I am sorry to have been so silent for so long, both for the offense and for the cause. My sister-in-law, Janet, died on January 10, after a three year battle with cancer about which she was very, very private. And I tried writing about her, but it just plain hurt too much. Also, I want to respect her privacy. But I’ve been thinking.
I don’t recall breathing at all, for the first seven pages, when I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, at the urging of my second MFA mentor, Kim Dana Kupperman. Gornick describes a eulogy given for one female doctor by a younger colleague that let all the mourners grasp who this doctor was, what she meant to her colleague, and what the world will now miss in the absence of this woman. I wanted to write something like that about my sister-in-law, but I cannot. First, the pain is too raw and too strong (the astute reader will notice that I have posted nothing yet this entire year). Secondly, she was an intensely private person, and I don’t know how far I can go before I step into the realm of what Aslan calls, in the Narnia Chronicles, “someone else’s story.” And thirdly, my brother-in-law Mark, a far more accomplished writer than I, has already written the definitive piece. But here’s the thing that I can do: I can write about the place she sent me to shop. Think of it as an exercise in metonymy. Or think of it as all I can stand to do.
I can’t write about Jan on the whole, about Jan and her sense of humor, and all her common sense. I can’t write about her telling me about Florence Foster Jenkins and sharing our love of PDQ Bach. I cannot write about how she came to be with me in the hospital when I was in labor and my husband had to be in church, or about her ability to cook around anyone’s allergies, or her ability to fix and create, to mend and adapt, to welcome and assist. I can just barely write about one small recommendation that she made. But I think, with God’s help, I can pull it together to write about Friendswood, Texas and “The Shepherd’s Nook.”
When my husband and I moved to Texas in 1989 with our two toddlers and 39 boxes of books, Mark and Jan had already lived in Friendswood, a Houston suburb, a number of years. They were high school sweethearts in Ann Arbor, and moved down so Mark could work on NASA projects after college. I met my husband, who was already an astrophysicist, when he was in seminary and I was in high school. We waited till I graduated from Wellesley to get married, and were living in my native Boston when the Houston parish needed a priest. “I thought because Father has a brother down there, it would be easier for you,” said the bishop who asked me to move a thousand and a half miles from my five siblings, thirty-four cousins, my almae matres and home parish.
So, we went.
Jan oriented me. “Up North, if you have cockroaches, it means you’re a bad housekeeper. In Texas, if you have cockroaches, it means you live in Texas. But hire a bug service, so whatever drops from the ceiling vent is dead.” She showed me where to shop and what to wear, shared her friends through the quilt group and taught me how to make a strip quilt. She guided me toward the best Mother’s Day Out program for her son and my daughter, who are less than a month apart in age, and shared the driving, especially when I had morning sickness. And around the end of January, she warned me about February.
“In February, the rodeo comes to Houston,” she said, “and the excitement is everywhere. The events are on the news every night. The cashiers at Kroger dress up in cowboy clothes. And the schools have something they call ‘Go Texas Day.’ They eat franks and beans from tin pie plates at school, so you’ll need to start saving them now to send in. They learn about roping horses and riding. And you’ll get a note that says they can wear their cowboy clothes to school. Now I know, I know, you don’t have any cowboy clothes now. Believe me, you will by the time they are all in school. You don’t have to go out and buy anything new. Around this time of year, they start displaying them at thrift stores, like The Shepherd’s Nook.
“I will take you there. It’s wonderful. It’s an old house that someone donated to the church, and they think of it as a ministry twice, to sell things for not so much money to the poor and then to use the money to help people. And they have everything, divided into rooms. They’re only open three days a week, so you have to catch them when they’re ready for you.”
The next week we loaded all the children into cars and took them to The Nook. We pulled into an unpaved driveway covered with gravel and walked into…. a little blue house.
The front room had the nice things, which is only fitting, for the parlor. Baby things were off to the left. A room full of men’s clothing was at the front bedroom, after which was a bathroom and two bedrooms facing each other, one for boys and one for girls. In the back of the house was the pay dirt — women’s clothes, household items, books, games, and tools.
We came home with cowboy boots and hats for everyone, after which Lardas Boy Child Outdoor Outfit became a diaper, boots (to fend off fire ants), and a cowboy hat. At two, they had to wear underpants, and at three, I made them wear something over the underpants.
I had a whole house to furnish and equip. But I also had another way of life to learn. And so I often went to the Nook for cookbooks and dishes, linens and pillows. I saw things from America’s bicentennial and Texas’ sesquicentennial, both of which happened before my time there but still loomed large. The grocery stores still sold (and still sell) the Texas shaped pasta that were created for the latter event, and red white and blue were everywhere anyway, not so much from the bicentennial as because it was Texas.
We had more children, and all four of them grew. My husband was priest and engineer, and there were lean times in each field. But when someone ripped their pants or outgrew their sneakers, I knew I could find what they needed at the Nook. More than that, I found fabric and yarn, toys and utensils. I bought cookbooks from local church fundraisers, and learned to cook like the neighbors. And I bought all of us books.
All my children were avid readers, and the women who staffed the Nook appreciated that. Local retired engineers and teachers donated their libraries, so I found gifts for my husband and stacks of books for the children. I found things donated by kindred spirits, copies of books of poetry that I’d lost in the move or which the kids had ruined. I was part shopper and part archeologist, learning about this new place from its artifacts. The farm stand down the street a block sold similar things, along with local produce and gorgeous plants, and became my second stop on the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays when the Nook was open.
Sometimes Jan came with me, and helped me develop my taste. She explained why one thing would be uncomfortable to wear and another would have to be dry cleaned. We would raise our eyebrows but not giggle at some of the color combinations of afghans from the sixties and seventies that people donated from their grandmother’s estates, but, I also bought some of these and tucked my children in under them. We’d talk about recipes and kids, what to plant and how to cook it when harvested. Time spent in her kitchen or living room, with kids everywhere asking questions or seeking justice, with Jan telling me her stories from Michigan and me adding mine from Boston, was formative and healing. I was so homesick that I would listen to “Car Talk” on NPR for the accents as I drove down planned roads past cattle, palm trees, and oil rigs. But at Jan’s and at the Nook, I felt like I was in the home of family.
This past Ascension Thursday, my youngest son and I landed in Houston, his first visit since we moved when he was five. Now 23, and an environmental engineer, he made acute observations. “Mom, there’s no place for the water to go when it rains here! Why would anyone build a city on a swamp?” And, as we passed a retention ditch, “Mom, water is just never supposed to be that color.”
We were there for the wedding of the youngest daughter in a family of friends that we knew through Jan. She and my son spent many hours together, each the baby of a large family, and they stayed in touch through letters and Facebook. They shared a love of God, theology, bad puns, and our families and friends. The groom even looked like my son. We were there to celebrate. We were there for the wedding. And we were there to see Jan before the cancer took her all. John stayed with the groomsmen at the bride’s house (she and the bridesmaids were at her sister’s home) and I stayed with Mark and Jan, so I had a rental car.
Jan had lost weight from the cancer, and her luxurious long black hair was replaced with a thick shock of greyer hair that still looked healthy and stylish. She did not have a lot of energy, but she insisted on doing the dishes herself, and cooked us a casserole and gave me the recipe as she gave me pointers on beating diabetes. She gave me tricks for living with my difficult medicines, and described how she overcame the need for it through diet.
We all understood that she was dying. She had surgery and chemo, radiation and immunotherapy, and each thing worked until it didn’t. I had been de-cluttering our house in preparation for downsizing, and our mutual friends had been helping her do the same, finding homes for her late mother’s doll-making things and for Jan’s fabrics and notions.
I think that part of being a good guest is to give the family chunks of time without you. Mark had to work, and Jan had to sleep. I was to drive a guest to the wedding, and I went out to learn the route to her place, the wedding site, and the reception site in advance, so I wouldn’t get lost on the big day.
I also took a side trip.
I drove past our old neighborhood in Webster, Texas; I drove to our old house (but didn’t leave the car), past the children’s school, and off to Friendswood. The stores had all changed names and places, the library was now in the old bank building, but the Shepherd’s Nook was still there. I pulled into the driveway with a familiar crunch, and opened the door to find the store was ever the same.
I walked through the rooms with nostalgia and appreciation, stopping to choose a gift for my friend’s granddaughter and a dress for my own. I chose some books for the flight home. I wandered past shoes and boots, hats and negligees, silver trays from someone’s 25th anniversary and balls of yarn, marveling at the continuing kindness of strangers. Before I came, after I left, and surely after I came home, these volunteers collected, sorted, and displayed donations, told which color looked best on you and set aside good books for someone’s kid, folded and re-hung the things people had tried on so the shop would be orderly and the customers would have dignity as they looked for what they needed, and what, thanks to these kind people, they could afford.
It was with heightened gratitude for what was and what is that I went to the wedding, to my brother-in-law’s book signing, to our old parish downtown for Saturday vigil and to my in-laws’ Greek church for Liturgy on Sunday. When I got to sit around Monday with Jan and a friend and talk about nothing important — jury duty and road tests, licenses and quilting — I valued each second. Happiness doesn’t have to be complicated.
My life in Connecticut has been very different from our life in Texas, because suddenly I was the mother of teenagers rather than toddlers. We live in a town rather like Friendswood, though, full of churches determined to help people. The Episcopalian church in town even had a house turned resale shop, “The Golden Rooster,” until three years ago. And I bought nice silk scarves, a stunning jacket, and some kicky earrings there.
But the days of toddlers who outgrew their clothes, elementary students in need of toys and books, middle school students who needed new khakis for their changing bodies, and a baby who was happy with anything he could chew on are over. I miss those days. I miss our friends. I miss the little blue house of a store that provided for them so well for so long. I miss the straight roads, and the cows, the sunlight and the sky that stretched over them all.
And I miss my sister-in-law.