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Memory, Family & Memoir

Several years ago I started writing a memoir about my time as a member of a Catholic lay institute run by a priest who abused the members. I didn't tell my sister about the memoir. After I left the institute, I told her about the abuse. She was worried about the effect on the Church if I revealed what had happened. I was angry she put the Church first. I didn't want to hear her do it again.

Almost ten years separate my sister and me and we don't have other siblings. When the 1940 census was made public, I called up the listing for Cleveland, Ohio. There my parents were, living at an address on the east side of Cleveland. I was startled to see my sister's name—Kathleen, age three—as if she couldn't be alive if I wasn't.

When I was born, my family had already moved to the house I remember, the one on West 98th Street with the two old Chinese elms in the backyard, the grey wallpaper with cabbage roses going up the stairs, and the claw-foot tub. My sister's bedroom had yellow walls and her door was usually closed.

It's not unusual for siblings, especially ones so far apart in age, to have different memories of their parents, almost as if they grew up in different families. My sister and I are are no exception. And we came of age in such different decades—she in the prosperous 1950s, I, turning 21 in 1967, so that I was a teenager both in the early '60s, that odd stepchild of the '50s, and in the tumultuous years that followed Kennedy's assassination. We had different dreams. She would be a wife and mother. I would be a teaching nun.

Now we couldn't be more different. She is an ardent Catholic. I lost my faith just before I left the institute. She watches Fox News and keeps Ronald Reagan's book against abortion on a dresser. I think Obama's a conservative and have never told her I'm pro-choice. I divorced and remarried. She and my brother-in-law were married over 50 years when he died. She has five children and didn't work outside the home. I have a daughter and two stepsons and went back to work when my daughter was a year old. Family members often overcome differences like this and stay in touch. We did, too, talking by phone about once a month. We avoided our differences and never talked about our mother.

The memoir took over my life. Talking to her on the phone one day, I slipped. The pause was long, as if her words had to walk the miles from Ohio to Oregon. She said, “You aren't planning to write about our family, are you?” I said I couldn't tell the story if I didn't and that the abuse of 40 women by a priest was an important story. She laughed one of her small, nervous laughs. “I hope you're not saying anything bad about me.” I thought about how simple life would be if anything that happened between two human beings could be reduced to one word. “Maybe we should wait to talk about this,” I said.

It was her turn to call, but she didn't. When I called her, she said she was having chest pains and had a stress EKG scheduled the next day. She promised to let me know the results the day after the test, but she didn't. A heart attack killed our mother and several of our uncles. I left messages and sent emails. I lay awake at 3:00 a. m. telling myself one of my nieces or nephews would call if something was wrong. Several days later, my sister called, said she'd been wrong not to call me, but that she was angry that I was going to write about our family.

In an email, she gave me an ultimatum. I could write about our mother—she wouldn't be happy but her children were grown up and my book couldn't affect their memories of their grandmother. If I wrote about her, she'd be hurt. But if I wrote about my brother-in-law, she'd be very angry and might not be able to stay in contact with me. She wouldn't have time to decide until the new year, she had so much to do for the holidays She didn't want to exchange presents.

Christmas came and went. My sister is notorious for making decisions slowly. February 11th was the anniversary of my brother-in-law's death. I decided I'd give her till the end of the month. Then I sent an email saying I couldn't wait anymore, that she was my sister and I loved her, but the story was an important one, and I had to tell it no matter what her decision was.

The book is finished now. My sister and I haven't spoken for three years. I'm 68. She's almost 78. The time we have left is much less than the time we've lived. She's the only one left who has known me from the beginning, but I've written the story as I understand it and I would write it again.

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