The Anchor

Mother and Sally exchanged Christmas Cards for over seventy-five years. Every year, no matter that they ‘d barely seen each other since high school, they sent each other Christmas cards. For most of those seventy-five years, they lived four hours from each other and could have easily visited, but I didn’t meet Sally until Mother’s ninetieth birthday.

They grew up in the same small town in New England. They were the same age, went to the same schools and the same church, and both left that small town after high school. But those are the only things they had in common. Teenage Mother liked to gamble, smoke, and party but did well enough in school to earn a scholarship while Teenage Sally apparently never rocked the boat. She met a soldier returning from the war with only one hand, married him and left for the West Coast, probably while my mother was at the university.

Sally’s husband worked for the Post Office until his death. They bought a house just south of San Francisco where they raised three children. After his death, their daughter moved in down the street to take care of Sally. According to the daughter, Sally’s children all did well and produced equally successful children.

In December 2019, after baking Christmas cookies for her neighbors, Sally sat down at the kitchen table and died. I can’t imagine a more pleasant way to go.

Mother somehow graduated from college although to hear her reminisce about those days it’s hard to understand how. She started her career in Hartford Connecticut, about thirty miles from where she’d grown up, and soon got married. My father spent about seven years trying to survive in the corporate world … jumping from company to company all over the states. And Mother went along with him having children and attempting to be a housewife. Once they settled in Reno Nevada Mother had finally had it with the charade. She went out and got the career she’d always wanted and resumed the lifestyle she’d had in college.

For some reason (which I never understood) through all of the turmoil — and it was turmoil — Mother always looked forward to Sally’s Christmas Cards. I wish one of them had survived but then Mother was never sentimental. I imagine they contained a synopsis of Sally’s year: How the husband was doing, how the children were doing and maybe even an account of a vacation to Yosemite. Or perhaps they just contained holiday greetings.

I finally met Sally during the year that Mother lived with us. Her daughter contacted me and we got the two ladies together, coincidentally on Mother’s 90th birthday and had lunch at a restaurant near my house. She looked about twenty years younger than my mother and said very little but smiled a lot. They sat together mostly in silence, affectionately touching and gazing into each other’s eyes and when the restaurant closed to prepare for the dinner rush, there were tears. On all our faces.

Christmas 2019 Mother called to tell me she had not received a card from Sally. She said something must have happened because Sally would never forget to send a Christmas card. Since both ladies were now approaching 94, I thought perhaps Sally’s mental state was slipping and so I contacted her daughter and heard about the Christmas cookies.

Telling Mother that Sally had died was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

Mother died in August 2020. I wish she’d exhausted herself making cookies and sat down to die, but it was during the plague and smoke from the fires made the air too hazardous to even open the windows. I played her music from the 30s and 40s on my iPhone, read aloud from a book, and played solitaire until finally in the morning her spirit escaped. She just didn’t want to go through another Christmas without getting a card from Sally. From what I know, the two ladies probably wouldn’t have enjoyed going on a cruise together but they anchored each other to this world. Some old friends are like that.

30 thoughts on “The Anchor

  1. La tercer edad de nuestras vidas. Aquí es donde se vuelve tan diferente, tan difícil, pero con mucha dignidad . Amor. Duque (My maid told me I should write this sentiment, but in Spanish, since the topic is near and dear to most Mexicans: the final third.)

  2. > In December 2019, after baking Christmas cookies for her neighbors, Sally sat down at the kitchen table and died.

    What a great first line for a novel.

    Anchored each other in this world, better than drifting aimlessly? Maybe dragging an anchor provides the best compromise?

  3. Wow!   What a great story to share.  Love the pictures!  Love the title, “The Anchor”.   We are in Tahoe – got here this evening.  Jodie and family joining us tomorrow for six days of hiking, biking (not me), sewing, cards, rummikub, Jr. Monopoly, Legos, etc.   Ender came home from school talking about the turkeys the president pardoned and asked that we not eat a turkey.  I asked Max what he wanted for Thanksgiving dinner and he said, “A Pop Tart, Lolli!”  So, no big cooking day for me… YEAH! For the last few months I have been spending Sunday mornings sewing with Evelyn.   I am attempting to help her make her last two quilts (one for her sister, one for her daughter).   She picked one of the hardest patterns I have ever worked on and she has changed her mind three times on what quilt she actually wants to make…. after, of course,  my putting in 150+ hours of time at home getting her projects organized/cut.  Last week she talked about a fourth possibility.  Evelyn has Supernuclear palsy and can no longer focus to read directions; great difficulty threading the machine and needle; can’t wind the bobbin; can’t get in and out of her chair without help.   She continually falls.  She chokes on her saliva 2-3 times each sewing visit.  Life expectancy after diagnosis is eight years.  Evelyn has been dealing with it for over ten years.  Most days I come home loving that ‘one more time’ but there are days I struggle to get my wits about me.  I think of you helping Carol and love you so much for who you are.   Hope you and Joel are doing well. Perhaps we can do the Napa lunch in December? Love you.Mary Alice

    1. Thanks Mary Alice. So sorry to hear about Evelyn and it is very difficult when someone wants that last piece to be perfect but you don’t know how much time they’ll have. We cut it very close but I’m glad she got to see those first rave reviews and get all the congrats from her hundreds of friends. That made all the stress worth it.

    1. I don’t have any friends who go back that far either although I do hear from a few people I haven’t seen for a while each Christmas. It’s always painful when those cards stop coming.

  4. Dear Jan, this is such a moving story and so incredibly written. You paint the picture of each of them so well, depth in their individual characters; and wrap up two long lives in a succinct and poignant reunion. The ending is so moving…so life. You, my friend, are an excellent writer.

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