“There are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world.”—Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions
I’m three and Margaret is six. We are naked and standing in the bathroom next to the tub. I shiver as we wait for our older sister, Ann, to come in and turn on the water for us. I’m not strong enough to do it, and Margaret can’t. I wonder for the first time why not. I look at her. She’s nearly as tall as Ann, just two years younger, but she can’t do this simple thing. Her messy hair hangs in her face, and her bangs are ragged where she cut them as a joke. She’s worried a raw spot on her chin with nervous picking. She’s missing one front tooth, and the other is half grown in. Her face is as familiar as my own, and so dear to me. My sister. I never think of Margaret as my big sister. Something is different about her, I understand then for the first time.
Ann stomps in and wrenches the taps open. She sighs, waiting for the tub to fill, and slams the door behind her as she leaves. The oldest, she’s eternally sick of us, but she always makes sure the water isn’t too hot. Margaret and I climb over the high, cold side of the tub and sit cross-legged in the warm water. I pass her the soap, the washcloth. Margaret sings, and her high, fluting voice echoes off the ceiling. Later, we are clean and warm in cotton nightgowns. I fall asleep listening to her whisper and laugh to herself in the dark. This is the way it always is.
I’m seven and Margaret is ten. I’m standing next to our brothers in the crowded lobby of the cavernous Old Spaghetti Factory. Margaret sits nearby with Mom. The wide wooden floorboards creak and groan as large groups are called to their tables. We love the Old Spaghetti Factory. It’s the only place we go out for dinner, because it’s cheap and because spaghetti is one of the only foods Margaret will eat. I lean against the wall and yank on my red knee socks, which won’t stay up, their elastic exhausted long ago by the two sisters who wore them before me. I find a hole in one and poke my finger through it. My stomach clenches and unclenches as the minutes pass. I try not to look at Margaret, who stares off into the corner of the room at who knows what. Maybe everything will be just fine, I think.
The group in front of us is invited to their table. My brothers cheer and take over the old-timey velvet chairs those people had been sitting on. Margaret watches them walk by and lets out a little cry and stamps her foot. I swallow hard. There are only seven of us. Surely, we will get a table soon. The minutes drag. Why can’t they hurry up? Margaret’s cry turns into a whine. Mom puts an arm around her and whispers in her ear. Dad stands with his arms crossed over his chest. He looks away like he isn’t with us. Ann sits up straight in her chair, looking very grown-up. Time ticks and lulls. Margaret’s voice climbs into a wail, and then she’s pulling on her wrists, stamping her feet. Every head in the lobby turns as she throws herself on the floor and bangs her palms against the wide wooden boards. She kicks and screams like her skin is on fire. Then Dad is swearing and herding us all out the door and into the van. I can feel the eyes on our backs.
It doesn’t stop there. It never stopped there. She couldn’t wait for a table, but now that we’ve left, in her mind she is still waiting for the table, and she can’t recalibrate. She screams all the way home in the back seat while the rest of us cover our ears. She screams as she runs up the stairs to the house, her voice bouncing off the cement driveway. Dad yells over her and tries to get past her to unlock the door. She roars and smacks the windowpane with her open hand until it shatters and blood runs down her arm. She keeps screaming about the Old Spaghetti Factory. It’s like she can’t feel the cut on her hand at all. We try to calm her, but nothing works. She bounces from room to room, her anxious wail spiraling around the house and setting off our father’s anger again. Hours later, Margaret (who habitually refers to herself in the second person) tells our mother, “You don’t yell in the restaurant,” in self-admonishment. It feels like a cyclone has torn through the house, through the family, again.
Margaret runs up onto the church altar in the middle of Mass, laughing and singing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” She disappears on her small bicycle and is found by the Washington State Patrol out on the highway near the rent-by-the-hour motels. On the way back from taking Communion, Margaret spots a baby and darts into the pew to sniff its head. Margaret runs her finger up the back of a stranger’s leg because she loves the feel of pantyhose. Margaret zings a meatball at Dad’s head at the dinner table. Margaret stands at the top of a three-story escalator bellowing, “Get your HANDS! Outta your PANTS!” into the atrium of a mall and cackles as we descend slowly toward hundreds of surprised, upturned faces. Her laughter breaks the silence of weddings, funerals, and baptisms. Seattle Police Department officers find her in the stairwell of our brother Michael’s apartment building, wearing nothing but her “Somebody in Toledo Loves Me!” nightgown, singing up into the high ceiling like an escaped bird. The family priest, over for dinner, watches as teenaged Margaret bounces naked through our kitchen. When my college boyfriend freezes during his performance of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto, you could hear a pin drop, but then comes Margaret’s high, wild laughter.
Margaret is unpredictable, maddening, hilarious, and out of control. Margaret makes our lives feel like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. By the time I leave home for college, I can’t explain who I am or what my family is apart from her.
In the spirit house of my childhood, doors sagged off hinges, windows fell out of frames, and the roof threatened to cave in. Years later, I would hear a builder explain the term “sistering.” A new piece of lumber attached to a flawed one has the power to make the overall construction stronger. But I never felt Margaret and I made each other stronger.
I’m thirty-three and Margaret is thirty-six. I’m at the family lake house with my parents and my brothers and Ann and some cousins and friends, and Margaret is not here. Sleepy and relaxed from swimming, I stand on the porch feeling the sun-warmed tiles through the soles of my bare feet. My body buzzes with gin and happiness.
Someone had started making drinks a little earlier than usual because, after all, we’re at the lake, and now someone is making another round of drinks. There is no road, and we don’t drive the boat after dark, so no one is going anywhere. Why not make another round of gin and tonics? Why point out that we always use pint glasses instead of highballs?
We stand around in the long shadows of the afternoon. The northern sun will not set for hours on this beautiful summer day. Small waves lap the shore, and a breeze rushes through the tall pines behind the house like an invisible train.
I sip my drink and note Margaret’s absence. I had asked my parents not to bring her out when we all gathered this summer. I had suggested in an email that instead we could visit her one on one. I’d said we had noticed, now that most of us live far away, that being in a large, rowdy group at the cabin seems to upset her. I didn’t say, “and it ruins everything for the rest of us to have to put up with her screaming,” but it was understood. My parents didn’t respond to my email, but when I got to the cabin, Margaret was not here for the first time in thirty years. Without her, I feel a mix of relief, guilt, and sadness—our signature family cocktail.
My siblings and I watch each other and smile. There is no feeling that the other shoe is about to drop. No one is scanning the sky like Henny Penny for signs of catastrophe. The lack of pressure changes everything. Last night, my siblings and I told stories around the table after dinner, each of us tentatively voicing news about our lives. We usually do not get the chance for this kind of conversation between Margaret’s fits of hilarity or anguish. Our father sat with us instead of disappearing to smoke in the pump house or going to bed without saying good night. Only Mom seemed strained, at loose ends without my sister to tend to, translate for, or comfort.
Our small mother doesn’t usually drink. Standing near me, she’s bright-eyed from the stiff gin and tonic someone put in her hand. We’re all leaving tomorrow. We’re talking about how to get my brother Michael and me to the airport. Suddenly, Mom announces she’s picking Margaret up in the morning. I don’t notice if she’s offering us a ride, but she lays out her schedule for the next day: the time we will need to get her across in the boat so she can drive to town and get our sister, swing by the store, and get back to the dock in time for lunch. The rest of us will be gone by then. Michael looks at me and rolls his eyes. Larry stares into his glass and rattles the ice. I swig my drink and feel the acrid tonic wash over my tongue as I try to swallow my bitterness. I look at Dad, who says nothing, staring out at the water and rocking back on his heels.
One of the family friends catches my eye and smirks. “’Cuz it’s always about Margaret, right?” she says. I grin, feeling mean, and say, “Yes, it’s always about Margaret.”
There is a burst of boozy laughter from one of the boys about something else. Then Mom’s face collapses, and she begins to cry. Mom never cries in front of us. Not about Margaret. Not about anything we ever say. But I’ve said the one thing we never say, the terrible truth about our family. This one sentence is a wrecking ball that smashes the façade our family has hidden behind for three decades.
I want to take my words back, but at the same time I think, What did I say that is so terrible, that every single person here hasn’t thought a thousand times before?
Do we try to comfort Mom? Does someone put a hand on her arm? I don’t remember. We watch the torrent of pain course through her, and she disappears into the house. We stand in the yard not looking at each other. I’m waiting for Dad to yell. He doesn’t say anything. We mutter amongst ourselves. Some time passes, and the sun disappears behind the hill. Ann says we should start dinner. Someone offers to set the table. We all go inside, and I walk through the dark rooms on the second floor of the house, looking for our mother. The breeze has shifted, and a cool green-scented air drifts down out of the woods. Mom is not here. I walk out the back door through the twilit yard and find her sitting by the pump house, sobbing and staring out into the lake. I sit down, but she won’t look at me. She shakes and cries, telling her story in broken sentences. Nobody understands, she says. She did it all for us. She had to do the work so we didn’t have to. It was always about getting Margaret ready for a future without her. It was always meant to spare everyone else.
I know she believes that. This is the Dickensian plotline we swallowed as children: Dad let Mom keep Margaret out of the institution as long as she took care of all the hard stuff. But now it sounds like nonsense. After all, they were both responsible for her, for all of us. However, this doesn’t seem like the time to criticize, to tell her she should have demanded more of her husband or to explain that her good intentions had made the rest of us feel abandoned. I sit there feeling useless. It feels very similar to being with Margaret when she’s upset, only I don’t think Mom will kick me as my sister has been known to do.
The next morning, Mom, usually the first one up, comes downstairs very late, her eyes puffy and red, and hugs everyone goodbye as we get in the boat to leave. I write to her later and tell her I know she did her best but it still hurt to feel like an afterthought. She doesn’t write back.
In the years that follow, my mother slowly fades from my life. Whenever I come home, she’s busy—at church or with Margaret. Those few careless words, it seems, have undone the spell that held us together. My family. They break my heart. I love them. I don’t know how to love them.
Mother, like sister, can be a verb, an action. Daughter cannot, though I tried. As a daughter I’d attempted to carry my sister for our mother and failed, which I thought was a measure of some deficit in me. It took me years to understand that it wasn’t my work to do at all. In my dreams I still walk the dark halls of an empty house looking for my mother and find only the wind.
I’m thirty-eight and I’m at a birthday party. The guest of honor wears a pink tutu, a puffy purple vest, and rhinestone sunglasses. She’s turning two. She sprints around the living room with a red plastic purse clutched to her chest. She has cake on her face. Most of the other guests are between four weeks and four years old. They stagger, topple over, and crash about, a youthful scrum of hair-pullers and screamers.
I stand in the kitchen with a group of moms. They talk about breastfeeding, naptime, the terrible twos, diapering marathons, sleep deprivation, co-parenting, crying-it-out, co-sleeping, daycare. They glance at me. It’s my turn to speak, but I have nothing to say.
I wander outside to where the dads sit around the keg. We talk about mountain biking and kitesurfing, and then someone makes a crack about how his wife never lets him out of the house since the kid came along. They all look at me—guilty or accusing, I can’t decide.
I don’t fit in anywhere, and this is exactly the spot I have chosen. People ask, with increasing frequency, when I will have children. The question alone is exhausting. After a childhood with Margaret, it feels like I already did that.
Then I’m thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two. During these years I inhabit a strange and lonely landscape. I slowly become the only woman I know who is not a mother. I grew up in the era of a woman’s right to choose, but it’s increasingly clear that everyone else thinks that means when, not whether, to have kids.
I comb through my memories and compare my own family to the families my friends are building. I never understood so clearly how different we were from others. Now I see that becoming a mother is the chance for me to fit in for once. My husband and I could join this club. This potential life is like an attractive house on the market. I can walk by and see the tidy yard and picket fence. Everyone else says it looks like the perfect place to live, the best neighborhood in town and a great bargain. It seems like something I should want, but I can’t seem to do more than peer in the windows.
I’m forty-three and Dizzy is sixteen. I sit on the living room floor, watching the snow fall on the buried garden. Dizzy props her chin on her paws and watches me watch the snow like she has every winter since she was a puppy.
People have stopped asking when I’m going to reproduce. Very occasionally, someone asks why I decided not to have kids. Most people avoid the topic, as if they are embarrassed for me. But if someone really wants to know, I tell them it happened gradually. Less a decision than a dawning awareness of who I am and who I am not.
I’m not lonely anymore, and I’m not alone either. A tremendous tribe forms the scaffolding around my adult life. My siblings understand like nobody else what I am made of. My spirited friends love the same things I do—the woods, music, books. I’ve had twenty years with one man and our life with the creatures we care for. I’ve learned that the power to create a family comes from love.
Canine Dizzy was one of the first members of that family. With her laughing face and quiet way, she was fifty-five pounds of constancy. Dizzy raced behind my back tire on the trail. Dizzy lay on my paddleboard out on the river with her chin on her paws. Dizzy in her jingle bell collar danced away from us as we cross-country skied on Christmas Eve. Dizzy lay under my desk as I worked. Dizzy sat with me on days when I’d felt bereft of friends and family. Dizzy propped her chin on Margaret’s knee when my sister came to visit from her group home.
I run my hand from her soft shoulder to hip, and she closes her eyes. I know she might not live to see spring bloom in the garden or watch the honeybees awaken in the hive. I’m certain I will watch next winter’s snows without her. Loving this old dog makes me feel the urgency to love everyone I love better.
I think about my parents and Margaret, who will gather for Christmas without the rest of us, as usual. After the blowup at the lake, it became clear that we functioned best in disaster mode. Birthdays, holidays, and special occasions had never been possible at the tempo of Margaret’s anxious internal metronome when we were children, and that remained true in our adult lives. It took me longer to understand that my parents, now freed from Margaret’s daily care, have little inclination to be with the rest of us. They have wandered off into the separate corners of their lives, seeking their own quiet solace. How can I blame them? I understand they prefer to be loved from a distance.
So does Margaret, now in her mid-forties. Her face remains childlike and open to whatever storm or sunshine she’s feeling. Margaret, who can never be anyone but herself, has resisted all my attempts to define her. I have to love her by letting her be herself and taking whatever she has to offer, whenever she is willing to give it.
Dizzy heaves herself to her feet and snuffles in my face. Then she circles three times to land at my hip. The kitty dances across the kitchen floor and curls up on my other side.
People say a woman’s work is never done—the work of building and maintaining shelter, both real and imagined, for those we love. The wise woman stocks a room of materials for herself—love, empathy, forgiveness—and finds she always has something to share with others. My storerooms are full of gratitude for this family I have. It’s a circle I give to and take from in a repeating exchange. Mothering, it turns out, is the work of us all—to nurture ourselves and others and to turn that love back upon the world.
This is the house I occupy at midlife. It has many doors and windows. I am a sister, a daughter, a partner. I am a sister-in-law, a daughter-in-law, an aunt, a keeper of creatures. I am not anyone’s mother. I understand the freedom that comes from choosing the life I have instead of mourning the one I don’t.
Listening to Dizzy’s deep, rhythmic breathing, I feel something give way in my heart, a rush of movement. From the wreckage, this is beautiful salvage.