My Sister

Donald Shephard

Light flashed from the Fresnel lenses atop the red and white lighthouse to the knoll above. The summer fogbank blanketed the ocean blurring the horizon just as our future destination is known and, at the same time, unclear. At that hour of that day the pale blue of the sky reflected in the sea and was dappled with dark gray. There were no whitecaps. The daily onshore breeze waved the branches of the Monterey Cypress trees that grow like massive weeds here on the Mendocino coast. The same breeze, rising up the cliffs, supported a fish-laden osprey returning to its nest to raise its young before heading off to Argentina in September. It has been a good summer of fishing for these birds.

In my garret at the crest of the knoll, my sister and I sat reading as the lighthouse signal sparkled through the window like a topaz. Its light echoed the host of yellow flowers in the enveloping meadows. Amid these cheerleaders our birdfeeder stood like an out-of-season minimalist Christmas tree adorned with American Goldfinches, House Finches and Red Crossbills. The booming bass notes of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue for organ in D Minor” wafted from the kitchen with the aroma of rosemary, garlic and cod cheeks cooking in butter and white wine.

A mule deer stag with six points to its velvet-clad antlers dead headed the coltsfoot on his way through the meadow. These flowers fill the grassy areas which would be lawn in the Yorkshire village my sister has called home for forty two years. In early morning the meadows appear to lack flowers but around nine o’clock the coltsfoot blooms open blanketing the area with yellow brightness. That morning, as she sipped tea and finished “Cannery Row”, the flowers were as dark as unemployed starlets. On closing Steinbeck’s picaresque novel Jean saw they had opened their shining yellow faces. She said, “Donald, those dandelions remind me of William Wordworth’s daffodils ‘tossing their heads in sprightly dance.’ ”

I started to tell her they are not dandelions, their leaves do not resemble lions’ teeth, their stems are not hollow but, I let it go. The brightness of this myriad of yellow flowers filled me with joy.

As I watched this idyllic scene, one flower wiggled more than the others. It writhed even as the breeze momentarily left its neighbors at rest. I explained to Jean that a gopher was tugging the plant into its burrow, biting off pieces of root to store in rows in its subterranean pantry, a stash for a growing family. Mother Nature was doing her thing. The subsiding plant will not propagate further but its species will outnumber the rodents and browsing deer for they are the dependants and the plant is the sustaining organism.

We used to have another sister, Marian, but she passed away a few years ago. Now, including our brother in Australia, and with the death of our mother in March, there are only three of our original family left. Jean and I get along famously. We are very much alike especially in our pragmatic approach to life. Before she came to visit she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She will have an operation just before her seventieth birthday. She will deal with whatever post operative regimens come her way. We do not cry over spilt milk, we clean it up. “Get on with it,” is her term. For the moment, we were enjoying this Eden that is so far removed in time and space from our childhood home in Essex.

Jean has four grand children I dote on. I can see myself sitting among these glorious flowers, making daisy chains to adorn my own grand daughter, who is never to be. Yet even this small grief, this loss of the sweetness of being called “Grandpa” by a piping voice below my knees, is healed by my wife and sister who are so strong as to love me.

After Jean returned to England, I sat writing in my tower above the browsing deer and mining gopher and beneath the soaring vultures. I sat writing little wise or witty words, mere symbols of the physical world. The lighthouse counted down in ten second intervals reminding me to savor the hot taste of life after working for fifty years and raising three sons to our mutual maturity.

Before she entered hospital, we called Jean to wish her well. She is a tough old bird. She thanked us for all the good laughs we had while she was here. When you live alone, as she does, there is nobody to share a laugh. She remembered how we giggled over two photos I took on our trip to San Diego Wild Animal Park. They were of mounted rhinoceroses about to mate.

Colleen said, “I thought it was a stick.”

“Rhymes with stick,” I replied. We laughed again over the phone. Nature has never ceased to amaze us, which is a trait Jean and I inherited from our mother and share with Colleen. On Monday, as the sun set into the fog-shrouded horizon, my wife and I watched the flowers close for the night and saw the topaz sparkle of the lighthouse rotate through our room. We had to wait till morning when the flowers opened again for the phone call from our niece giving us Jean’s prognosis.

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