90: Reunions

90: Reunions

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miraculous Messages from Heaven

Reunions

To live in hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.

~Thomas Campbell, “Hallowed Ground”

My ninety-three-year-old grandmother would not have wanted to die four days before Christmas. She would not have wanted to ruin everyone’s holiday. Little did she know that in her passing she gave us a wonderful holiday gift.

We women sat at a local diner having tea. My mother, my aunt Patricia, who we called Trice, and I were waiting to pick up what were rumored to be the best pies in town to bring back to my grieving grandfather. Mom was older and out of the house before Patricia was even a teenager, so this gave them some time to bond.

The only consolation we could think about the timing of this whole thing was that Grandma finally got to spend a Christmas with my Aunt Joanne, her middle daughter, who had died of lupus almost thirty years before.

My grandmother was an amazingly vibrant woman, who right on into her nineties was flying back up north from her beloved retirement community in Sun Lakes, Arizona, to visit us. Not long ago, she had stood in my Pennsylvania kitchen, baking Italian cookies like an artisan, holding out a hand and requesting a sifter full of powdered sugar like a surgeon asking for a scalpel. She was still dragging my grandfather, three years her senior, to dances at the community clubhouse until only a few years ago. She was at the casino playing slots three days before she died. I have photographs.

Joanne, the middle daughter, was smart, headstrong, funny — everybody’s favorite the minute she walked into a room. She was the only one of the girls to go to college, a tall and athletic sister between two petite and more timid girls. She became an English teacher and married her college boyfriend, who whisked her off to Louisiana when he was offered a job as a Shell Oil engineer, where he eventually became a vice president. Joanne was diagnosed with lupus after her first baby, my cousin Addie, was born.

Doctors warned that the disease would progress if she had another baby, so she and my uncle decided to adopt. But she inadvertently got pregnant before the process was completed and called off the adoption. She died before my cousin Davy turned two.

Aunt Trice always claimed to be very sensitive to Joanne’s presence. As we sipped chamomile in our booth at the diner, she described how during multiple stressful events in her life, Joanne appeared to her and told her everything was going to be all right. Joanne confirmed she wasn’t sick anymore. Then after one visit, she told Trice she couldn’t visit anymore, and the visions stopped.

My mother sighed, folding her arms dejectedly. “Why doesn’t anyone come to see me?” she said. “I don’t ever see anything like that! Does that kind of thing ever happen to you, Sue?”

“I don’t see people when I’m awake,” I said. “But sometimes, I’ll talk to people during the day, people who have passed on, and ask them things. When I dream that night, they answer me.”

Mom looked hurt. “I had this dream about Joanne once, but it didn’t make much sense,” she said. “She was running around this 1950s car in a beautiful white dress saying ‘I feel so good, I feel great!’ It was a turquoise ’57 Chevy. She got in the car…”

Trice looked excited. She had trouble getting her sentence out. “That was my car!”

“What?”

“Daddy bought me a teal ’57 Chevy after graduation!”

“I swear I didn’t know that!” Mom gasped.

By the time her younger sisters graduated, my mother was married and struggling with two little kids in a one-bedroom apartment. So, sadly, she wasn’t particularly involved in Patricia’s adolescence.

“It was like this color behind you,” Trice said, pointing out a toothpaste-hued stripe in the wallpaper behind us.

“Yes, and the dress was white with a sash and…”

“And one shoulder with a big bow? And the crinoline…”

“And the crinoline all around!” The two of them made the same gestures of tulle around the bottom of an imaginary skirt, laughing.

“I remember that dress,” said Trice. “She loved that dress. She wore it to a high school dance.”

“I always wondered why she would be running around an old fifties car in a party dress!” My mother bobbed her tea bag in and out of the glass cup, tears coming to her eyes. “Then she showed me her hands.” Lupus caused painful swelling in Joanne’s hands; she did hot paraffin treatments to soothe them. “She said, ‘Look, they’re better!’ ”

The back of my neck started to prickle.

“I hate to tell you this, ladies,” I said, “but I had a dream about Joanne in a car and a white dress, too.”

They put down their cups.

“I was walking along the side of the road, and she pulled up in a white car. It was a tiny, 1970s car, like a Volkswagen Beetle or something. We were both in big white dresses, like we were getting married. The car was filled to the dashboard with dress. We were driving through the mist, into nowhere.”

“And what happened?”

“She was very mysterious. I asked where we were going. She said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s okay.’

“I said, ‘I’m scared.’ She smiled and said, ‘Don’t be.’ ”

I turned to my mom. “Then I asked about you. I said, ‘Can my mother come with us?’ She said no. And that was it.”

Of course, I once interpreted this to mean I would be driven to my death on my wedding day, but that never happened. And understand that, at five years old, I was a flower girl in Joanne’s wedding, where we rode in black and white antique cars instead of limos, in big dresses. So it’s not strange that I would associate these images with her — or that she would choose them to communicate with me, to ease my fears about what happened to her. Because in my youthful paranoia, I was afraid I’d be next to die from lupus.

At the table, the three of us rolled up our sleeves to show the hairs standing up on our arms.

We finished our tea. I felt nearly as drained as the cups. But we three women were united in the knowledge that Joanne had come to each of us. We just hadn’t realized it until that moment when we compared notes. My grandmother’s death had brought us together and allowed us to share these previously private moments. I miss my grandmother and my aunt Joanne terribly. But I can only imagine the beautiful Christmas reunion the two of them had. Perhaps they’ll let the three of us know how it went!

~Suzanne Grieco Mattaboni

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