A Family Resemblance

by Jerri Hurlbutt

“You look just like your sister,” my mother said, as I was leaving her apartment. This was the first time she had ever said this to me. I had just finished dishing her weekly meds in the yellow AM/blue PM plastic pillbox and digging out the blocks of clumped gray from the sides of the cats’ litter box, now bagged and ready for the dumpster down the hall. I needed to be at my own doctor’s appointment five minutes ago and was ten minutes away by car.

“When you were leaving the other day, I caught a glimpse of your face, and the resemblance was striking,” she said. This is how my mother would say it—not “just like hers,” or “looked alike.” She would choose her words to be as precise as the image in her mind; they would fit the memory or situation with the neatness of her folded underwear or the tied-up plastic grocery bags. “The resemblance was striking,” stated like a clinician.

She had been a nurse, still used medical shorthand, like “qd,” as in the daily dose of statin and Tylenol she was to take every day; or the “c” with a line over it, for “with,” as in no need to take the meds with food. Sometimes her unintended version of qd became every other day, the pillbox forgotten, in its usual place on the nightstand, despite my pleas for her to remember to take her meds every morning and night.

“You look like another family member you never knew,” she said. I stood there with the double-bagged load of cat-pissed clay pulling at my shoulders. One cat was diabetic, drank a lot of water every day.

“Do you even remember what she looked like?” I asked, stopped by her comment. “I’ll never forget her face,” she said. “She lay on my chest right after she was born, the entire day.”

I put the bags down. “How long did she live? I thought it was just a few hours.”

“Oh, no, most of a day, maybe just part of a day. She died the day she was born.”

“You look just like your sister” haunted me all the way down the hallway. I wouldn’t know whether this statement is true or not; I never saw her, dead or alive. She was born four years after my birth. She was the last fetus to remain in my mother’s body long enough to resemble an infant, albeit one with lungs the size of a small fish, not large enough to sustain her miniature human form beyond that one, precious day. The next full-grown infants to arrive in the family came seven and nine years later, three-month-old monster-sized boys by comparison, both born from young mothers who couldn’t care for them and never saw them again.

Later, when my brothers and I were adults, people would say to the older one, “You look just like your sister.” He and I would grin with our secret that we were, in fact, not biologically related. Only the well-worn (or not worn so well) habits of family history were our common link. No genes, no chromosomes, no chemistry, no DNA. We were the biological byproducts of two entirely different male–female dyads, raised even with different fathers; my only and their adoptive father, who died when the boys were one and three years old, and their second father, my mother’s second husband. The naive “You look just like your sister” or “You look just like your brother” we simply took as compliments. As a baby, my brother was mistaken so many times for the Gerber baby advertised on the baby food label that my mother learned to use a quick “Thank you,” along with with a shove of the grocery cart, to get her and her celebrity son out the door in time to get home and make dinner. As an adult, I was described as “a looker.” For my brother and me, nurture was our bond, until nature didn’t matter any more—we were simply brother and sister.

Friends suggested that my mother’s comment about my dead sister’s and my resemblance was the result of an aging mind—they were too polite to use the word “dementia.” But aging minds can steer toward other types of confusion: my paternal grandmother, as she got older, claimed that we were related to President Lincoln, through Mary Todd Lincoln. She had been heading in this direction for many years, through her genealogical research, and her search for ever more inductees into the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), claiming in middle age that we were related to Lafayette. As a younger woman, she, too, had lost an infant, her second son. He died from overmedication for scarlet fever. She and my grandfather lived on a farm in the hills of Missouri in the 1930s, left to fend off drought and death with the limited resources of poverty and a doctor’s ignorance. Her infant son died before he could be photographed. Her only visual reminder of him was a photograph of a child whose real identity she never knew. She saw the picture in a newspaper and clipped it out, saving it for the rest of her life. In her encyclopedic genealogy of her husband’s family, this photo appears, with the name “Waldo.” She adopted the image of another infant because he “looked just like” her son. The unnamed child in the photo, fading from wear and age, looks as if he were taking his last breath.

“I would never forget her face,” my mother said with a smile, as if content that she had brought her second birth child, absent for so many years from family conversations and memory, back into the fold, of her now four children. The price my mother paid to remember that face was to live—her appendix burst while pregnant with that second daughter, and she nearly died herself. Not yet fully out of a coma, she heard my father, the stoic farmer, weeping at the bedside, the sound pulling her back from the brilliant light she claims to have seen.

“The resemblance is striking”—of what? Not a photo, but a memory of being face to face with her fragile infant for less than a day, a face I will never see. There is no photo of my sister, and no replacement photo either. She is my mother’s memory that I will never meet, yet is etched on my face, unrecognizable in the mirror, a child forever related to me.

  1. nwolitzer says:

    This piece is so wonderful and glad that it is part of Manhattanlinear.com. Reading this I care so much for you and your mother. I am so moved.


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