Monday, October 21, 2013

No Man is an Island

     I stayed last week in my sister’s lakeside cottage down the hill from her house. The cozy four-room cottage was built in the 1940’s from lumber salvaged from Galloping Gertie and is furnished with many things salvaged from our childhood home.  Some mornings I awoke to sweet October sunlight and sat at my parent’s old black and yellow dinette set eating toast and jam. I could see across the rippled water, past the island in the middle of the lake to the honey-colored maples lining the opposite shore. I stepped out onto the chilly porch with my steaming mug of tea to listen to the chatter of birds and watch the college crews practicing for Sunday’s regatta.

     But most mornings were swamped with fog and I could see no further than the restless edge of the lake. Heavy-cloaked cloud-wraiths haunted the sober shores and shrouded the island. Quicksilver sketched the lacework of spider’s webs outside my windows and dripped from the eaves. I thought about the handful of island commuters and wondered how they would find a way over the water through the webs of fog to the boat launch. On those days the cottage felt lonely, and I would slog my way up the hill through the wet grass to eat breakfast with my sister and her dog. Then, nearly every day from breakfast until dinner, we washed, ironed, dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed and polished the rooms in her house. After caring for our parents and her father-in-law, who all passed away in less than a year, she had fallen behind—the kind of behind that feels like an insurmountable burden.

     My older sister is a capable woman—we often call her the queen—but she was wise and weary enough to accept help. She has helped so many others, including me, it was simply her turn.

     That island floating outside her front windows in calm or cloudy weather reminded me of an excerpt from a poem by John Donne:

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

     In our case the continent is family. However imperfectly, we look out for one another. We care for one another. We believe that we were Providentially placed together and are willing to put aside our own interests in order to serve one another. It isn’t a duty. It isn’t a burden. It is the purest kind of love.

     I realize that not all families function this way, that there are lonely, desert-island souls who are fortressed and steel-plated against the pain in relationships; but that only makes ours the more precious, a treasure that shouldn’t be squandered.

For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands…
(Or, scrub stovetops with one’s hands)

                                                     ~ mostly Christina Rossetti ~


  1. Every line sounded heavenly. I felt that I was there seeing you both. This kind of fall housecleaning is what women used to do, helping each other in turn, talking while they worked. Having three sisters myself, I could imagine us doing the same thing if needed, and it probably will be some day. As two of my sisters live close to where our mother is in a nursing home, I know that the responsibility they gladly carry out nevertheless depletes their energy and resources. I'm sure that as you two worked together your sister felt some of your personal company strengthening her.

  2. I love this beautiful story about lovely that she will accept your help and that you are there to give it. That foggy little island makes me think of the island in the middle of the lake in front of my childhood home in Deerwood, Minnesota. It was a mysterious little island, not quite safe enough to walk upon without sinking into it...