Marjorie Ann

My dad turned eighty-one last week, and he told me that, in going through some pictures, he found two of them that made him cry. One was of my grandmother with her Vacation Bible School class. In 1941, a mere sixty-five years ago. Dad’s parents have been gone for a while, and last fall his younger brother died. I know it is hard for him as he loses all the people with whom he had experiences in common. The other picture was of my aunt, his little sister. Her name was Marjorie Ann. I never met her. She died of leukemia when she was seven. My dad was twelve. It was 1937.

The early part of the Depression was pretty hard on everybody. My mother’s family fared better than Dad’s did because her dad was a farmer and could retreat to the country. Not so with Dad’s. They had a little house that they were sharing , as the Depression dragged on, with more and more family. Everyone was contributing so that they could hold on to the house, but that was not to be the case.

Finally, my grandpa’s identical twin moved with his family to New Jersey to find employment with Owens Illinois. And he found it. He and my great-aunt and their two boys found a small house, and they invited my grandparents to come live with them. There was work. The problem was that there was not room for all three of the children so, since the my dad’s cousins were boys, my grandparents decided to take the two boys with them and leave Marjorie Ann with my grandmother’s brother. It had to have been terrible for them to leave their youngest child. Their only daughter.

My dad spent a lot of time with his relatives back in West Virginia once my grandparents moved. He tells stories about staying with his grandmother, his mother’s mother. How the cream stayed fresh in the spring house on her farm. How his grandfather, who had heart trouble, paced himself and lived a full life as a carpenter. What he doesn’t tell stories about, for the most part, is his sister.

This is the only story that I really remember. Marjorie Ann must have been feisty, like my niece, Jane. And like Jane, she had two older brothers to tease her. Ahem…not that Dad would ever do that. My Uncle Ronald, though, was quite the joker, and evidently he ticked Marjorie Ann off so much that she pulled his necktie tight. So tight that it was choking him and my grandma couldn’t untie it. She had to cut it off.

Eventually, things got better and my grandparents sent for Marjorie Ann. I don’t know if the family was still living with my great-uncle and his family. I don’t think Dad has ever said. But about a month after Marjorie Ann came home, she was diagnosed with leukemia.

It’s hard to imagine, in this day and age, what such a diagnosis meant to Dad’s family. My mother told stories of hearing people scream as they died from cancer. I don’t think leukemia is like that, but still. It killed people. And Marjorie Ann was their baby.  When I was a freshman in high school, this boy named Dale was diagnosed with leukemia.  He was a pale kid, but nobody guessed that anything serious was wrong with him.  That was 1970.  Dale never came back to school.

I guess the doctors tried to take transfusions from my grandmother for Marjorie Ann, but the transfusions didn’t work. She died two months later. And my grandmother had a nervous breakdown.

Marjorie Ann’s death marked my dad, too. He was, after all, only twelve. And he did not make the decision to leave her. But I know that he has always felt guilty about her death. He was the big brother. There should have been something that he could do. And I know that, as you age, it is surprising how vividly your memory is triggered. Could he feel his mother’s sorrow afresh as he looked at her picture? Could he hear his sister giggle?

All this hits at a time when Dad appears to be putting his affairs in order. A couple of weeks ago, he showed my husband and me his will and the other documents associated with it. He put them in a Zip-loc. In the freezer. For when the time comes. And after all, he is eighty-one. He is in good health as far as I know, but the time will come. And I think he is looking forward to it. Heaven, I mean. To seeing my mother again. And his family. His parents. My uncle. His sister.

I know that my mother will harass him a bit because he hasn’t taken care of himself the way she would. After she hugs him. And my grandparents, I suppose, will hug him first. I think they would all be surprised at how much difference they made in this world. How much people missed them.

But I wonder what will happen when he sees Marjorie Ann. Will he pick her up and swing her around, as he surely must have done when she was little? And when they are done playing, then what? The way I imagine it, she will put her arms around him and whisper in his ear. These words:”It’s OK, Jack. It wasn’t your fault.” The way I imagine it, he will finally be free.


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