The International Writers Magazine: Sister
Jeannine M. Pitas
I have a rosary to remind me of you. A rosary and a picture of a beautiful dark-haired, blue-robed lady surrounded by beams of light – the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s a pity that I don’t remember you giving them to me.
In fact, I don’t remember anything beyond Mama's stories of your constant laughter, of the Lithuanian folk tales she told me a bedtime (supposedly you’d once told them to me, but I had no recollection), the nacatamales she made some Sundays (she claimed you’d made that dish for both of us when I was small).
At times her stories seemed bittersweet, but usually they erred on the side of sweetness. Often I’d get irritated at her lack of anger over your disappearance, the excuses she couched in New Age babble. I rolled my eyes at her all-white outfits (she was trying to deflect the bad energies, she claimed) and resented her carelessness with money (when I was twelve, some of my paper-route earnings went toward buying our food). But apparently you had a purpose, a higher calling that had justified your leaving us. And for some inconceivable reason it didn’t bother her that this calling was higher than we were.
When I turned thirteen, I resolved to look for you. I started by learning Spanish. It wasn’t my language and it wasn’t yours either, but it was a language you loved, and somehow I thought that if I could love something you loved, then maybe it would help me to find you. Of course it didn’t. Spanish was only one of your loves- you also studied Arabic, and Mandarin, and let’s not forget Lithuanian. Your great “calling,” as my mother described it, was to be a globe-trotting English teacher, to change the world one child at a time. Strange it never occurred to you to start with your own children.
When your adopted language failed to lead me to you, I tried your adopted gods. You had not been raised with religion, but somewhere along the way, you and Mama had discovered it. And it seemed that she really believed- not in one god, but all of them. When I was growing up our house was filled with crucifixes and little statues, mandalas and tiny Buddhas, multiple copies of the Koran and the Upanishads and Lives of the Saints. I don’t remember the moment when I learned to pray the rosary; it was just something I did. As a teenager I would wake up early to spend at least twenty minutes each morning praying on red plastic beads and staring at that beautiful image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. And in time I learned how to convince her to show me where you were.
As soon as I finished the last Glorious Mystery- the one where Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven- I would beg her to show me your corner of her kingdom. All I had to do was close my eyes, and then, a globe spinning at riveting speed would appear before me. Suddenly, it would stop, and like a camera zooming in I would draw closer and closer to whatever spot you were currently in- Senegal , Korea , Chile . And then I’d fly high in the air like I’d always dreamed of doing as a child, floating over deserts and forests, closing in on your city, and landing in the schoolroom where you were busy giving a lesson on transitive and intransitive verbs. Sometimes it was a luxurious classroom equipped with the latest technology, and you gave your lessons with Powerpoint projected on a screen. Other times you had nothing but one piece of chalk, and the students didn’t have pencils or notebooks, much less textbooks. As always I would take my seat in the last row, struggling to look inconspicuous as I watched your wild gesticulations, your voice raised in excitement as if all the secrets of the universe were contained in the rules of English grammar. And then, the alarm clock I’d set for myself would ring, and I’d leave you there, stand up, place the Virgin and rosary back on their shelf, get ready for my own day at school.
One time, I woke up from a horrible dream. I forgot all of it immediately upon waking, but I still felt consumed by a terrible fear. That morning I said my rosary as if in a trance, without even taking note of the words, and then begged the Virgin to take me to you. But she didn’t. I closed my eyes and saw the world, spinning faster and faster. You were not there. You were nowhere. What had happened to you? I stood up in anger; I snatched up the Virgin’s image and threw it to the floor. Because in that moment, I knew that she would never show you to me again. I had the terrible feeling that all those journeys I thought I’d made, all those visions were a lie. I despised her.
I stopped praying the rosary after that. I stopped going to church and Quaker meeting and transcendental meditation classes. There was nothing beyond what I could see and touch. And since I had no memory of seeing or touching you, then you did not exist. I hated you for leaving us; I hated my mother for forgiving you.
When I turned eighteen I didn’t go backpacking through Africa or join a theatre troupe in Brazil the way any self-respected hippie’s daughter should have done. Instead, I got a job answering phones at an insurance office. At university I didn’t study painting or classical civilization; I became an economics major. I met my first (and only) boyfriend when I turned twenty, a chemistry student who didn’t believe in anything but science, democracy and common sense. To my mother's shock Bill and I got married two years later, in a simple civil ceremony performed by a judge. I wanted you gone without a trace.
One night a few years later, soon after I became pregnant, I went to visit my mother and found her sitting alone in the kitchen, staring blankly at the wall. “This isn’t easy to talk about, Kelly,” she said, and then, for the first time in many years, I watched as she started to cry. And then she told me about the accident. You were in Bolivia , teaching in some rural school. The year had finished and you were about to leave. You boarded a bus for La Paz . But that bus never made it, and now, along some Bolivian mountain road, there’s a cross to remind all future travelers.
At first I was angry. “Why didn’t you tell me right when it happened?” I demanded. She wept and said that it was never the right time, that even now she couldn’t believe it herself. A lot of things made sense in that moment. Why she never resented you. Apparently, for all those years when you were bopping around the world she always thought that you would come back some day. And even after the accident, she still couldn’t believe that you’d never be back.
In that moment, I also understood why my visions of you had stopped. The Virgin Mary hadn’t lied to me; rather, she was trying to tell me the truth. I pulled the Virgin out of my bottom drawer; I placed the rosary over it. Upon seeing it, Bill gave me a curious look, and all I could say was that I’d tell him later. But later still hasn’t come.
Sometimes, when work gets especially dull, or when Bill and I find we have nothing to say to each other and go to bed early for a week without making love, I start to think that maybe I know what you were after. I imagine how Bill would react if, one day, I decided to do what you did. He was never the romantic type; before we got married, he told me that he didn’t believe in soulmates and thought that maybe it was possible to love anyone if you could only come to know and understand them well. So maybe if I left, he would find someone else whom he could love just as much as me.
But then I look at our twin boys, happy and smiling, nearly three years old now. I imagine Bill’s shock while reading my final letter, the pain of trying to explain to our children where their mother had gone. At least you left before I could remember…Or so you thought. Because whenever I look at that Virgin of Guadalupe, I do remember. And sometimes, like my own mother, I find it hard to believe that you’re never coming back.
I’m sure you’re still globetrotting through the afterlife, teaching schools filled with those unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate?) children who died before learning what this world of ours is all about. And in the back of the room, there’s always one shy, tiny girl who keeps a rosary in the upper-right hand corner of her desk, who doodles in the margins of her notebook, who only looks up if called on. But you don’t call on her. Don’t you even notice her sitting there? She’s waiting for you, hoping for you to yell out to her, smile, anything to show her that you know who she is. You still haven’t recognized me, I mean her, no… I mean me. I’m yours, Dad. And you’ll never make me disappear.
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© J Pitas March 2011