The Disappearances

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Stories disappear. Maybe if you went to gatherings of most families, you’d get a sense of stories being retold and perpetuated for generations. Mine isn’t like that, and even for those people, there must be countless stories lost for every one told, for every one which survives to the next generation. In our family, my Dad was unable to speak or write for the last twenty years of his life, and my Mom’s rickety mind was unreliable for the last ten or so, prone to such nonsenities as “There used to be a hill behind the house, but it’s gone now.”

One story she often told was about her mother’s funeral. Her mother, Dell (from whom I received my middle name, Adell), was an imposing figure, who Mom said might have been a social worker if she’d lived in modern times. Instead, she did the work informally. If people had marital problems, for example, they might send for her. She would tell her youngest daughter, Leona, to bring a book or toy, and they would go to the couple’s house, where Leona would sit in another room playing quietly while Dell would help them work out their problems. She kept a big garden, and she would take food to sick people. In the desperate thirties, when young men were often vagabonds, Dell would give some work and a meal to anyone who knocked on the door, and she would make them write a letter to their mother while they were sitting down. When cancer took her life, so many people came to her funeral that loudspeakers had to be set up in the yard for the people who couldn’t get into the building.

Leona was thirteen at the time. After the funeral, the family had a meeting in which they told Leona that she would have to take care of herself now, that her six living brothers and sisters (only one still at home) and her father loved her but would be unable to take the place of her mother. She would have to keep herself out of trouble.

I heard this story dozens of times. How much of it is true? I have no idea.

Once, when the light was dim, but she could still talk, I took her to a medical appointment. As we sat in the waiting room, I started talking about past-life regression, and how other lives one has lived relate to the purpose of the current life. I could do that in that period, because her critical faculties were weak enough that she would never make the judgments she would have made when she was in her right mind. Instead, she listened politely, then told me that her life had been unfairly easy, so much so that she sometimes felt guilty.

“But your mother died when you were young.”

“Well, yes.”

“How did it feel?”

“Well, it was hard.”

Tears began to well up in my eyes. It was the closest she’d ever come to expressing her feelings about this event, which had happened some sixty-five years previously. I had an insight, that even through dementia, healing can occur. She never would have said that when she had all her faculties. She was too much in control. Now her mind was so ravaged that she had no controls to hold back all the hidden thoughts and feelings. Then the nurse called her name, to take her to see the doctor.

Here’s a picture I found in my Mom’s dresser, in the drawer with the jewelry, the two-dollar bills, and the silver dollar from the year she was born (1925). She was still living at the time I found it, but her mind was gone. I don’t remember her ever showing me this, or telling me anything about it. But the inscription, “To Mother, Christmas,” tells that this was likely the last Christmas gift this smiling girl ever gave her mother. After her mother died, she kept it hidden for sixty-five years.

But there’s more untold story here. Why did I take the photo out of the frame? I don’t know, but I was surprised nonetheless to find another photo hidden behind the smiling girl, of a handsome, smiling, young man. Who is he? My sister and I guess that he was Mom’s eldest brother, Will Craft, who died before she was born, in the flu epidemic of 1918. We know nothing else about him. When I once asked Mom about him, she told me that by the time she came along, they didn’t talk about him much anymore. His stories were already lost, leaving nothing behind but possibly a tiny photo, hidden away for two generations.