Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3950 words
SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Three Sisters Have We in Our House

by Leslie What

Chance made us sisters, hearts made us friends.
—Author Unknown

I am the middle of three sisters. As children we were a tightly braided group who stood united against a repressive regime, AKA Mom and Dad. Our braid loosened as we became teenagers, unraveled into three separate strands once we escaped the family home to establish our own households. My little sister, Stephanie, stayed closest to the SoCal family homestead. My big sister, Carolyn, moved to the Bay area. I moved 1,000 miles to the north to get away from my parents, but that move had the unintended effect of keeping me away from my sisters.

Carolyn was the first to realize we siblings were squandering a treasure. To solve the problem, she arranged a sisters-only getaway in Las Vegas. At first we felt guilty for not inviting our husbands or our mom. The guilt vanished after the second round of drinks at the hotel. One weekend of desert debauchery was enough to rekindle our sisterly love and since then, we have treated each other as treasured friends, making an effort to see one another several times a year.

Each sister is involved in, as they say in the personal ads, Long Term Relationships (LTR). We have loved our husbands since we were young women and we expect to grow old alongside them. If you added up the years we’ve have been with our partners, they would top one hundred. Yet the LTR between the sisters extends even further, and during one of our sisters’ weekends, we fell into a frank discussion about what it meant to age. We came up with the radical notion that the three of us would live together after our husbands were dead.

This might sound heartless but we were just being practical. Though the margin has narrowed from 7.9 to 5 years since 1979, on average women live longer than men. Both my father and my father-in-law died a decade or more before their wives. My sisters watched the pattern repeat with their in-laws. It is a fact of life that more women outlive their husbands than the other way around.

My husband is six years older than I am. According to the CDC, I will outlive him by five years. On the statistical graph that is our lives, my column will rise above his by eleven years. If I had my druthers, I’d go first. It was my task to deal with childbirth and in a just world, my husband would face the ugly task of negotiating with a funeral director whose livelihood depends upon the ever-escalating cost of guilt (as measured by the ever-escalating price of a casket).

A few more sobering statistics: If you’re an old woman, you have a greater chance of living in a nursing home at the end of your life than does a man (three-quarters of nursing home residents are women). Twice as many women over 75 are poor compared to elderly men (13% compared to 6%). Our mother, may her memory bring a blessing, raised us to believe that there had to be pluses whenever there were minuses. My sisters and I thought we’d found the plus in our plan to live together when we were old.

I wanted to talk to my sweetie about this, but never got up the nerve to ask, “Got any plans for when I’m dead?” Until one evening, halfway through a glass of wine a bartender had poured like he was drafting a pint, when I blurted out our sisterly scheme. My spouse of thirty years looked off into the distance with an absentminded smile of someone thumbing through a catalogue who doesn’t really want to buy anything, but isn’t quite ready to recycle the paper. I let the subject drop for another few months.

The truth is, we’re not quite old enough to seriously worry about dying. I have at least another fifteen years before, if I die suddenly, people older than me will stop saying, “But she was so young!” We haven’t even finished making our wills. The discussion about the three sisters living together seemed so let’s-pretend-and-far-away that we didn’t speak of it again.

Then my sister Carolyn, bought the house. She found a remodeled Craftsman home on a tree-lined street an hour away from San Francisco, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms on the first floor, and a fenced yard. Our theoretical house now had a roof and a dog run and was now centrally located. Stephanie was the first to visit, and during that visit she claimed the back corner bedroom for herself. My room is in the middle, just across the hall from the bathroom. It overlooks the backyard garden and is a perfectly lovely room, though of course I worry that Stephanie’s might be nicer. Sibling rivalry doesn’t end when you grow up.

My husband admits a tinge of jealousy for our planned home for aged sisters, but he is also relieved to know I won’t be on my own. He saw his mother’s loneliness, saw how she never fully recovered from her husband’s death. Lil met Danny while both served in the armed forces during WWII and they stayed together more than fifty years. In her twenties, Lil had been a brave and adventurous soul who had joined the Army Nurse Corps and worked in the Pacific Theater, but as a widow in her seventies, the time for grand adventure had passed. She was waiting, she often said, to join her soul mate in heaven. After Danny’s death, she still poured twelve cups of water into her percolator and threw away what she didn’t drink at the end of the day. She saw no point in learning to make a single cup of coffee.

My mother was widowed while in her fifties, young enough to give her time for her adventures to begin again. After my father’s lethargic old Schnauzer died (a dog that looked and acted like a log on four legs), my mother chose her own canine BFF (best friend forever), and for the first time in her life, she picked a pet’s name without the interference and direction of her spouse or her children. Acknowledging the nature of their relationship, she named him, “Shadow.” It may seem insignificant, but choosing the dog’s name is an autonomous declaration many women don’t experience until after their children are gone and their husbands are dead. Allowing someone else to name the dog she will most likely be stuck feeding and cleaning up after is another small nick in the timeline of small sacrifices women make to keep the peace.

My mother stayed in the house she had shared with my father for another ten years, until she grew lonely living alone in a neighborhood of happy couples and young families. She was getting older and she recognized that it was time to move. She instructed her adult children to come get those childhood belongings we had left with her for semi-permanent safekeeping, those things we had not wanted to take with us once we left home, but had not been ready to discard. Unlike us, she was ready to abandon hastily crafted plaster handprints and middle school badges earned for excellence in housekeeping and French, her ghastly collection of ceramic ashtrays we’d made in school as Mother’s Day gifts. The reality of downsizing always trumps any desire to hold onto someone else’s past, and our mother boxed up her house and moved to a gated retirement community called The Colony, where most of her neighbors were active single women in their sixties.

She flourished in the company of women and soon formed close friendships. She learned to play cards and Mah Jongg and use a computer (she had never learned to type). She was friendly with her neighbors, but when one neighbor died suddenly from a heart attack, my mother became a mentor to the grieving widow, teaching her all she’d learned about going on instead of thinking your life was over.

Unlike my mother, Lil grieved every day. She’d become a widow in her late seventies, an age that was less welcoming to radical lifestyle changes. She was able to live independently until her eyesight and health deteriorated to the point that she conceded it was time to move in with her daughter. When her daughter’s multiple sclerosis flared, my mother-in-law packed up her big screen TV and heavy raincoat and moved in with my husband and me, during my last year of graduate school and a term when I was teaching two classes and commuting three hours each way. I’d only recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic autoimmune disorder. I chugged Prednisone by the bucket and felt so sick I nearly took a leave of absence from school. It was an inconvenient time, from my perspective.

Lil struggled to thrive in a home she did not own, with unfamiliar foods and without friends to help her sneak cigarettes, and without the ability to navigate outside the house on her own. She was always thankful and gracious about my cooking, respectful of my writing. Her mother had been a poet, she said, but all her poems were destroyed or lost after her death, and Lil could not remember any of them.

We muddled through the stress as best we could, even became close friends. One of Lil’s favorite proverbs was a line from an Isaac Watts poem, “Birds in their little nests must agree.” We mostly managed not to push the other birds from our little nest, even when we felt like shoving them off the tree.

Though Lil could not remember her mother’s poetry, she had memorized many poems and she quoted Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” from memory. She grasped the concept of the Internet from my explanation, even though her macular degeneration kept her from using, or even seeing a keyboard. Getting to know her was a blessing. But we did never learned how to talk to one another about the difficulties of our situation.

We thought a puppy would be a welcome distraction, and with me in the back seat, my husband drove us out to the country where we found a friendly and energetic spotted terrier. It was love at first touch. Lil fussed over that puppy and swaddled her in a blanket and held the puppy in the tight hold of a nurse trained to prevent nursery uprisings. “I think there would be world peace,” she said, “if every leader got to hold a puppy in his arms.” She freed the puppy from the crate I had purchased to potty train the dog, and hid the cleanup efforts from me, rarely successfully. We locked into a territorial conflict about what to name the puppy. Lil wanted to call her Missy. I wanted to call her Stella. My husband did not understand why it meant so much to dig in my heels and keep dog-naming rights to myself, why I was so angry with Lil for calling the dog Missy whenever I was out of the room. He found himself in the unfortunate position of being a referee for the fight between mother and wife. Before the fight could escalate further, Lil reconsidered. She agreed to call the dog Stella.

Oh, the guilt. It wasn’t yet my time to name a dog. In my selfishness I had denied Lil a rare chance to name a pet. Perhaps that’s one reason she left our home after eight months and returned to live with her daughter, where she stayed until illness overwhelmed her and she was placed in a care facility for a few months before her death.

Now and then I’ll sing the refrain of Michael Bolton’s “How Can I Live Without You” to reassure my spouse that I will miss him terribly when he’s gone. And I will miss him, even with a puppy to console me. After thirty years you know your partner well enough to be together in silence. But it is never really quiet. There’s always the background noise of another person, the sniffle and fabric rustle and the turning of the newspaper page or tapping of the keyboard to remind you that you are not alone.

A 2005 survey commissioned by Johnson & Johnson found that 56% of all caregivers are women and more than half are over the age of forty-five. In the past, it took a village to care for the elders, but as village life evolved and extended families went nuclear, women have assumed the burden of caring for the elderly.

After my mother had trouble breathing in 2008, her doctor ordered an X-ray, which showed a shadow. I flew down and met my sisters and our mom for her bronchoscopy appointment. Together we learned that my mother had lung cancer and her prognosis was terminal. Most people in her condition died within six months. There was no treatment and she should never again be left alone. In one day, all of our lives changed. If our mother could not be left alone, who was to stay with her?

Because my work as a writer had the most flexible schedule, and because I had trained as a nurse, I became the primary caregiver. Stephanie stayed Friday night to Sunday. Carolyn traveled frequently for work, but between trips, she stayed at our mother’s. It was expensive and inconvenient for me to fly home for less than four days at a time, so to get away I sometimes stayed overnight in a nearby motel. I may have been the primary caregiver, but for eight months, none of the three sisters took time off from our mother’s cancer.

Our mother, like many mothers, was a wonderful woman, but a difficult patient. She had grown up in Germany in an extended and loving family, with younger siblings and parents and elderly aunts, all of whom were murdered by the Nazis after the family was deported to the Riga Ghetto in 1941. My mother was orphaned as a young woman, spared only because she was strong enough to work as a slave laborer. She learned never to trust anyone and to hide all signs of weakness. If someone was too weak to work, they were put to death. My mother was terrified of showing her vulnerability. The very skills that had helped her to survive the Holocaust worked against her when confronting a terminal disease. She told her doctor that her pain was manageable then complained bitterly when she was alone with us.

My mother had become a bit of a hoarder. When residents in The Colony died, restrictive covenants forbade their heirs from holding estate sales on the property. Neighbors were invited to pick through the things that might otherwise have been sold for a quarter. My mother frequented these giveaways. Her garage cabinets were filled with wasp spray and fertilizer and paint thinner and knickknacks. The garage walls were atherosclerotic with boxes of wrapping paper gleaned from the garages of the dead. She had at least ten of every tool ever forged to prune branches. She surrounded herself with stuff, a reaction, I think, to that time when everything had been taken from her. She was used to living in the space of her home, but now that she needed a caregiver and a walker, it became impossible to navigate through the garage. The sisters tried to clear some space, taking a few pesticides to the dump, returning plastic water bottles for redemption. But our mother fought every attempt to recycle or toss. We were taking away all that was important to her. She screamed at me when she caught me about to recycle a cardboard box from a kitchen faucet she’d had installed many years before. “It’s got a lifetime guarantee!” she yelled, and I did not argue.

She always had at least twenty-five pounds of butter in the freezer and perhaps fifty pounds of flour sealed in four-gallon Tupperware canisters. When Albertsons had a sale on sugar, she instructed me to buy four bags and to pick up another six pounds of butter because she wanted to be sure to have enough for her Christmas baking.

As a nurse, I had sat with dozens of people as they took their last breaths, but my mother’s experiences with death were vastly more unsettling. I had been at my mother-in-law’s bedside the moment her breathing changed, and I ran to call in the family from another room (where they were meeting with a counselor) so they could be with her as she took her final breaths. Her children and grandchildren stood around Lil’s bed, holding hands, singing, wishing her an easy passing. Although the days leading up to Lil’s death were difficult, in her final days she seemed at rest.

My mother raged, raged against the dying of the light. To her, death was seeing families shoved into cattle cars, children pulled from their mothers, her family taken away in gas vans. She did not want to tell anyone, not her friends, not her neighbors, not her rabbi about her illness. We sisters understood her terror, her fear, her rage.

She alternately praised me for cooking and told me that my meals reminded her of the terrible foods at the camps. She woke up screaming for her Mutti. “Don’t let them take me away,” she screamed in the middle of her nightly nightmares. She asked us to sleep with her in her bed. She held our hands and planted kisses on the lips, openly affectionate in ways she had never before shared. My husband says that mothers and daughters compete with one another in ways that sons and mothers never see. Sometimes my mother’s frustration pushed her natural critical tendencies. Sometimes she was surprisingly mean. One evening she deliberately ran into me with her walker, wanting to hurt me because I had locked the door to keep her from going out at night. Another time she bragged that she was thin and gave me a withering glance and said that she did not want to get fat, like me. She accused me of trying to kill both her and her dog with pain pills. She said other mean things to my sisters, but the three of us understood that cancer and medication were overwhelming her sensibilities. And there were other days, days when she wrote us notes to thank us for sticking with her. She tested us and pushed, pushed, pushed us away, but we never abandoned her.

My mother kept the television on at night because she was afraid of the quiet. The noise made it difficult to sleep. Lack of sleep and stress are accelerants that fuel auto-immune disorders like Crohn’s, and I was ill much of the time, though my illness, like most of the problems of my life, paled by comparison to my mother’s.

Caring for her grew increasingly difficult. She was belligerent. She refused to take her pain and anxiety pills. She was withdrawn when close friends visited. From the start her wish had been to stay in her home, but reluctantly, the sisters discussed sending her to a nursing home, and we scouted out those that were near. They smelled bad and the residents looked dirty. The rooms looked like barracks. We knew our mother would be humiliated and terrified to be taken down the hall wrapped in a robe to the communal showers. We could not do it. Finally, she agreed to be seen by hospice and we had someone to call for help in managing her pain and terror.

Carolyn came across an endearing expression in a novel by Lisa See: “laotong,” which literally means “old same” but describes the lifelong (and beyond) relationships between women bound as kindred sisters. During our mother’s illness we began referring to each other as precious laotongs. We wrote each other notes, confessing high and low points and sharing details of the day. “Dearest laotongs” all of our emails began.

Two weeks before my mother died, on a night when she was especially agitated and unable to sit still or eat, she asked me to chant the Shema, a statement of deep faith that traditional Jews are told to say as their last prayers. We had never been an observant family, but I had learned a bit about Judaism after having children, and I knew this prayer and understood its significance. I taught her the words and helped her chant it and that calmed her a bit. I asked her then what she wanted us to do when she died. She did not want to talk about it, but it felt like a now or never moment, and I pushed a little harder than was comfortable. She told me she wished to have the traditional Jewish washing ritual of Tahara performed after her death. She told me who to call and what to say. She told me she didn’t care what we did with her as long as we did not bury her beside my father.

My husband once told me that women have friends but men just have their wives. It’s good that women build social networks into their lives, he said, because it allows us to adapt to surviving the loss of a spouse in ways that men cannot. Living longer is a blessing and a curse. Sure, we have a few more years but those years provide more time to bury the people we love. A longer life is a bit of an ironic insult to women, who see more than our fair share of inequity and grief.

When my mother died, my husband sat in another room and read aloud the prescribed prayers meant to purify her soul while I bathed her spirit and body as best as I could do according to Jewish tradition. I dressed her in white linens provided by the Jewish Burial Society in Oregon. Stephanie made arrangements with the funeral home, and Carolyn saw to financial matters. Fatigue took over. We sank into the shadows of sadness that still darken some days nearly three years later.

It’s true that no matter how many people stand at the bedside, each person dies alone. It’s also true that those who live on afterwards need a village. We three sisters first lived in that village when we were children. We returned there to help our mother live and help her die. We will visit that village once again when we are old.

It took almost ten months after our mother died to sort through her belongings and ready the home for sale. We kept what we could keep and gave many of her things to her dearest friends. We used Freecycle and Craigslist for the small things and rented a dumpster for what we could not give away. We found someone to take the freezer and most of its contents. Carolyn took home the vats of flour, an ice chest filled with butter, the pounds of sugar.

A few weeks ago her husband saw the flour canisters in a closet and questioned who in the world could ever need so much? When Carolyn told me this, I laughed. I told Stephanie, and she laughed, too. We weren’t laughing at him for asking a perfectly reasonable question. We were laughing at ourselves for understanding everything without needing to ask why.


Husbands come and go; children come and eventually they go. Friends grow up and move away. But the one thing that’s never lost is your sister.
—Gail Sheehy


—First published in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging, edited by R.A. Rycraft and Leslie What (Serving House Books, 2012); reprinted here by author’s permission


SHJ Issue 7
Spring 2013

Leslie What

lives in Portland, Oregon, and her story collection, Crazy Love, was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in Unstuck, Los Angeles Review, Asimov’s, Calyx, Midstream, True Love, and many anthologies and journals. Her stories have won a Nebula Award and have been short-listed for the James Tiptree Award.

She has edited the literary journals Silk Road and Phantom Drift, and edited (with R.A. Rycraft) the anthology, Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury