Susanne Dunlap

Jean and Mary

In Random thoughts, The writing life on November 13, 2010 at 10:44 am

I let myself sleep a little longer this morning. I turned off my alarm and allowed my body to decide what time to wake up, in part because I wanted to indulge in those late, morning dreams that can be so poignant.

I was not disappointed. I know other people’s dreams can be tedious and uninteresting, so I’ll cut right to the chase. My dream was about freedom, about loneliness, about disappointment, love, and friendship.

At the very end, I found myself in a house I’ve dreamt of many times before. It’s perched on the side of a hill above a beautiful seaside. Its back is directly on a road, and its front has a garden that has seen better days. Many of its rooms are full of dirty, dusty, relics from the lives of people who have lived there. People are a little afraid of this house. It has the aspect of having sheltered some evil at some point in the past, but parts of it are beautiful. The most recent renters, who had done some work on it, have just moved out.

Jean and Mary, beloved aunts of my significant other, Charles, and his sisters, are moving in. The house belongs to them, and we’re preparing it.

Now, what you have to know about Jean and Mary is that they were extraordinary women, each in her way. Everyone loved Jean: she was lively, warm, spontaneous, intelligent, generous, loving, energetic. Even when she was in her early eighties, she kept such a busy social schedule it was exhausting to be with her.

Mary was a little more difficult. She was exacting, judgmental, slow to welcome strangers, set in her ways, bound by routine.

As someone outside the family circle (despite having a relationship that lasted—and still lasts—beyond twenty years, Charles and I have never married), I was perhaps in a situation to observe without being subject to the crushing weight of these two aunts’ personalities. They exerted powerful influence on the generation of women just below theirs in the family. I know there’s history I can’t even guess at. Among other things, Jean and Mary could hardly be in the same room together for five minutes without fighting. And the MacDougall sisters were all blessed with strong, theatrical voices, so there was no mistaking a fight.

Imagine my mind’s surprise when I found them placidly living together in this tumble-down hovel of a cottage. In my dream I had just quit my job and was studying for a degree. These things both happened in my life, but not in that order. That’s the way of dreams though; they create conjunctions and intersections that make me go, “Aha. Now I see it.”

Anyway, Mary—who was never good at getting around, having been overweight and had knees replaced at various times—was planning a trip to Switzerland to attend to some family matter that required the presence of one or other of the sisters.

I looked up from sorting some glass objects we’d found in a trunk and said, “Mary, would you like some company on your trip?”

She looked at me and said, “Oh, don’t worry! The nurse is coming along.”

I said, “Yes, but what about a friend?” I was conscious of both Charles and Jean staring at me as if I’d gone completely out of my mind. “Now that I quit my job, I’m free to make offers like this.” I cast a significant look at Charles, whose feelings about my quitting had been ambivalent to say the least. “I could be useful. I can speak German and French, and a little bit of Italian. Besides, we’ve traveled together before.”

She nodded.

My dream ended there, and I woke up feeling warm and happy. I was remembering when we had traveled with Mary, only to the coast of Maine, but she had never thought she would get there again. We went twice, staying in a lovely inn at New Harbor with a view on a good day of Monhegan Island. We went around looking for graves of their ancestors and I heard all about the family’s immigration to Maine in the early nineteenth century and before.

Jean and Mary have both been dead for some years. Mary, the younger, died first, and Jean almost had her way in not attending the funeral. There was a lifetime of hurt between them. The third sister—mother to Charles and his sisters—died before I met him. She, apparently, was equally tough. I wonder if they’re all sharing a room in heaven, and have at last found peace with each other?

Today would have been my brother Bruce’s 57th birthday. He died almost five years ago. Maybe he’s up there with them, and they’re all looking down at our silly foibles and laughing to think things could ever have mattered so much.

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  1. Only 5 years ago…..so recent and yet so gone…..RIP Bruce and Mary and Jean

  2. Thank you, Marjorie. It was a wistful day.

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