Escape from the Isle of Skye

Lorraine at 20
Lorraine at 20

It is true that I went back and forth with myself about taking it with me: I packed it once, thought better of it, removed it from the suitcase, yet, as I was draping it back over the hangar, became bewitched again with the image of its soft black folds whirling about me in the winds whipping off the waves on the Isle of Skye. It was a fanciful accessory, a black cotton drape styled midway between cape and shawl, seemingly made by a costumer for a lass of the Scottish highlands. And, despite having left lass in the rearview mirror a couple of decades hence, I just couldn’t resist the notion of donning it on this quintessential stage. Perhaps it did carry a Iittle of the magic I had imbued it with over the years. A good luck charm for travel. Pulling it from the hangar, I bundled it up carefully and placed it in the front zippered pocket, readily accessible for the Kodak moment when it arrived.

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Me & Lorraine0001
Me & Lorraine circa 1983

I had first seen it on my sister almost 30 years ago and immediately coveted it.  It was the height of my Fleetwood Mac phase, the mid-80’s, a time when it was surprisingly difficult to find the vintage, theatrical items that are a dime-a-dozen through Urban Outfitters, Buffalo Exchange, and hundreds of other outlets these days.  It actually shocked me that she didn’t offer it to me – her of the easy acquiescence, the pliable Beth to my fiery Jo, the good one that always shared and never complained; nursing the arm I’d accidently broken, when she was eight and I twelve, into the predawn hours before her stifled whimpering finally alerted our mom. My little sister adored me, completely and utterly, in that unique, submissive fashion that a less studied character holds for one more flamboyant and artful.

Still life from a family photo album: me, front and center, encircled by a halo of pink tutu, hair coiffed in stiffly sprayed curls, eyes rimmed with turquoise, toe pointed in front of me, back arched, arms bowed at my sides; her, standing in the background, a little to my right, pudgy hands folded at her belly button, tights sagging, leotard bunched at her waist, mouth slightly agape, eyes gazing up at me, rapturous, as if Glinda had just materialized in front of her.   An accidental, naked portrait of how it always was between us.

I had recently returned, reluctantly, to the dull harbor of my old bedroom at our parent’s house.  Lorraine had just fledged, leaving the boyfriend she had lived with since high school to share a freshly outfitted apartment with a co-worker.   There was a newly minted assurance coating her, a sheen of silvery confidence that signaled a subtle shift in our relationship.  While my post-adolescence wanderings may have increased the hip-cred I brandished to cover my wounds, she seemed to have glided over my years of awkward angst to alight, perhaps tentatively, in a place of adulthood.  She made me a little nervous.

But when she pulled out the black shawl one afternoon as we headed out to lunch, I immediately recovered my big sister voice.

“Oh wow, sissy – that is beautiful! Where did you get it? You have to give it to me!”

Closing my eyes I can still picture the careful compression of her puffy lips, the firm little shake of her head.

“Nope. It’s mine.”  Lilt at the end. Smiling, but implacable.

She wore it everywhere we went during those long ago months: a concert; the fair; furniture shopping for her new place.  And I continued to crave ownership, scooping it up and swirling it about my shoulders whenever I found it tossed on her couch, stomping about her living room like Stevie in her boots, belting out “Rhiannon” while flourishing an invisible tambourine. She would laugh and agree that it fit me.  But she never ceded.

So perhaps it was a matter of course that I had my way elsewhere, appropriating the swarthy Armenian jeweler she brought me to meet one sunny afternoon in March.  Perched on a Laguna bluff, his little shop part workspace, part bohemian haven, redolent of incense, curtained by vines and palm fronds. Andreas Vollenwieder rolled in buoyant waves over us as we sipped chardonnay from wrought iron chairs on his doorstep and watched the sun glint off the Pacific. Her flirting was so self-effacing and contained that it aggravated my chronic promiscuity. I was sleeping with him within a week.

Next, I impulsively acquired the same model car she had spent hours and hours making up her mind to buy, comparing color and interior options, gas mileage, performance ratings, and safety scores.  She was days away from purchase when I drove up to her place in a brand new, blue, 5-speed Mitsubishi Cordia.

“You wanted white.  I thought we could be twins.”

I think I actually made her mad with that one.  But she never said a word.  And within two weeks she had a Toyota Corolla fastback: smaller, sleeker, cuter.

It was the car she died in, it’s aroma of new carpet and leather seats not quite dissipated, a bare month later.

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What does one do with dead people’s things?  How much of the person do they hold within, captured moments and memories, static icons of fluid emotions, precious objects with no other intrinsic value than of once having been curated by someone disappeared?

Within hours of learning of my sister’s accident, I find myself in her bedroom, spinning in slow circles, a lighthouse spotlight trying to pierce the syrupy morning sunlight replete with bobbing dust motes, tiny faeries trying to break free of amber.  My glance falls upon the cast off bathrobe crumpled on the bed; the brush full of hair lying on the windowsill; the smudged mirror reflecting tubes and compacts of make-up, bottles unscrewed, on the vanity; the open closet spilling forth clothing askew on its hangars. Bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet, bathrobe, brush, mirror, closet. The fairy dust shimmers as the sun rises higher. The smell of her conditioner lingers in the close air.

What to do with all of this?  How sudden is the moment when things change into useless, superfluous litter, floating in space.  Do I take that brush tangled with her last hair? The robe, still damp from last night’s shower? Or the lipstick she always wore, surely smeared with the tiny slivers of skin always flaking from her lips? I can’t seem to grasp it, the enormous, echoing void left by a life abruptly vacated, the cavernous, stretching emptiness of it, the detritus scattered on its shore. 

It is only as I turn to go that my eyes brush across the tail of black fabric snaking out from amidst the sandals, sneakers, and high heels jumbled atop each other on the floor of the closet.  I am in the doorway before it penetrates and I spin around.

Mine now.  Sissy, it’s mine.

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The years since her passing kaleidoscope: I’m a young, single mother; a university student; a counselor; an executive; a wife; a homeowner. My bank account expands along with my waistline. The Armenian jeweler moves to Hawaii and I never hear from him again. I sell the Cordia to buy the ’64 Porsche of my first husband’s dreams.  Lace skirts and crystal beads give way to sensible pumps and blazers.  The detritus of my own life recedes in my wake, falling beyond the horizon.

But the shawl stays, a lasting imprint, the cocoon I wrap around me during cold months of grieving, the totem of resilience and serenity which I doggedly tote through all my incarnations. Mine, but still hers, it takes me ten years to wash it, convinced as I am that her DNA is still entwined amongst the threads.

My daughter, too, comes to covet it.  I let her wear it whenever; it fits her eclectic Echo Park, retro-Beat chic.  But I am firm when I find it amongst the clothing she has piled in the back of her truck, preparing to move to Tahoe.

“Really, mom?   It’s not like you can carry it off anymore.”

“It’s Lorraine’s, sweetie. It’s all I have left.”

She flings me the withering look.

“So I guess I’ll just wait for you to die, huh?”

It catches me.  When will – if ever – I let it go?  When will it would it be okay to let it slip from my grasp, to allow the last tangible piece of her to float away from me in space, to no longer have the least physical connection embody her?  Why not let the one have it who will most likely be packing up my abandoned things someday? A thought – not enormous – but elusive, slippery, fraught with tingles of pain like little electric shocks sparking beneath my skin.

                   No. Not yet.

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I found out that just days before her death Lorraine had driven to my grandmother’s house in Montrose to type up her application for American Airlines.  (Yes, in 1985 we typed things.)  She never mentioned it to me, perhaps because she knew the derision I would express for such a safe, contained version of wanderlust.  Always methodical and practical, perhaps she had her own thoughts about my wanton attitude toward life at that time.  Perhaps she had drawn her own conclusion, never articulated, about the big sister who jumped without quite attaining flight.  About the web of scars filmed over by the gauzy persona of a world-weary, hippie-gypsy returned, hiding the tale between her legs.

I will never how it would have been between us, after the glitter faded.  I know that she loved me. And I her. But women are not so little girls; who knows what it would have been like, each with her own stage, a separate spotlight, different audiences to attend to?  In my imagination, at times, she eclipses me, meeting a middle-eastern businessman, moving to Turkey, having a passel of honey-bronze children, getting a PhD.

Me, I am more practical now. There are less and less occasions when a decades-old black shawl seems appropriate.  In part, joining the Peace Corps was a little homage to her: a safe, contained way to indulge wanderlust.  Yet, during the process of selling and giving away the bulk of my possessions before leaving, I hold the black shawl in my hands, weighing its significance, wondering if now is finally the right time to let go. And I recall the way the tangled gold of her hair spilled forth from the folds of the attached scarf when she wound it about her head. The way it enveloped her, hanging longer and looser about her smaller frame. The afternoons in her living room, draping it about myself seductively, twirling to the music with contrived abandon, hoping to win the prize.

I hold it up to my nose. Not a trace of her smell remains.  I am not sure I even remember what she smelled like. With a fleeting sense of panic, I toss it in the “keep” pile and bring it with me to Moldova.

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I am wearing it in the picture of me on the boat from the mainland crossing over to the Isle of Skye, the land of the faeries. I am smiling, happy to be going to a place on my bucket list.  I am 51 years old; more lies behind me than in front of me these days. I can discern the dim outline of a horizon out there ahead.

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So the emotions are mixed, confused, when I discover it missing as I am packing the next day to depart.  Long, slow breaths as the realization floods in.  It is gone, disappeared, leaving  a black hole within my suitcase.  Had I tossed it on the bed in the hostel, where some transient backpacker espied it, liberating it for it new adventure?  Or placed it on the back of the chair at the bar, ready for the next itinerant guest to don before she boarded the cross-country train to distant realms?  Or perhaps it went home with the server, to reside on the Isle of Skye for a handful of decades until her daughter packs it in a box or hangs it in up in her own closet someday?  Who knows?  It happened. It is gone from my life, the last trace of her, without me having to decide, choose, finally let go.

I tell myself she would be proud of me, that our love would have blossomed and flourished through the years, that we would have grown to stand next to each other, holding hands, shoulders touching, heads tilted slightly towards each other. In my mind’s eye, we share center stage and the spotlight cloaks us both in warm brilliance. Neither one of us is wearing the cape. A Kodak moment, a studied, slightly fuzzy portrait of the people we became.

And a clenched hand releases, letting her drift, the last anchor now lifted, finally free to roam the space of this world.

Godspeed, my dear sissy.

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