Evelyn Mae was born in 1942 in Mississippi. She was the sixth child of Tinie and Clora; however she was the first girl (who lived), and so everyone called her Sister. She was my aunt, my Mama’s older sister. In 1942, most women would have put Sister away in a nursing home or state school, but not my Grandma – she loved and cared for Sister until 1971 when the Lord took Grandma home.
Sister was born with mental retardation and physical disfigurements which included lobster claw hand deformities and a cleft lip & palate (my parents were able to have the cleft lip & palate fixed sometime in the late 70s). While Sister’s body grew to adult size over the years, her mental state remained that of an 18-month-old baby throughout her life. She wore diapers from the day she was born until the day she died and never developed the capacity to walk. She did, however, learn to crawl and pull herself up in a chair, she learned to show emotions by laughing, smiling, crying, and screaming, and she learned to say “Mama.”
I remember that sometime after Grandma died, Grandpa came to live with us – Mama, Daddy, me & my two sisters. Mama had us three girls, ages 5, 3, and 1, plus Grandpa (who would often pass out expectantly) to care for, so Sister was placed in a nursing home nearby. Mama went to visit her often, making sure she was cared for, but after Grandpa died in 1973, Sister came to live with us. (Over the years, we did have help from my aunt & uncle who took turns keeping Sister, too.)
The day Mama brought her home, she had a sore on her foot that was rotting her skin and muscle away. The nursing home had tied Sister to her rocking chair, which was tied to the doorknob in her room – these measures designed to keep Sister from crawling around and “bothering” other people in the home. Sister didn’t know she was bothering other people any more than a baby would; she loved people.
My freshman year of high school, Sister went to the state home. I wish I could tell you that it was difficult for me without her there, but honestly as a teenager I was relieved that we would no longer have to endure the stares of strangers when we went shopping or to Astroworld or when my parents brought her to see me act in my high school’s theatre production of Guys & Dolls and she yelled out when she saw me. I no longer had to worry that I would need to change a diaper if Mama was sick (even though this was a very rare occurrence anyway). I wouldn’t have to give her a wide birth when she was angry and slapping everything within reach.
I didn’t realize at the time that I would also no longer hear her laughter, loud & uninhibited as only a young child can laugh. I didn’t realize I would no longer be able to sit in her lap and let her pat my head as if I was her baby doll. I didn’t realize the guilt Mama would feel for making the decision to place her in the state school. I didn’t realize how much resilience I had learned from all those years of people staring at us. I didn’t realize how I would regret not having appreciated the sacrifice Mama made, first taking care of Sister with three young daughters, then placing Sister in the state school so she could be there for her teenage daughters.
I hold a teaching certificate, a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree. I’ve traveled around the world. Yet I don’t believe I’ve ever done anything that rivals what Grandma and Mama did, taking care of Sister for 44 years.
This post is part of Sian's Storytelling Sunday series. To read more stories, click here.
(Don't forget, I'll be passing on the Good Mail Day book in a few days. Leave a comment on this post if you'd like to be in the drawing.)