This is how I imagined it. Once upon a time, long, long ago, before even existence existed, there was nothing but darkness. A color so black that it has never been seen again. There was silence. It had been that way forever. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, millions of tiny lights, brighter than the brightest diamonds, and smaller than the smallest stars, appeared. They danced in the darkness, choosing partners and forming groups and intricate patterns. There was nothing but beauty and joy. It stayed that way for what seemed like forever.
Until once again, suddenly and unexpectedly, the tiny sparks began to descend to Earth. Each one had a specific destination and somehow knew exactly how to get there. They found the trees and flowers, whales and mice and human beings. They found a place to nestle softly and safely inside each and every one. Their sole purpose was to bring their beauty and joy to every living thing. Each spark was a soul.
I don’t know when this vision first became a part of me; if it was purely a figment of my imagination or a story I had heard or a picture I had seen. Perhaps it was a bit of each. I do know that from the time I was a child I had a spark, and that everyone and everything I loved had one too.
It has been a long time since I gave much thought to souls in general or my soul in particular. Until last year — 2017 was unlike any other year in my life. It began with a diagnosis of my own illness, which caused me to redefine who I am and what my life will be like going forward. It went on to include observing the illnesses of two very close friends become more serious, watching their endurance and determination to hold onto every minute of life, and then finally, die. It was the year of doctors and death beds. It was the year I became reacquainted with the spark that was my soul.
At first, there were gentle, quiet reminders. A memory, a scent, a place that seemed oddly familiar, or a person I barely knew who somehow tugged at my heart. It was strange, but comforting. A few months ago, I wrote an article called ‘My Grandmother’s Hands’. The experience was different from any writing I had done before. Unlike the other stories I’ve written, which took weeks of reviewing my journal entries, writing, rewriting and editing, this one came to me in whole, in a moment. A chance glance at my hands as I brushed my teeth in the morning. A startling realisation that they were ugly: bulging veins, translucent, loose skin and gnarled fingers. They were old hands. They were my grandmother’s hands. Then came the torrential flood of memories. All the things my hands had touched, held and accomplished through all the different stages of my life. So many memories I could have written a book, and my long-deceased grandmother would have been the editor. The feelings were overwhelming and still are.
For the last few years I have spent Thanksgiving, my favourite holiday, with my friend Lina and her family: her daughter (who roasts the world’s best turkey) and son-in law; her son (a Culinary Institute trained chef — what he does with grilled root vegetables makes me consider becoming a vegetarian); and her three grandsons (twin 13-year-olds and an eight-year-old) who provide entertainment, energy and finally exhaustion! It is always a wonderful day and I am especially grateful because if I had not been invited I would have spent the day alone. I have already been invited for this year and am looking forward to it.
Since I don’t have any family, I have spent many holidays alone. A few were awful. Most were okay. I dread a solitary Thanksgiving. Instead, I find myself filled to the brim with delicious food, fond memories and carrying an enormous doggie bag. When I unlocked the door to my apartment on Thanksgiving evening, 2017, and entered the silent space, I was content.
I sat down at my empty dining room table, so different from the one I just left, and looked around. I love the table. Many years ago a carpenter friend and I reclaimed wood from a 180-year-old farmhouse that was being torn down in a little village near my home, and he crafted the table for me. I love the scarred wood and the patina. I often think about the generations of people who lived in that old house and what their lives were like. I made a cup of tea, and holding the warm mug in my hands, enjoying the aroma of apples and cinnamon, I did not feel alone. I was not. Because in that moment, I knew that my grandmother, Florence Blum Brown, was with me at the table, and that she had brought others with her.
She had chosen her companions with great care. Each of them a person who had died when I was quite young. Like her, they had always seemed ancient, and almost untouchable, but I understood they had something important to share, something I was supposed to take to heart and carry with me as I move into my old age. I am, after all, as old as they were in my memory. She had brought her three sisters: Theresa (Aunt Tessie), Regina (Aunt Reggie), and Hermione (Aunt Minnie).
They were remarkable women, all born in Germany, and extremely close, yet totally different. They were all graduates of Hunter College, in a time (the early 1900s) when that was highly unusual. Each of them had a profession and earned her own way. They had travelled the world together, fiercely bold and independent, feisty, and, I am sure, some would say, irritating.
Tessie was the oldest, the most conservative, and the heart of the family. She was tiny, almost frail, and soft spoken. A teacher of English and French, who demanded the best from each student and never let an unkind word or ignorant statement go unchallenged. She also baked the most incredible apple strudel; rolling the dough out on a long table, pounding it until it was so thin you could see through it, and then stuffing it with her secret filling.
Reggie was three years younger, short and stout. She walked fast, talked faster, and never let a good joke, even the bawdy ones, go untold. She was an accountant, a hard-nosed businesswoman, assertive and a feminist. Heaven help any man who attempted to get in her way. She always wore a hat when she went out, much to the chagrin of her sisters, as many of them were quite strange looking, some even ugly. She did not care what others thought, revelling in the attention.
Minnie was the baby. A classical concert pianist and the only one married. Her husband was an artist with a regional reputation. Each summer they taught at Chautauqua. The rest of the year they lived in a large apartment on Riverside Drive, big enough to accommodate her two Grand pianos and his studio. It was not big enough however, to accommodate their enormous egos. She desperately wanted me to learn to play, and sent me home with a lifesize cardboard cutout of the piano keyboard, instructing me to diligently practise my scales, and above all, to appreciate great music.
And so it was, that on Thanksgiving evening in the year 2017, I met the souls who had been with me for all my years. Each of them at different times and for different reasons, but always with love for the lonely little girl and the often insecure woman who worked hard to make her way in the world and find her voice and place in it.
From Tessie I inherited the love of teaching and language and the refusal to accept hurtful behaviour, although unfortunately not the joy of baking. From Reggie, I inherited a strong business sense, strong enough to allow me to succeed in my own business and overcome many obstacles, setbacks and even failures while still keeping my pride. My lifelong feminist attitudes and activities are a testament to her. From Minnie, I inherited the love of music and art. The things that saved me as a child and comfort me to this day. I never learned to play the piano, but I did learn to play the cello, and I think she was with me and proud whenever I played in the orchestra.
From Florence, I learned how to be lonely. Her melancholy is mine and yet, there is a sweetness to it, as I hope there was for her. There is gentleness and strength. Whatever it was in her life that caused such sadness, she endured.
Four women, dead for so many years, yet nurturing and protecting me, influencing and encouraging me, as I moved through my life. Four souls, the spark I always knew I had. Now, finally joining me at my Thanksgiving table. I am not alone. I never really was. I never will be, and for that, I am thankful.