By Robin Jovanovich
Things started to go wrong last fall, and I’m not referring to the unpleasantness the first Tuesday in November. But right after Election Day, the station wagon piled high with treasured belongings over a 40-year marriage and the detritus of a lifetime, we ventured north to another home with more bookshelves than anyone else would want and the next chapter.
Like most stories, it begins on a hopeful note. We two seniors had pulled it off: we’d moved into smaller, more affordable quarters; we still had some spring to our step, after months of packing, shredding, recycling, hauling, and carrying several thousand books and boxes of “Things to Do Some Year.”
But when on a trip back to the old house, I paused long enough to listen to the 31 new messages. The one I responded to was from my oldest and dearest friend, whose voice I’d barely recognized. “You sound like one of the Munchkins in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” I said cheerily. My friend Jean Miller, who’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer close to five years earlier but had decided to live a lot longer because she knew there were so many of us who depended on her, had decided to end all treatment.
I was able to spend three days with Jean in San Diego — she still looking like a 1940s movie star, even in a hopelessly fashioned turban, me at the foot of her bed, jet- and moving-lagged — and somehow we covered everything. One afternoon she asked me to help make a list of all the jewelry in her safe and dresser drawers. There was a good story for every one, especially the ones she’d bought at junk and antique shops we’d frequented in our heyday.
She was trying to make the right decisions about which pieces to leave to her sister, her daughters and granddaughters. She didn’t really need my help; she instinctively always made the right decisions.
On the red-eye flight back, squashed in between two oversized passengers, I tried counting all the things I needed to do when I got home — including put the earrings Jean and I had had made many moons ago, along with my grandmother’s platinum and diamond bracelet, in a safe deposit box.
But other things on the list intervened. The birth of a granddaughter, Jean’s funeral, the kids wanting to buy one of our houses.
Another call. My younger sister sounded upset. If I wanted to say goodbye to her mother (my stepmother), I needed to be on a plane to Florida. I’d seen my stepmother at Christmas and we’d all remarked on the strides she’d made since suffering a stroke two years earlier. Hannah was still full of life — funny, curious, and kind — despite not being able to stand up.
There was no funeral in February, but the whole family took a sunrise walk on Juno Beach. My three Florida nephews didn’t go to school that day and we found lots to talk about. A snowstorm delayed my return and gained me another memorable day and hours of shell collecting with my sister-in-law.
In late June, we’re all headed to Long Island for a celebration of Hannah’s life and what would have been our father’s 100th birthday.
A few weeks ago, I was looking through my dresser drawers at the jewelry my stepmother had given me over the years and put a few pieces aside to give my sister for her birthday in April.
My heart has been heavy these past few months, but I found new resolve to do better as a sister, aunt, sister-in-law, mother-in-law, now that I was The Oldest Person in My Family.
But I do know people even older than me, and I look at them admiringly every day.
It was while we were out to dinner with one of them, whose wife died after a long battle with cancer, that burglars broke into our new home and removed every piece of jewelry given to me by my father, my mother, my wonderful grandmother, my smart grandmother, my first serious boyfriend, my husband, my sisters, my friends.
I leave the house every day wearing the watch chain left to me by my father, the cocktail ring that my father gave my mother that my older sister miraculously recovered from our mother’s estate, a ring Peter bought me when we were in Scotland in the 1980s when we didn’t have a farthing to spare, and a diamond and sapphire band to match that I bought with Jean in the late 1980s.
My engagement ring, which Peter had reset and refashioned for a big anniversary is gone, along with his grandmother’s wedding band. So is the charm bracelet my dad started for me when I was 8 to memorialize all the things we jointly loved — cats, Bermuda, tennis. For my 16th birthday, my stepmother, who was only 13 years my senior, added a go-go dancer charm so I’d always remember the day we were stopped on a Manhattan street and asked to be go-go dancers.
When I open my dresser drawers every morning, they still sparkle with memories. And I still have my dancing shoes.