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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

Swedish Death Cleaning, Part III. Remembering Ann

Over the weekend, I returned to my Swedish Death Cleaning efforts, and a thunderbolt of emotion hit me.  (To read more about Swedish Death Cleaning check out the blogs Part I and Part II.) I was deep in purging mode using the shredder in the living room listening to old Tony Bennett music when BAM! I saw my sister Ann's handwriting on some papers. Oh, how I miss my sister. With her birthday, the first birthday since her death, nearing, my sentimental nerves were living right at the surface of my soul. It took only this brief, unexpected remembrance of her - something written in her cursive, distinctive hand - to engulf me. I expected to cry all weekend.

When someone is ill for a very long time, there is the tendency to think about the most recent years of their life after they die. The most recent, most troubling, most sad, most horrific years. Ann's preoccupation with wishing for death along with the medical issues and emergencies of the past seven years colored my memory of her in the months after she died. It was six months before I had shaken some of that sadness and stress out of my mind.

Now, with her birthday on January 8 and the anniversary of her death also imminent (February 18), I decided to embrace the times before the marathon of drudgery - the good times.

I did cry some, yet, even as I continued picking through items to discard, keep, or shred, fond memories of Ann drifted through my mind. I smiled much more than I cried this weekend. I nearly picked up the phone several times to call her to revisit all the stories. I no longer have that delightful luxury, I reminded myself. So, I decided to write some down and share them with anyone who cares to read them.

I always saw Ann as destined to be a fancy, rich lady. From a young age, she chose the most expensive things to like. Her favorite song from the "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" claymation movie was Silver and Gold. I remember asking her why and she said, "Because silver and gold are expensive. I want to have them when I grow up."

When we sang The Twelve Days of Christmas as a family, she was always given the "5 Gold Rings" to sing, and I was given the "Partridge in A Pear Tree". Sure, I got to sing alone with every single verse of the song, but she got the part where the music slowed down allowing everyone to admire her voice and the only gift in the song that really was a gift. No one wants to receive any of the other presents in the song. But five gold rings is an awesome offering from your true love. And, everyone knew, if there were gold rings to hand out, they should go to Ann.

Here we are opening a Christmas gift that was given to both of us - to share, as sisters back then often shared things. We were so excited to get a combination alarm clock cassette tape player. At least, I thing that is what it was. Our family did not have much, and it was a big deal for our parents to give us such an expensive present.

As you can see, we always took the bows and ribbons off our gifts and decorated our clothes with them. I still do that today and my son finds me very silly. The bright, sparkly ribbons adorned us. We wanted to be decorated, like the tree, to shine and glisten during the holidays.

I think Ann was the age she is in the picture, when she explained her aspirations to me for the first time. She expected to become a CPA and work really hard for 20 years or so piling up the money she earned. Then, she would retire at a young age and live the lush life. I was never sure what the lush life looked like, but I envisioned Ann wearing a bunch of sparkly jewelry and fur coats drinking champagne and traveling to exotic places. I still see her that way in my mind. Dressed up like a flapper from the 1920's wearing a purple boa and dancing effortlessly while balancing a tiara adorned with dramatic feathers on her head. The vision makes me smile and giggle.

She carried a bejeweled sort of aura. I do not know the number of men who proposed to her, but I am pretty sure they all did. Anyone who dated her, that is, and probably some who saw her walking by on the street. She was the kind of woman men begged to marry knowing they must bestow her with riches, gems, and gold to keep her happy.

Imagine my surprise when the lush life never arrived, and she married a regular guy because she fell in love. He did not have much money, but he was older than her by a few years and owned a motorcycle. Even though Ann was a wife at 18, we still managed to spend sisterly time together.

In our 20's, we lived as much in one weekend as others might live in one year. We packed every hour with adventure. We found fun, new bars to try out. Ann brought mischief to each venue. "Tonight," she announced to anyone within listening range and especially to the bartender, "I want a blue drink!" Her eyes widened when she said the color of the drink. Blue! She was a dark beauty. Her eyes sparkled, the makeup she carefully applied each time we went out accenting their dark, mysterious nature. Sometimes she asked for a green, orange, red, or purple drink. The adventure of chasing a concoction and watching the bartender figure it out brought her immense pleasure. The drink itself was usually a let down. She spent no time in regrets. She had already thought up a new fun thing to do.

On we traveled then, from the trendy, new bar to a dance place. Ann was married, so we stayed away from "the downtown" as if people only looked for dates at clubs in the heart of the city. Even in places seven miles west, north, and south of downtown, it turned out, men hit on Ann. She was irresistible, and so much fun.

We picked fake names and accents to use when we went out and hoped that people talked to us. We both hated our real names, so dull, boring and ordinary. Part of the fun was testing out the new names and making up back stories for our alter egos. How did we ever get out of the house? Between laughing fits and trying on alternate outfits to wear, many hours were filled with silliness. Looking back, I see that time not as a waste, but as the best part. Talking silly, making faces, trying on clothes, deciding what sort of accents to use for the evening. All of it rushes back to me now holding me in an embrace of warmth and happiness.

It feels so good to remember this Ann. We made each other laugh to infinity, barely able to catch our breath, falling onto a couch or bed or floor with absolute, delicious glee. We could summon this mood in any place. It was our super power. Instead of Wonder Woman and Batgirl (she always said I had to be batgirl), we were Zany Woman and Droll Girl. Separately, we were each funny. Together, we were a comedy act.

I miss her wit and timing and the easy way we played jokes and stories off of each other. I remember once telling her she should make an internet cooking show. She immediately created a hilarious accent around the word bok choy. I jumped in asking her questions about the food she was making. "Why are you banging the bok choy against the edge of the sink?" I improvised the idea, and she filled in with the action of it, smashing the bok choy to make loud noises. "Well," she paused to push down her urge to laugh and regain control of the funny accent, "the bok choy must be beaten to know it can bring us joy. If we do not beat the bok choy properly, it will fail in flavor."

While all of this made me smile, a thought disrupted my reverie. Back in those days, Ann often took care of me. She brought me food (meat, specifically) when I was a starving college student. She checked in with me to make sure I was staying away from the often depressing literature I liked to read. "You know those books make you too sad. Stop reading them!" And, most importantly, she was ready to go to bat for me. If someone said something mean or degrading to me (this often happened, because I was overweight), she defended me in person if she heard the comment. When I told her stories about meanness she missed, she was angry on my behalf.

With this thought, some tears return.

That's what sisters do, right? We make each other laugh. We make each other cry (because we know exactly where the wounds are), but we won't let other people make our sisters cry! We take care of each other. When one is down, the others lift her up. We take turns taking care. I miss my sister. Happy birthday, Ann!

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Valery Jahn
Valery Jahn
Jan 09

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