September 25, 2022

Blue Roses and Diane

by Andrew Sarewitz

Four children, each three years apart, raised by parents who instill similar values and make the same efforts and mistakes, still end up with outcomes that disprove nurture breeds consistency. We were three boys and one girl. I’m the youngest, which means, I’m lucky. Other than political views, we three boys span a spectrum of differences. And then there is my sister, Diane. I may think that I’m a fascinating character but, in comparison to Dee, I’m terribly ordinary.

I have said this before. In disagreements, some see apples, others oranges. Discussing a topic for which we have opposing views, if I argue it’s an apple, Diane sees a vacuum cleaner.

I have tried to get Diane to talk more about herself. There are oceans of unopened puzzles. The most fantastic pieces of her biography remain stealth and, having been on the distant sidelines, I’ve got nothing to work from beyond clues. And love me as much as she claims, I doubt I’ll be invited into the padlocked sanctum. Not as punishment, but as what I perceive to be a privilege for which she will not trust me. Rightfully so, I’m sure. I can’t swear that my interest isn’t driven by unreasonable curiosity.

Second in the sibling line, and seven years older than I, Diane is the first person to have called me a fairy. I was 8 years old. I think of her as having inflicted more than a sister’s expected offensives. I haven’t stored many examples but can name one specific event when she pinned me down on the living room carpet and, with a demonic look in her eyes, tickled me till I wet myself. Despite this, I was angry with my oldest brother, John, for not seeing where this was really coming from. Strange that I wasn’t mad at Diane. Children see things clearly until they are taught not to.

Richard, the brother right before me, told my mother not to let Diane baby sit. She’d kill me, he said. Dee and I have never discussed her actions during my childhood. I don’t know where her violent animosity towards me stemmed from or if she has regrets. There were instances of her defending me against my mother’s temper that send a different message. But my strongest memories don’t even include me at all. The accord between my sister and mother was something for which I had no insight or understanding. As much as I loved my mother, I wasn’t wearing blinders. She could be callous and mean. The mother/daughter dynamic is often fraught with shrapnel-ridden mines and trip cords across all societies. Diane worshipped my father but he was unquestionably by my mother’s side. For the most part, I only have Mom’s testimony. From her words, Diane had been a sweet, joy-filled little girl and practically overnight she withdrew, became unhappy and distant, and a wedge of unexamined disdain between Mom and Dee eroded their relationship. My mother said she caught a warning flare early on when girls in Diane’s Brownie troop were asked to pair off and Dee was left out. I don’t know if that was the beginning or just an example of how cliques of children can sometimes behave miserably. By her teen years there were chemical changes affecting Diane. She wasn’t only battling her weight. An overload of male hormones was one adversity, as well as developing endometriosis. Add to that, sustaining a severe injury to her right shin from a fall on metal stairs that took all of her years in high school to heal. Independent of these physical difficulties, I simplify it by focusing on an undiagnosed sadness:  I don’t think Diane felt loved.

In response to her acting out during her teens, my parents chose to believe Diane would outgrow it. I hold my father responsible for that decision. What he spoke was gospel. Mom had him on such an irreproachable pedestal, he would never be challenged. As a pre-teen, I didn’t look at any of the symptoms. I just thought Diane was a bitch.

In our adult friendship I have told Dee that I believe she processes differently than “regular” people. Maybe she thinks so far out of the box, there is alienation. I also have said there may be genius mixed with mental illness on my father’s side of the family tree. Dad had four older sisters. Ask anyone who knew them:  three of the four were at the very least eccentric — which I think both Diane and I are.

~~~~

Once Diane was out of the house and off to college, she appeared to evolve. This included her treating me differently; with kindness. I don’t know whether I had been part of the arena from which she needed to escape or if there had been something specific to me.

For her junior year, Diane traveled abroad to study Italian in Perugia before returning to Carnegie Mellon to complete her Humanities undergrad studies. When I was 13, over spring break, Diane invited me to visit her at college. A day before my trip, while I was in the backseat of our station wagon, my parents told me that, when in Europe, Diane had converted to Catholicism. We’re Jewish…

I took the train from downtown Newark to Union Station in Pittsburgh. Diane was sharing a rented house with two college boys on Wightman Street, near the campus. One had a water bed. Being close to Easter, I watched The Ten Commandments on the black and white TV in their communal kitchen. On Sunday, Diane took me along to mass. Though Catholic, she sang choral music at an Episcopal church. Before going to her house of worship, she brought me to hear her sing. She walked me to the wooden pews, sat me down and then joined the choir. As mass began, a local woman took a seat next to me. She smiled warmly and picked up her hymnal. When the congregation was invited to join in song, she turned and asked me, “Why aren’t you singing?” Typically awkward for a young, floppy haired teenaged boy, I told her I wasn’t a member of this church. She seemed satisfied with that answer. Then she stopped and looked me up and down. “And why aren’t you wearing a dress?” Mortified I said, “I’m from New Jersey.”

~~~~

In the early 1980’s, on the day of my brother John’s wedding in Seattle, Diane whispered with pride that she had taken up with a British woman named Elizabeth. From then on, I think Dee saw our both being gay as a conspiratorial alliance. Evidence she didn’t know me very well.

Sharing a life and home with Liz, Diane would never tell my parents they were a couple.

The first time I met Elizabeth was at my parents’ home in New Jersey. I walked into the living room and there she stood, elbow resting on the mantle over the fireplace with one leg casually crossed in front of the other at the ankle:  just the way my father would pose. Liz was 15 years older than Diane, masculine, hilarious, brilliant and completely in love with my sister. I adored her right away.

For one of my parents’ anniversaries, the immediate family was invited to meet at a hotel in Washington D.C. for a long weekend. When I realized that Liz was not invited, I was furious with my mother. I confronted her saying had I been living with a boyfriend, we both would have been included. My mother turned to me and said, “Diane has never told me she and Liz are a couple, has she?” That shut me up.

The main event, a dinner at a lovely District restaurant, was a disaster. Many parents seem to have a fantasy that getting all their children together is a Brady Bunch occasion. Not in our family. Putting all four of us at one table for more than fifteen minutes is dangerous. We all suffer the affliction of speaking as an authority on every subject. The fight that erupted between Diane and my two brothers was so explosive, my sister went to her hotel room and I left Washington a day early. My mother swore never again. Of course, she threatened “never again” year after year after year.

~~~~

When my parents told me Diane had converted to Catholicism, they left out one minor detail. Diane filled me in while I was staying with her in Pittsburgh. After she had finished her studies in Perugia, she traveled to Germany and England before returning to the States. While in the United Kingdom, she visited a convent near Worcester called Stanbrook Abbey. It was Dee’s plan to graduate university with the class of ‘74 and then, at age 21, enter Stanbrook as a novice. The cloister was a serious Franciscan order. Seven hours of silent prayer a day with iron bars separating the sisters from the outside world, including in the visitors’ common area.

This decision to become a nun eclipsed every family issue. Whatever feelings I and others may have that Diane was performing the most extreme action to get at my parents, I also believe that she was offered a peace and serenity that people like me don’t understand. But I’d still bet my life that Diane gained a perverse sense of elated sadism that was more than just residual friendly fire. What it did to my mother and father emotionally, beyond parental disapproval, was so deep it was practically a physical assault. And Diane’s decision was also silenced as a shame never to be discussed outside of the home. One person Mom allowed herself to talk with was our neighbor, Mary Feketie. A practicing Catholic and the mother of six, Mary was a comforting and empathetic ear for my mother when she felt she couldn’t confide in her sisters and other close friends of the Jewish faith.

In spring of 1976, nearly two years after Dee had entered the abbey, my mother received a letter postmarked Cambridge, England. Mom opened the letter in the kitchen. “Oh shit,” she said. It’s the first time I heard my mother use an expletive. “Your sister has left Stanbrook.”

Before the end of Diane’s two year apprenticeship, it was ruled the cloistered life wasn’t her calling. If continuing beyond the novice period, all worldly goods are forfeited, thus anything personal is stored safely until one’s final acceptance into the convent. According to Diane it was a mutual decision that she leave. She would be coming home.

My mother threatened me to behave well and welcoming when Diane came back. At this point in family dynamics, both of my brothers hated her for what they perceived as an act of treachery against my parents. I honestly don’t remember my feelings but I’m guessing I wasn’t on her side either.

Diane didn’t stay in the United States. She moved back to England, continuing her education at Cambridge, leading to a career in literary editing. Before meeting Elizabeth, she dated a man named David. I don’t know how or why it came to an end. Sometime later, Diane told me that on the day they met, she was so enamored with Liz, she put her hand on her knee. In contrast to my promiscuous behavior, that was on par with sleeping with someone on the first date. She had it bad for Lady Liz. Though Diane never categorizes herself as a lesbian, 40 years later, she and Elizabeth are still together.

In 1986, I was working in New York City for a West End theatrical advertising company called Dewynters Ltd. On a trip to their London office, I took a weekend to visit Diane and Liz, who were then living in Nell Gwynn’s cottage in Newmarket. I almost didn’t make it off the train. There was no handle on the inside of the car door, which caused me to panic. Then I remembered an episode of the Thames Television export, The Avengers, and reached outside of the door for the exit handle, just as the train began to move on.

The trip was enlightening. It was as if I were meeting Diane for the first time. I recognized something in her presence from my mirror when I first moved to Manhattan. Dee was comfortable as herself. She was surrounded by friends who adored and respected her and treated her well. Elizabeth was at the top of that list. And whatever America represented, I knew Diane would never return.

~~~~

When Diane would come for visits, I found it exhausting. She reverted to acting like a 12-year-old, dredging up past family offenses for hours at a time as if I was her unaccredited shrink. Mom was the primary target. At a certain point I told Diane she needed to speak with someone professionally. Our parents would eventually be gone, I said, and then what would she do with all of this anger? Apparently she heeded my advice. She and my mother worked to find some common ground, or more accurately, avoided crossing into battle zones. As to my father, Dad held onto Diane as if he metaphorically was afraid she would become a nun again. I have no idea if Diane saw this as a transparent performance but she would attach herself to Dad like a child meeting Santa Claus. It made me insane because the behavior was at my mother’s expense. But Mom told me to stay out of it. Her marriage was solid and this was none of my business.

Towards the final years of my mother’s life, after Dad passed away, Diane did well by Mom. When in the same space, they would hold hands and graciously share the sandbox toys. But separate them, and each confided wounds that not only wouldn’t heal but would fester when they took to their private corners. At one time, with pain in her voice, Mom confessed how hard it is when you love your daughter but don’t really like her. I listened without comment. Diane had expressed something parallel.

One memory my mother repeatedly told me as she became quite old was my father’s reaction to visiting their daughter at Stanbrook Abbey for the first time. Late morning, Mom and Dad came to see Diane. Sometime mid afternoon, they left the convent and sat down on one of the garden benches. Dad began sobbing inconsolably. Mom held onto this like an unsheathed weapon. However bandaged her relationship with Diane, this unresolved crime against my father was still at the root of her truth.

~~~~

After my mother’s death in 2014, we sold her condominium and emptied the house. Dee asked for the beautiful set of vintage Royal Copenhagen china. When she wanted me to wrap the 80 plus pieces for her, I refused. She would have to hire a moving company to pack and deliver the dinnerware to England. I told her she was welcome to the complete count of dishes, but with no children and a wife 15 years her senior, why did she need to have an entire place setting for 12? She gave no direct answer beyond telling me that Elizabeth had asked her the same question. After I pressed her, Diane quietly acknowledged the eccentricity in collecting family possessions. They are a qualifying treasure.

Diane remains a mystery. I have come to accept that she has a revisionist’s pen and diary. That doesn’t mean her memories aren’t valid or her own. We experienced the same home differently. To herself, Diane may say she grew up an outsider and a victim, hating her American life and our mother, but she collects sentimental heirlooms as worthy memories. If someone remarks on a piece of jewelry that had been inherited, Diane smiles and tells the tale of how it was acquired and worn and gifted to her with history and love. Truth and fiction.

~~~~

When Diane looks ahead to her final years, she says that she envisions herself as a crazy old woman, living alone, deep in the English countryside, dressed in a legacy of ruby bracelets and emerald rings. She’s having a solitary meal on blue roses, painted on deckled white bone china with a Sterling service given to her parents on their wedding day. Resigned and never understood, she is comforted by objects passed down, rewriting her family story to fit a need and to affirm with inherited evidence, she has always been loved.