“My one regret,” she came there with the intention to confess. There were so many things she could have said. So many transgressions committed in life filled with the avoidance of responsibility. He wondered if perhaps she would finally cop to the ten thousand dollars that went missing after their mother died. Or if maybe this would be the time when she would finally lay to rest all the questions he had about what really happened to their childhood friend who mysteriously drowned one summer evening. He had been waiting for this moment , to hear her finally accept responsibility for something, for a generation now. Leaning forward she had his undivided attention.
“My one regret was not being present for my son’s birth.”
Slumping in his wheelchair, he is disappointed and it shows. “Why?”
She wiped her forehead with a well worn hankie. The embroidered edges have faded, the threads unraveling. “It was the one thing I always thought I would be able to do…the one thing I believed I was capable of doing and doing well…but in the end it was the one thing I failed at…birthing babies…I am a failure as a receptacle for life. God I believed deemed me unworthy and marked me. So the one time I wanted to do something…I wanted to be something…something more and I was denied.”
“Oh Claudine,” he sighed. “Why are you so dramatic?”
“I know what you think of me,” she met his gaze. Her watery eyes steady and focused. “I know what you have always thought of me.”
He knew she was accusing him, again. Every conversation no matter how benign always lead back to an accusation. He judged her. He thought he was better than her. For nearly seven decades they had been having this circular conversation. Today was not the day he wanted to waste time with such foolishness.
Quietly, he spoke and his answer surprised even him, “You have no idea what I think of you.”
She opened her mouth to protest, slowly he raised his hand to stop her. Then he continued, “All your life you have been running…you never stood still long enough for anyone to love you…not even Nathan…and definitely not me.”
“I loved Nathan more than my life!” Claudine exclaimed.
Ignoring her he rolled his chair toward the bookstand nearest the east window. Once there he selected a memory book from its lowest shelf. He had not studied these books for years and years. Today seemed like a good day to tell his side of the story. When he returned to her side he opened the book, searching its fragile pages for the exact photograph he needed to explain. Once there he held it out to her.
Claudine looked at the picture of their parents neither more than twenty-five. It was a picture taken many life times ago. Her mother sat very proper in a gown that looked antique even for the time all lace about the collar. Although the picture was black and white, she knew the dress had been red and wondered if it was still kept in her mother’s cedar closet. Beside her mother was a much much younger version of her brother. Their father had been a tall man more than six feet and broad across the shoulders. His mustache was expertly curled at the tips but did not hide his mischievous grin. His two hands possessively held onto his wife on the right and his son nearly four feet tall himself at four years old on the left. Seated on their mother’s lap was Claudine.
“You nearly killed our mother,” Sherman now tells her. It is a story she has never heard. Claudine looks at Sherman surprised. “Mother wanted children. Dozens of them. She talked so much about wanting a big family. She dreamed of it really. But for her it just wasn’t in the cards.
“When she got pregnant with you I was only 3 years old. So I can’t say that I remember much other than the joy that filled every corner of our house. Mother sang in the morning and she sang during the day. She would make butternut cookies and press almond milk because someone somewhere told her almond milk was good for babies in womb. I still remember the smell. To this day I remember the smell of almond milk.
“She wanted you and more of you. This is what I remember. This is what I know. Even though I was just a baby myself in my mind I still have the vision of her glowing so happy so full of life. Even today when I think of the happiest moments of my life, as long a life as I have had, I think back on those days when mother was pregnant with you.
“Then she got sick. Terribly, terribly sick. No one ever told me what happened, the details that is but mother got so sick that she took to bed. It may have been weeks. It may have been months. But all the happiness and joy drained out of the house and everything just became still. I remember the smell of iodine and vomit and blood. That’s how the house smelled when mother got sick.
“When they sent me away, I thought for sure I would come back and mother would be gone and there would be only father and me here. I don’t know how long I stayed with grand mere. But that is where they sent me. To Denver to live with grand mere because they didn’t know if mother would ever be well again.
“Then grand mere got the telegram that I could return home again and you were here. I hollered and shouted and cried. I was so happy that mother was alive and that I had a sister. The other details are foggy because I was a baby myself but I know that grand mere and I rode a train for two days and two nights to come home to meet you. That I know for sure because I still dream about stars seen outside train windows and can still smell the wool from grand mere’s blanket covering me.
“Seeing you for the first time was like getting too close to the sun.” Sherman considers his sister now. Her face wrinkled and worn a map through time detailing every tear, every frown, every smile. But her eyes are the same eyes that considered him all those many years ago. Though they water today from tears she has yet to shed, they are the clearest blue he has ever known.
“I loved you from first sight. I was amazed at how small you were and how loud. You screamed and everyone in this house and every other house nearby jumped.” Sherman laughs at the memory. “I thanked mother for giving me a sister and I told her I would be happy with just one. I promised to always look out for you and to do my best to be a good brother for you.”
Sherman pats his sister’s hand retrieving the memory book from her lap. “You were better than any doll or toy anyone could ever have given me. I loved you, Sissy. With all my heart I loved you and I have lived this life doing everything I could to protect you and take care of you. I meant my promise then and I still mean it now.”
Claudine has begun to cry. It has been such a hard day. No mother should ever have to bury her child. No matter how old her child becomes, it is a nightmare of a task. Now hearing about her brother’s dedication she is awed. Whispering, “I had no idea…I had no idea that you loved me.”
“Oh, Sissy,” Sherman tells her. “if you had only stood still, you would have known all along.”
Claudine then does something she has never imagined she would be able to do. She believes him.