Sat on their park bench like bookends.
Paul Simon- 1968
It is not very nice, but we call them “mushrooms.” Those elderly folks nudging their Oldsmobile’s and Cadillac’s along in front of you in the right hand lane, their white-grey puffs of hair just visible from behind, clouds above their seat backs. There were two of them in the car next to me, and as I sped ahead I could read GEMINI on the vanity license plate. Two sisters, two who would never be alone.
The ladies were not my mother and aunt, but twenty years ago they certainly could have been. Although they were not twins, in fact they were six years apart, my mother and her older sister lived the intertwined life of a love and sibling rivalry that stretched from cultured Vienna to Mayor Daley’s Chicago, from Freudian therapy to Aricept and Namenda.
My aunt Paula and mother Litzi were born in Vienna in 1913 and 1919, bookending the Great War. They didn’t speak much of their early lives, or perhaps I didn’t ask enough questions, so my knowledge of that time is sparse. I know they idolized their father, a small, quiet, artistic man holding a civil service job “with the railroad.” Paula, as the eldest, carried the imprimatur of the bright one, progressing through the best schools with the highest marks. My mother, perhaps a bit jealous, became the behavior problem. I believe it was an incident with a kitten that led to her visit with Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, a practicing child psychoanalyst. Ms. Freud was herself the youngest of six children, and apparently well versed in sibling rivalry. I can only surmise that whatever assistance she provided for my mother didn’t quite take.
Mom’s family was of the secular Jewish variety, but following the Anschluss in 1938, no Jew in Austria was safe. Paula was the first to escape, using little-spoken of family connections to receive a visa for the US. We recently stumbled across some of her documentation, chilling to see the Nazi symbols, surprising in the lack of the word Jüden. My mother and “the parents” were required to take a more circuitous route, including a year in England where my mother worked as a maid and somehow found herself spending a night in jail for some never clearly explained offense. Eventually they received the necessary papers and joined Paula in Chicago.
First in Hyde Park and then in Rogers Park, the family, including husbands for both of the sisters, stayed close. But there was one very significant difference. Paula, childless, continued her education, and having inherited her father’s artistic talent, earned a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. She went on to become a leading art educator, taaching art history and becoming Assistant Dean at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. And Litzi? She became a mom. Linda and I were both born in the 1950’s, five years apart, and were her focus. We were public education, public transportation kids, easily the equivalent of a full time job.
The sibling rivalry entered the stage of “you have an education, and a job, and travel” vs “you have children and grandchildren.” Then the losses started coming. First Paula’s husband Poldi died of congestive heart failure, barely a month after saying the HaMotzi (blessing over bread) at our wedding. The next 15 years were a heated triangle, with my father resenting Paula and Paula resenting my father. After Dad passed away the ladies were alone together. Paula, who began to drive at age 60 on Poldi’s death, was the chauffeur, my mother was the grumbling passenger. The mushrooms were on the loose. They were inseparable, except for Paula’s activities at the Evanston Arts Center.She spoke fondly of her Print Class teacher Audrey, who was also a writer. It was not until many years later we made the connection between teacher Audrey and Audrey Niffenegger, the author of “The Time Traveller’s Wife.”
My sister’s tragic death in 1999 knocked the teeter-totter of its fulcrum. Mom’s sadness kept her from continuing to cover up just how much Paula’s ability to care for herself in her own apartment had faded. Barb and I intervened, insisting on, and assisting in, Paula’s resettling in a senior citizen apartment. Mom followed into her own apartment in the same building a few months later. It was environment in which Paula, as always the more sociable of the sisters, thrived, while my mother stewed. Paula still “had wheels,” and it was only after she drove my mother into a brick wall that we belatedly pulled her keys.
That car crash precipitated the slow decline that eventually led to Paula’s dementia and death. Mom’s final years followed a similar path, although we did discover the cocktail of Aricept and Namenda that gave her an extra year or two of fairly good mental status. In the final moment of symmetry, the same devoted care giver was with each of them as they passed peacefully away.
Seeing those Gemini sisters slowly driving along brought it all back. May your sibling rivalry never keep you apart. Mushrooms rule!