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These Halls We Walk

I’ve walked a lot of beaches this summer and looked over the great waters of Chautauqua County and northward to Canada from Lake Erie’s shores.

Such shore walks soothe the soul and aid in self-reflection. Other walks are not so easy. This week I’ve walked the halls of nursing homes and looked over the great lake of past, the bedrock of family.

Most of us have family we don’t see often yet who remain touchstones of family and love. My three Larson women cousins are like that for me. Martha was my frequent childhood companion, my confidante, full of sass and laughs. Marlene was her older sister by a few years, already married and gone from home when Martha and I were girls. When my mother was a young woman, in the years before she married my father, mom spent quality time with the two older Larson sisters, Marlene and Nancy. Mom adored those girls. So both Marlene and Nancy were cherished in my house before I really knew them. They are my father’s eldest sister’s daughters, and my dad adored his big sister Jane. I recall Marlene with her radiant smile and kind embrace for all, particularly her own large family who adores her. Nancy was always the tall beautiful sister, a decade older than Martha and me, who always seemed confident and self-possessed. She too had a broad smile. She spoke with a certain languor. You could hear her laugh from another room.

I saw my older cousins Nancy and Marlene at family gatherings through the years, many at my father’s lakefront home in Sunset Bay. We have photos of the Johnson clan, 30, 40, 50, gathered for a summer feast or barbecue. Family members ranged from my father’s generation down to the children and grandchildren. They were happy times.

When I first returned to New York several years back, Martha had just moved to the Lutheran Home and Marlene still lived on Johnson Street in her cute little bungalow that always looked just so, full of the lovely things she treasured. Marlene had lived there since her husband died decades back. She had lost a child too and would later lose a son. Martha had lost her daughter. Nancy too lost a son. They all endured such losses with mettle. Marlene and Martha and I met for lunch now and then at Bob Evans, laughed and shared our photos. I loved their company. Nancy had moved to Arizona by then to be near her two remaining children.

Nancy has seen her share of tragedy and borne it. She has endured a bout of cancer and beaten it. I spoke to her last year. She was strong and well. This year, however, has brought changes. Nancy is in hospice now, we heard from family, and Marlene is living at Heritage Green. I talked to Nancy on the phone this week. She was Johnson tough, all pragmatism and good spirts. Formidable as always, Nancy is dealing with her situation. She said she hadn’t talked to Marlene in a long time, so this weekend, I wanted to grant them the gift of conversation they both missed. My sister and I went up to Heritage Green to visit Marlene.

The halls of nursing homes are long and winding. I often find myself lost in them, having to ask directions. They’re all much the same–clean, full of kindly-faced nurses and attendants scurrying into and out of rooms, and overall, a sense of good will to all. We signed in at the front desk and got directions to Marlene’s room. We found it, in the 400 wing.

It was 10:30 in the morning. Marlene lay sleeping, deeply, profoundly, so an aide came in and awakened her. Marlene looked up, surprised and joyful at our arrival. She sat up and straightened her bedding. She pushed at her hair to neaten it and adjusted her sock. We brought her a vase of orange flowers, which we sat on her side table. She showed us numerous pages of adult coloring that she said kept her busy. Marlene was always artsy, and we were glad she was enjoying that craft. ?

We called Nancy out in Arizona, and the sisters had a 10-minute chat on speaker phone. Later, we promised to return next week with sister Martha if possible and maybe call Nancy again. Vicky and I left via the long halls of mercy, and as usual, found ourselves lost within the large building. It was a cool day, tending to autumn, outside. Someone had brought a Shih-Tzu to visit a resident. Everyone was smiling.

I’m a Johnson and I’m a Swede, so I’m just going to write, the sunlight glinted off the car windshield that morning. I had to shade my eyes to drive. And I was grateful for my ever gregarious sister, who never misses a beat, whose good nature uplifts everyone she meets and knows, who talks and talks like our dad who was always full of good talk and stories even when shadows fall.

And I drove home, heart full of love for my cousins, and thinking of the places we live throughout our lives and how each one seems to cradle us in that particular moment of being alive, how all of them have hallways we walk through that lead to unique rooms that house us, and how those hallways are shores we walk along in laughter and in rain.

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