Once upon a time … No, this is not a fairy tale; in fact, every word I recount is the absolute truth. Believe it or not; the choice is yours.
When my parents married, they moved from Ohio to western New York. A few years later, Mom’s mother, Laura, came to visit because I was about to be born. She had left her elderly mother, Etta, at home with other relatives because Etta’s health prevented her from traveling. Unfortunately, Grandma Laura got a phone call that Etta had a stroke and was unconscious. They did not expect her to live long, so Laura cut her visit short and returned to Ohio.
In those days, it was not unusual for people to remain at home and die in their own beds, so that was where Etta was. When Laura walked in the house, Uncle Bill told her that Etta had never regained consciousness but Laura wanted to sit by her mother’s bedside for a little while.
As she sat down next to the bed, Etta opened her eyes and told Laura she was happy that my mother had a girl and wasn’t Marilyn a pretty name but it was a shame about the birth mark. Actually, I had not been born when Laura left New York, so she did not know I was a girl. Etta died that evening. She did not know that my parents planned to name me Mary Agnes in honor of my dad’s baby sister. She did not know that the birthmark, which was commonly called a Port Wine stain, did not appear until I was almost a week old. It took eighteen months of radiation treatments to remove this growth that would have blinded me and covered most of my face.
The story does not end there.
When I was fifteen and studying for final exams, I came home from school exhausted and fell asleep. I slept until about two in the morning. Hungry because I had not eaten any dinner, I went to the kitchen and made a sandwich. Because I was wide awake and loved to read, I sat at the table reading for quite a while. Finally, I decided to go back to bed.
As I walked into my bedroom, I pushed the door closed and laid down. Then I heard my name called. I responded with “What?” because I thought it was my mother calling. Again I heard my name and again I responded with “What?” When my name was called the third time, I opened the door expecting to see my mother but no one was there.
Thinking my mother had wandered into the kitchen or living room, I went looking for her. The house was quiet. I peeked into my mother’s room and she was in bed asleep, so I returned to my room.
As I closed my door, my name was called for the fourth time. Aloud, I said, “Etta?” I don’t know why I said that or why I thought that this was my great-grandmother. She then told me that she wanted me to live with her and would return in September to get me. Now, until this moment, I had no reason to be afraid of a woman who died before I was born. I had heard many stories about her and did not picture her as an axe murderess.
Being told that I was going to die soon was not anything I ever wanted to hear; however, I said nothing about this to anyone. Summer came and quickly gave way to fall. I knew my time here on earth was about to end.
One morning I walked into the kitchen and my mother asked me if I wanted to hear about her dream the previous night. She always had weird dreams so I told her no but she went on with her dissertation.
It seems that she, accompanied by both my grandmother Laura who had died a few months earlier, and Etta were looking at a house that was for sale. Laura and my mother went upstairs while Etta stayed downstairs examining closets and cupboards. When they returned to the first floor they found Etta in the living room where she had started a fire on the living room floor.
Laura admonished her mother, asking if she was trying to burn down the house, to which Etta calmly replied, “If that’s the way you feel, tell Marilyn she doesn’t have to live with me.”
My mother had no idea what Etta was talking about so I explained what had happened months earlier. Obviously, for whatever reason, Etta had changed her mind about me living with her.
Regardless of how you interpret this story, it happened just this way. I offer no explanations but it has remained a favorite family story since then.