She sorts out all her belongings, making neat piles on the sofa of her clothes, paintings, jewelry, and the old biscuit tins and cigar boxes she transformed into Chinese works of art with decoupage, simply by cutting and pasting evocative images on the surface. Perhaps she smiles, remembering how amusing it had been to leaf through the glossy specialist magazines until she found just the right object—a jade perfume bottle, a sailing junk, a stocky Tang horse—and glued it in just the right place. When she’s emptied all her drawers and closets, she takes a yellow pad and writes down in block letters four names on separate sheets—Amelie, Lise, Marybelle, Diana—and lays them beside each pile.
Perhaps she stops to think if there’s anything else to do. The flat is immaculate, the rent and utility bills are paid, so she picks up her handbag and a light cardigan and goes out the door, locking it behind her. Her neighbour is standing outside his house. It’s exactly like hers and like all the others on the street, certainly not one of Florida’s better addresses, but it was all she could afford. She’s moved so many times she hasn’t felt attached to a building in a long while.
As she walks into the street, the taxi she’s ordered pulls up.
“Going somewhere, Nancy?” says her neighbor.
“Yes,” she says, “I’m leaving.”
“Travelling light, I see…”.
“Yes, my husband will be by tomorrow with the U-Haul.”
It’s early October but in Florida it’s still as hot as Hades. She might throw her sweater over her shoulders in the air-conditioned cab as she directs the driver to take her to the Orlando airport.
There she boards the first flight to New York and takes another taxi from La Guardia to Grand Central Station.
She’s still an attractive woman for her age. In her early 70s, she has thick, wavy, light brown hair with no streaks of gray, long slender legs, and just the hint of a tummy under her chic but dated suit. She’s the only one of the four of us who inherited our father’s figure. It’s only her eyes that might reveal she’s a person on a mission.
From Grand Central she takes the Westchester local to Mt. Kisco and from there a taxi to the Holiday Inn. It’s evening by now, so she has supper in the restaurant and then turns in for the night. Mt. Kisco and Bedford are familiar territory for her; she lived here with her husband, the third and last one who’s been dead for five years.
The following morning, she leaves the hotel at dawn and walks along the railroad tracks till she finds just the right spot. She’s in no hurry. But when she hears the train whistle as it rounds the bend, her timing is perfect. She knows exactly when to throw herself in front of it, making hundreds of commuters late for work that day but causing no more serious damage.
My sister is missing for several days. The handbag she was carrying was thrown clear, but there is nothing in it to identify her. Nothing except a snapshot of an unknown man. “Mystery woman kills self” makes headlines in the East Coast press and finally the Bedford News prints the snapshot on its front page, in the hope that someone will recognize him, at least.
And someone does. His son, a Bedford resident, sees it and goes straight to the police station. “That’s my father, Wayne Cody,” he says. “He’s been dead for several years now. If you found it in the woman’s bag, then she must be his widow.”
He does not say stepmother but he does know her maiden name, and a Farr cousin reads the update and immediately calls his father in Charleston, who calls my brother in Beaufort, who calls our niece Amelie back in Florida.
Mystery woman identified, family reeling with her suicide. All except me. I had called her from Greece a week before so that she could wish me happy birthday. Nancy was not at home. She’d been taken to a mental hospital a few weeks earlier. Every now and then, whenever she’d go off her lithium, she’d become “manic” and have to be committed, a danger more to herself than others. She would have long periods of stability but sometimes her fierce unblinking stare would tell you that stability was precarious.
As I talked to her that evening, or rather as I listened to her, I knew my sister was already in another world and that this would be the last time I’d hear her voice.
“I’m so glad you called,” she said. “I’ve got so much to tell you. Wayne is back. Yes, he’s been away quite a while, but he learned so much where he went. About life and death, about God and the afterlife. And he’s come back to tell us. He’s a minister now, and he’s preaching at St. John’s Church in Bedford.”
“How do you know?”
“Oh, Mac and Pepper told me.”
My sister mentioned two friends who were also deceased.
“I’m so excited, Diana. I’m going up to be with Wayne. I’ve missed him so much. I knew he would return.”
I wished her well, told her I loved her, and knew I would never see her again. I just didn’t know what form her departure would take.
On the Sunday that she died, it was afternoon in Athens and all of a sudden I began shaking and sobbing uncontrollably. She’s gone, I told myself, my sister’s gone. The official announcement, days later, did not surprise me. Drama had always been her forte.
A few days later I flew to New York, a trip that had been planned for months. The first person I saw was my niece Lise, who’d been baptized Louise for my mother. Lise was philosophical about what her mother had done, having lived with her madness and her inconsistencies, her love and her creative spark, and having fled from them, too.
We hadn’t seen each other in twenty years, but we knew we had to find a way to mourn. Earlier, in search of her own roots, she’d discovered the existence of the Farr family plot in Sleepy Hollow up the Hudson. We would go there together to find the grave of my mother, her namesake. I had never been there; it had never been mentioned as I was growing up. Four years a widower, my father had remarried when I was eight and somehow my stepmother had obliterated all memory or need of her, at least in me.
The next day I made my way up to Lise’s tiny flat in the Bronx and we climbed into her blue Honda. The scenery along the Parkway matched our excitement. It was Leaf Week. I had not seen an American autumn since I moved to Greece thirty years ago, and the colors seemed too flamboyant, gaudy even, shocking pinks, a dozen shades of red, oranges, yellows. No artist would dare paint such a canvas. I could not contain my oohs and aahs. “Look at that,” I kept telling a more blasé Lise.
She glanced, obliging me, but kept her eyes on the road.
Sleepy Hollow is Ichabod Crane territory and I half expected the Headless Horseman to come galloping out of the woods, but the cemetery held no frightening ghosts. The office found the grave plot, gave us a map, and sent us off into the enormous park. We passed neatly mown lawns with the usual headstones, closely cropped mounds crowned with imposing monuments that bore names like Rockefeller, and even the tomb of Washington Irving himself, the bard of Tarrytown.
The Farr plot was less conspicuous. But after several wrong turns, we left the car and walked down a narrow path. Tall trees blocked the sun, their leaves already turned brown. Shrubs and brambles grew beneath them. And a few feet below ran a shallow brook. Then to the left we spotted a small glade, a clearing with four gravestones, two larger ones placed side by side and two smaller ones set in front of them, all in the same gray granite. The stones were beautiful in their simplicity, with an expertly chiselled flower garland above the names—John Farr, Frances Bartow Farr, Mildred Farr, and Louise Arnold Farr—and dates. My mother lay with her in-laws and the wife of my father’s brother who had also died young. The surface was matte not polished, the base pleasantly rough to the touch. No one had visited these graves in decades, perhaps not since the last body was interred in 1944, yet no weeds disturbed them.
We shed no tears that day. Instead a deep peace embraced us. I was glad my mother’s bones resided in such a lovely place; Lise was thankful she’d found exactly where to throw her mother’s ashes, in the stream below the family plot.
The next day we met again, at a café off Central Park. Lise couldn’t wait to tell me her dream.
“Last night my mother came to visit me. She was fine, laughing so much she could hardly speak. ‘Remember when you were kids, I used to tell you stories? Remember the one about the food at my boarding school, the ghastly meat loaf with tomato sauce we used to call “train wreck”? Well, here it is again. Train wreck, train wreck’, she sang and then waved goodbye.”
The story was so appalling that we could not stop laughing, laughing till we cried.
Nancy was my only link to my own mother. When finally, in my early 40s, I discovered the wound my mother’s death had left in me, it was Nancy I turned to, asking about those early years. Did my mother love me, did she ever hold me, what was she like?
She wrote back, “She didn’t just love you, she adored you. She read to you, played with you, barely left you out of her sight. You were the center of her existence until she got sick. As for me, to put it mildly, we didn’t always agree. She was quite strict, took things too seriously. I liked drama, she preferred peace.”
The ache I didn’t know was there began to diminish every time I brought it out and re-examined it. And Nancy helped by writing long letters and sending photos I’d never seen.
I still have them, tucked away in some neglected drawer, but just the other day, I started sifting through old boxes that have been languishing in our overcrowded storeroom in the basement. Most of the stuff got tossed, photos of friends’ babies, concert programs, special issues of Time magazine, newspaper articles I’d written thirty years ago. But there were a few letters to reread and among them a torn, yellow Kodak envelope containing four small black-and-white snapshots. One shows my mother in cap and gown on the day she graduated from Vassar; another shows her grandmother, a Southern dowager with gloves and parasol in a flower garden. But two show my mother and me. In one I am sitting with a bonnet on another woman’s lap, while Mother is reaching towards me, as if impatient to have me back. And in the other, there she is, holding me in her arms, looking intently into my face, as I look away, clutching the strap of her sundress in my tiny fist.
Now I have proof. She did hold me. She did love me. How could I have forgotten this photograph? On the back my sister has written: glamour mother with Diana.