Growing up, our flat was small, with creaking floorboards and walls that seemed to suffocate us, but you tried your best to make it a home. The sofa was second-hand, soft and worn, and the dining table was jammed into the kitchen so we couldn’t pull half of the chairs out. I had to clamber across boxes of books and records that you clung to from your youth to get to the bathroom. I grew used to it, though, because everything here was cramped. I walked by the crumbling tenements and convenience stores to get to school.
Friends of mine lived in council houses, accepted free school dinners, and struggled through life on government welfare. We got by fine most of the time – dad painted houses and you were a waitress in a cafe near the train station. You weren’t Scottish, and so I suspected you always felt like an outsider. People mimicked the small American-isms of your ways, the fashion in which you styled your hair and carried yourself as if people were waiting in anticipation to pick out any single flaw. Vultures circling. You shut yourself off because of them. You didn’t understand what happened to the world, didn’t understand the women in trousers and skimpy dresses the girls my age would wear on Friday nights. You said that it was better, the fresh start society needed, but I was never convinced you believed any of it.
I heard tales, when I was younger, of you fleeing your hometown back in America with dad. I think it was a long time coming. Your mother gave birth to you at seventeen, a young girl terrified at the height of the recession. I don’t think she ever truly figured out how to love a child. There was always a lingering guilt within you. The belief that your mere existence was detrimental to the happiness of your other was one you held early.
When you smiled, crinkles formed around your eyes. You liked to have a warm bath at night, but you always got out before your fingers started to wrinkle. I made sure to note these things, because I knew no one else had ever made the effort to do so. I believe that there was a certain romance to be found in the pages of history books, in the guilt and repression of the 1940s.
I was raised in a world without rules. I think you were a little jealous of me for that. In small town Pennsylvania, you were never given the luxury of being a person. You lived in a grand estate where the backyard seemed to stretch for miles, the sort of place an heiress would be raised. Sometimes, I could tell how taken aback you still were by the stark contrast of our flat, with its low ceilings and cluttered bedrooms.
Your mother wanted you to be proper and ladylike no matter what. There were dinner parties and boyfriends you couldn’t stand, mornings spent in church and modest jumpers that surely would have made you itch. Maybe your mother wanted to turn her life around and you were merely a casualty in that choice. You were never allowed to play outside; the moment you turned eleven, your childhood was over.
When I was a teenager, I spent my summers drinking with friends under the night sky’s warm embrace. We were a generation abandoned, wrapped up in something much bigger than ourselves. We perpetuated the myths of teenage irresponsibility and looked into the eyes of powers much bigger than we could ever fathom just to tell them to get lost. For a split second in human history, between the wars and oppression but before the age of cell phones and human disconnection, we were free.
When you were a teenager, you smoked cigarettes in your backyard and longed for revolution. There was a war going on and what was there left for the women to do but wait? Wait, as we always had, for the men to rescue us. There was a system back then and you wanted to banish it.
I think people missed the system when I was young. Everyone wanted to rebel but no one knew how – there was no system left to destroy because our mothers had done it for us. All that was left was mini-skirts, liquor and poverty. I always got the sense that you thought I was a bit soft for that; not hardened by any horror on my doorstep.
Maybe it’s for the best, though, that I didn’t go through any of that. All that you were left with as an adult was a diminishing sense of rebellion and a longing to return to the world that you had fought so hard to move on from. I suppose that can happen sometimes. When you were young, you wanted things to change; once you were grown, you wanted them to go back. You were a relic of a decade gone and I don’t think you ever expected to be left behind when the world made the change you were so desperate for.
The town you grew up in is a ghost town now. I think that something in it held onto you until the end and now that you’re gone it lies forgotten and forlorn, as if waiting for someone to make it a home. They say they’re going to knock it down. ‘If something serves no purpose then it must die’ seems to be the mantra of the progressive these days, and I used to agree. Out with the old, in with the new, all that rubbish. But then you died and I realised the rule wasn’t restricted to towns and regimes.
Your funeral was awful, by the way. I mean, the decorations were very classy and I wore my nicest black dress, the one you bought for me on one of our trips to Edinburgh. Dad said it wasn’t appropriate, ‘too many sequins’, but I didn’t listen to him. Your casket was behind a red velvet curtain and, when I saw that, I was filled with such rage for dad, for the priest, for the funeral director, for everyone who took away my final chance to say goodbye. I could visit your grave, keep photographs, but it wouldn’t be the same. To stand with you, to be close to you one final time, was something I craved.
On the night of the funeral, dad told me something I wish I could forget. He let slip that once, your aunt drunkenly told you that when your mother was pregnant, she tried to throw herself down a flight of stairs. When you were nineteen, you left your home and never looked back, left your mother behind to wallow in regret and self-pity. You had trained for that ever since you were a child, prepared yourself for a life without her. You kept your distance. But I never anticipated having to do that – I never wanted to exist without you. I liked that I was a reminder, no matter how much you missed your youth, stuck out in a world you no longer understood, you succeeded. The world moved on.
The end of a millennium looms and I’m glad you aren’t here to see it. With you, everything was grounded. You were shackled to your past and I think that you were holding me back with you. Your death was the catalyst for the whirlwind I live in; the world has picked up its pace.
I refuse to let your efforts go to waste, because I hold a precious future in the palms of my hands and I’ve never seen the appeal in breaking things.