Jan 08 2020
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Helena Writes #18: On what is lost and found

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers (Writing for Children and Midwifing a Small-Scale Memoir), has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In a blog series called Helena Writes, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time. Learn more about Helena through the Center’s Teacher Feature, her reflection on teaching writing, and her artist’s website.

In her 18th post, Helena shares a piece of memoir writing about her beloved sister and a cherished found object. Enjoy!

A Christmas Memoir

For my sister, Jo

Many years ago, my sister and I went on a house tour, a walking exploration of some of the great old houses in Oyster Bay, on Long Island, the peninsula that extends east from New York Harbor, sitting in the Great South Bay where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. The house tour was something I was less interested in than was my sister, but it was a way for us to spend time together. 

At each grand entryway, we removed our shoes and replaced them with paper slippers. We both tolerated this affront, feeling like intruders from another world, which, of course, we were. But we were also—and I speak for us both having known my sister so well—interested in the way, as my father would have put it, “the other half lives.”

We shuffled along, part of the parade of the curious, the paper on our feet sinking into plush carpeting, whispering along polished floors, through to the sixth of the twelve tour-houses, the halfway mark. There was a rest stop, a church. I am sure we must have been weary of changing back and forth from our shoes to that embarrassing paper for each house, and the long trudge between houses. We must have sat to rest. There may have been snacks. We certainly talked. I can’t imagine we didn’t laugh, at ourselves, and at anything else that drew our ire and tickled our very particular funny bones. No one I have ever known has equaled my sister for her sense of humor. Laughter was our deepest bond. 

In an ante room of the church was a glass case and counter displaying secondhand objects tagged for sale. A group of terra cotta figures drew my attention, a nativity scene, clearly hand-fashioned, finger-pinched, beautiful. They looked South American, perhaps Mexican, or Peruvian. They were so archetypal, so out of time, they could have been contemporary or from the dawn of history. I had long searched for a Nativity that was not sentimental, but sacred. I asked to see it.

Attachment

The figures felt wonderful in my hand, solid. I could feel the aesthetic, the humanity that had made them, the way one can feel with the hands the potter in a beautiful clay pot—an experience distinctly different than holding something mass produced. Each figure’s eyes were empty holes, casting them with a breathtaking awe, as if they were looking at one thing alone—the great mystery and intelligence, the love that had created all things. I was spellbound.

Their tag was marked $2. The mother, the three wise men, the ox, the donkey. The child in its cradle, the only figure of white clay, which gave the illusion of light cast upon all the others. Its Joseph was missing.

I looked at the woman and, of course, asked about it. She looked sad and nodded. “It came without it,” she said. “That’s why it’s two dollars.”

“Could it be somewhere here?” I asked.

“We’ve looked high and low,” answered a second woman behind the counter who smiled over at me. “Probably why it was donated,” she added.

I remember thinking I could fashion the Joseph myself, fire it at a potter friend’s studio. There was no question that the Nativity was mine. I paid for it and the two women wrapped the figures in newspaper and put them into a paper shopping bag. I know that my sister found something, but I can’t remember what it was. I can see the two separate paper bags sitting on that glass counter.

But now I was tested. Unlike me, my sister was unattached to things.

I picked up my shopping bag.

My sister spoke. “Can we leave them here and pick them up after the tour?” she asked the women.

“Certainly,” one of them answered, and added, “Let’s mark them with your names. We close at 5.” She handed my sister a pencil and two tags. My sister wrote our names and tied the tags to the handles of our shopping bags.

I could feel my stomach knot. My thoughts raced—What if it was gone by the time we got back? I was in a kind of panic, my self having extended into that extraordinary group of figures, an embarrassing attachment to things in the presence of my sister who was free of that particular affliction.

“I’ll carry them,” I said.

My sister looked at me in surprise. “Don’t be crazy,” she said.

Of course it was crazy; I knew and suffered that about myself. The women would watch the bags and no one would likely know they were there sitting near the counter in that beautiful little church. I felt like an idiot attached to this earthly thing, no matter that it was to me sublime. I would have argued about it with my sister, once.

But I was at a threshold of a truth greater than my attachment. Would I interrupt the harmony of two sisters spending time—something that had become so dear now? Or would I walk free with her through the rest of that absurdly slipper-footed tour, no burden to further shadow the great poignant burden that was beyond the world of things: My sister was ill and would likely not last the year. This was sacred time, weighed down with the knowledge of the loss of her to come.

I suddenly leapt free, snapped out of my sleep, the attachment, the passion for the beautiful crèche. I don’t know what my sister experienced in that moment, don’t know if she had any sense that anything at all had happened. Had the silence deepened? Had I held my breath? Had the air moved with the magnitude of what had happened to me? I had experienced a miracle.

A sacrifice of love

The woman set the two bags in a corner alongside the counter, as if nothing had happened. “They’ll be right here,” she said.

I was vibrating. I’d chosen my sister over things. I was experiencing respect for her request, a heart-expanding sensation, a peace, a quiet in my solar plexus, a kind of giddiness, like flying. I’d made a sacrifice for love of her. It was a feeling I would experience again during the course of that year.

We slid and slipped our way through the six grand houses remaining, the clay figures riding with me, but now alongside the shock of the thing that had transformed the moment.

When we left the last house, we walked to my car and drove to the church. It was just 5. The women were getting ready to leave. Our bags waited for us in their corner. I drove my sister to her car. She set her bag in the trunk. We were both tired. I was happy my sister’s cheeks were pink. We hugged.

I drove out east to Huntington, where I lived then. She drove home to Laurelton, at the edge of Queens. I had a wedding to go to that evening and barely had time to change my clothes. I left the crèche in its bag.

In the morning, I unwrapped it. I was stunned. There was an extra figure! At first I took it to be the Joseph. But how unlikely, I thought. Images of the day before rushed through me, the women assuring me the figure was gone. I felt lifted away from the world of gravity, had the racing sensation of having been cast into a dimension where something impossible had happened. I turned the figure over in my hand. I am sure my mouth fell open and my eyes went wide. Reason told me that someone had to have found it stuck somewhere after we left, wrapped it and tucked it into the shopping bag. Yet I was floating in a place where there was no limit to possibility. As far as I was concerned the figure had materialized from nowhere.

I was overcome with the knowledge of the two alternatives I had been faced with. Had I not let go that package, I would have missed it! Another miracle!

As I set the figures up, once again I was thunderstruck. It wasn’t Joseph. It was another gift-bearing wise man, a duplicate of one of the other three. In that breathless state, I stood the new figure in Joseph’s spot, next to the child in its cradle, across from Mary—a fourth wise man standing in for the Saint, standing in the place of the father of the child.

I couldn’t wait to tell my sister. The two of us may have been different types—she, a pioneer of Animal Law living in her formidable mind, and me, an artist, attached to beautiful things—but we were both poets, and here in the realm of the magical and the miraculous, we matched.

“Who do you think it is?” she asked. We went down the list of good possibilities, the list of the men in my life. I was too young, the question too unfamiliar to begin the list with our father, certainly the first wise man in both our lives. The question went unanswered.

There have been many wise men in my years, significant, pivotal, life-altering mentors. They have characterized my journey, come forth at desperate turns in the road. When all is said and done, there hasn’t been a Joseph. Even then, on that, my sister and I agreed. It was 1993, before the time we would have rooted around to find the women, the wise women, who had also appeared in my life as helpers. And it was before the time I’d understand that she, my older sister Jo, was the first of them.

Wise woman

This Christmas was the 26th year of the crèche, the Nativity my sister and I found together on that house tour. The holiest thing of the many beautiful things I have, in the way of material objects, I set the figures up on my table, surrounded in pine branches clipped from the trees in these woods where I live now. Around that table, I may catch the scent of my sister’s perfume, White Linen, as I have more than once in this place that was hers. I will surely savor the sense of the miraculous in this life I, we all, live, something I have come to take for granted and depend on.

And one of the great miracles that never feels past, but always present, is that last year my sister lived, after the crèche. It was a day-by-day journey from the passionate love-hate of sibling rivalry to a sure knowledge of the majestic transcendence of our connection.

The leap of letting go at the church on Long Island on the day of the Nativity was a beginning. I found myself making what seemed impossible leaps to accompany her on that last tour, to put her first. It changed me, of course, forever. To say the time blessed both our lives doesn’t begin to suggest what passed between us that year. I’ve always felt it healed us both, of childhood scars and those wounds we had inflicted upon each other.

I went to the threshold with her. As she left, a church choir sang, a few doors down the street. Its soaring notes filled the room where we were. I watched the lines of care vanish, until she seemed without age. There was a smile on her face. My sister, Jo, for Jolene, named for our father’s father, the grandfather neither of us ever knew—Joseph.

This telling is for you, Jolene, my role model on that journey, my first, my dearest wise woman.

What object(s) do you hold sacred, and why? Have you written about them? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments!

Related reading: Read the previous Helena Writes posts

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Comments on ... Helena Writes #18: On what is lost and found

  1. Lori Davila says:

    Beautiful story about your love for your sister Helena.

  2. Jude Smith says:

    Oh, Helena, you have brought tears to my eyes. And reminded me of my promise to live in each precious moment. Thank you

  3. Gale Lee says:

    What an absolutely transformative piece! Thank you for sharing it Helena.

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