to my sister’s funeral, which meant he needed the van. Edna never much liked him anyway.
That meant my daughter and I, just the two of us, drove my former husband’s convertible to the funeral service which was graveside at the cemetery. A very odd combination of grief and freedom.
It’s odd the things we remember. I felt kind of strange driving a convertible to a funeral. It seemed inappropriate. Then again, I know Edna would have had a good chuckle.
After the service, we all went to Edna’s grandson’s for refreshments. Unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, there was no red punch, although everyone but everyone reminded me of that legendary picnic! We all laughed about that. I was so grateful to have had that time together to make priceless precious memories.
My daughter and I put the top to the convertible down and enjoyed the rest of the day, driving home. Just her and me. That too was a gift. The sun kissed our faces and the wind blew freedom through our hair and dried our tears.
Edna would have liked that. She was free too. A part of the wind.
Edna and I shared one more thing, our deep connection to the spiritual realm, Mother Earth, and her creatures. We shared Native American ancestors and embraced the Red Road, the Native lifeways.
We both felt a spiritual connection deep within our souls and gave it a voice in our art, the way we lived our lives, and our views of the Earth and our fellow creatures. We lived it, every single day.
As we gathered together in the cemetery for Edna’s farewell ceremony and looked out over the surrounding fields, a small dark spot appeared on the top of the distant hill.
The spot began to move towards us and shortly, we could see that it was either a large dog or a wolf or maybe a crossbreed between the two. The lanky canine came and joined us. Edna’s granddaughter, a veterinarian, called the dog over to sit down, and it did, just like any other attendee, facing forward and listening attentively.
Cliff had asked if I could read a poem that had been found tucked away in Edna’s Bible. I believe she had read it at the funeral of one of her two sons-in-law who had passed away.
I took a deep breath and began to read the poem through tears. The dog came to sit by me, pressing against my leg. I was crying too hard and couldn’t finish reading the poem.
Not knowing what else to do, I passed the sheet of paper to Edna’s grandson. The dog moved to sit by him as he read.
He couldn’t finish the poem either and handed the paper to his sister, the veterinarian, who was also holding her daughter in her arms. The dog moved beside her as she finished reading the poem.
It took three of us, and a dog spirit, perhaps embodying the spirit of all the animals who loved Edna too, but we got it done.
I had never had a sister before.
Her passing left an incredible gaping wound that has never been filled or completely healed.
So, what are we left with? Regrets and good memories.
I do regret that we didn’t find each other sooner and that our time on this earth together was only a short dozen years. She has been gone far longer than we had with each other, although our time together is still bright in my memory and seems both ageless and timeless.
I wish I had been able to spend more time with her. She invited me to see their new house several times, but I never went. I always expected to do it “soon” or someday and was waiting for the right opportunity to come along. I didn’t want to be an imposition. Someday isn’t a day on a calendar nor is it promised. I should have gone.
I regret not accepting a gift. Edna offered me some matchbook-size travel earring holders that she had made with plastic canvas and yarn. I did want one, but I didn’t want her to feel obligated to offer them to me after I had admired them, so I was reluctant to take one. She didn’t say anymore, and I’ve always regretted that I never accepted one and just said: “thank you.” She made them with her own hands and I would certainly cherish that today. I’ve always regretted that decision and I surely hope I didn’t hurt her feelings. Growing up poor and proud makes receiving anything difficult.
Edna provided an incredible amount of encouragement and inspiration. She was always my cheerleader and had more confidence in me than I did in myself.
She was never condemning or judgmental, but she was direct and said what she thought, and why. I always thought long and hard about whatever advice she proferred, and we often discussed why she felt the way she did. It was during those discussions that I learned about how both oppression and depression affect the lives of people, not just in one generation, but across many.
She laughed at life’s ups and downs and found amusement and humor in most places. She taught me to laugh at myself and view the world through the rose-colored glasses of humor. So much of life can’t be changed, but you can control your perception which in many cases determines your level of happiness.
For her conservative upbringing and lifestyle as a mother and farm wife, she was amazingly worldly and her opinions were ones not of repetitive tradition, but of thoughtful common sense. That book was not a product of the cover.
I made some exceedingly difficult, life-altering decisions and talked with her about each one.
She saw me through the tumultuous times associated with leaving Indiana and was always supportive of my decisions. She never doubted for one minute that I could and would succeed and assured me that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. It’s one thing when your parents tell you that – it’s quite another when someone else does.
Edna was firmly convinced that I didn’t need to have a man in my life, and the only reason a woman should ever marry (or otherwise take a partner) is because they want to. Never because society suggested that a woman needs a man in her life or a father for her children.
She advised against marrying the man I married, the one who couldn’t be bothered to attend Edna’s funeral to support his wife and daughter, although Edna supported my decision when I married him anyway. I wish I had listened because she was right. Her not-so-tongue-in-cheek recommendation was just to have some fun and not get too serious about much of anything.
She taught me about incredible courage in the face of devastation as she faced what needed to be done, bravely, with her mastectomies. A few years ago when I had breast surgery, I thought of her and knew that compared to what she underwent, mine was nothing. It’s because of her though that I’m extra vigilant. Yearly Mammograms are my friend.
Losing her at such a young age inspired me in yet another way. Edna was not thin. We don’t know what caused the blood clot that triggered her heart attack. It could have been cancer, which is known to cause blood clots, or it could have been related to her weight and related health issues. We have the same body type. I vowed to not repeat that pattern and took definitive action. I don’t want to follow in those footsteps if I can help it.
Edna loved her children and grandchildren intensely but suffered through some very difficult times with at least one of her children. Her understanding and sage advice continues to see me through a similarly devastating situation.
I am so grateful for her wisdom and that she so gracefully shared it with me.
The summer of 1990 served up several losses.
A couple of weeks after Edna’s death, my beloved cat, Savina, also passed on.
My marriage was shakey, although I didn’t realize quite how shakey it was at the time, and my children were teenagers experiencing their own trials and tribulations.
These deaths and transitions left me reeling with loss and facing the reality of mortality. Questions about what is important and about death itself reared their ugly heads.
It was years before I didn’t pick up the phone on Sunday “to call Edna” or conversely, thought, “Oh, I bet that’s Edna,” when the phone rang on Sunday afternoon.
In 1993, when my (then) husband had a massive stroke, my step-father died, and life further deteriorated, I desperately, desperately wanted to talk to my sister.
In August of 1990, my daughter and I took a week and went “up North” with Bagel the Beagle. We didn’t really have any planned destination. I was searching for some sort of peace and resolution.
My daughter was looking for a nice patch of sun on a beach. Bagel was just so happy to be with us.
I wrote and journaled every day and discovered a way to talk to Edna. I wrote reams, and designed two commemorative art pieces for her, which I later stitched.
One, titled “Proverbial Sampler”, is shown here. The bear paw design is a wink and a nod to our shared heritage and spirituality. Please take a minute and read the sayings behind the design. They say it all.
Edna is often with me, especially during creative or difficult times. I’ve learned to feel her presence. She is never far.
I realized in retrospect that she was with us at her funeral, via the dog, and that she is indeed with us if we need her, or just for company at other times. It’s not her presence or absence that’s the issue, but our ability to sense her spirit.
Of course, I still missed her, but I didn’t feel quite so abandoned and alone. I learned to love her in a new and different way.
The last part of the poem we read at her funeral sums it up pretty well.
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