In the Shadow of My SisterWife

The wives of polygamists refer to themselves as “sister-wives”. I think this is meant to impose a familial feel to circumstances that could easily dissolve into something competitive and downright ugly were it not for the veneer of a pseudo-relationship that the term implies. Despite my own negative views on the subject of plural marriage, I wonder if the term doesn’t more aptly describe my relationship with Shelley than any other.

Shelley was my husband Rob’s wife. She died of melanoma eight months after my first husband, Will, back in 2006. She would be 47 years old now had she lived. Just a few months older than Rob is, and he never let her forget it. Now he must contend with being older then I am by a couple of years, and I am not sure why I think this, but I’ll bet Shelley is enjoying that particular turn of the table.

When I stop to ponder Shelley, Rob, myself and the circumstances that bind us, I know I could write a novel that would set me on Oprah’s sofa in a heartbeat. But life is not a book of the month, at least not this life the three of us now share. We live/exist and navigate waters no one ever presented as happily ever after options to us when we were young. We find our way partly by instinct but mostly based on the cumulative experiences that make up who we are. Anyway, I am not certain I am accomplished enough to find the words necessary, craft the sentences and paragraphs that would explain us, or if I could, that I would really want to, so I tell our story in bits and pieces on blogs and in short fiction. The pain of putting it on the screen or paper and sharing almost equal the joy found when it connects with someone who reads it.

I live in the house that Shelley called home. The colors on the wall and the decor are hers. The garden out back is the one she designed, which Rob dutifully spent hours creating for her, and the planters all around the front and back grew the flowers she planted. The next door neighbor was her very good friend and sang at her memorial.

Now the home decorations disappear, or are replaced, and Rob and I tend the garden together. The planters overflow in the warm months with blooms my daughter picked out, and she has adopted Shelley’s dear friend, following Charlotte around as she gardens and visiting via the back porch door which is nearly always open to her.

There is a room in the basement that until our recent garage sale was crammed almost to the ceiling with things that mostly belonged to Shelley once, and what wasn’t there sat on shelves and in cabinets and hung in closets upstairs and down. I helped her daughters go through those boxes of her clothes and what they didn’t want I sorted for donations, idly wondering if it was too creepy to claim the walking shorts I am certain would have fit me had I worked up the courage to try them on.

The kitchen is more mine now than Shelley’s, but there are still elements of her there. In the spice rack and mixed in with the dried goods and unidentifiable remnants of canning days of yore. In the dining room her piano still sits in the corner, silent but for the few times my younger step-daughter has sat down to it. And the valance that perfectly matches the earth toned wall will probably remain for new occupants to someday find.

The bed where Rob and I sleep and make love was the place of similar activities when Shelley was alive and still well. That last part doesn’t cross my mind much at all truthfully, but when it does it certainly gives a surreal twist to things. I wonder if she was attracted to the same things about him that I am despite the fact that she met him when he was just seventeen and still more boy than man, and I met the 45 year old man she was instrumental in him becoming.

Shelley’s birthday always fell on or around Mother’s Day every year and, as is common when one’s birthday falls too close to a major gift-giving holiday, she got more than her share of combination gifts. Something she couldn’t abide. Something I can relate to as well because my friends and family have tended over the years to lump my birthday with Christmas whenever they could get away with it. As Rob was telling me how much it annoyed her, it occurred to me that from this point on, I will share this holiday with Shelley in much the same way I share my birthday with Jesus Christ. Our daughters have a common father in Rob, but though I might likely be grandmother to her children’s children someday, I will not be a mother to her daughters in the same way that Rob fathers my little girl. Much as I might love and care for their happiness and welfare, she made them and I am merely a caretaker of that legacy. One that she didn’t have a hand in choosing. An awesome task and a privilege nonetheless, and I wonder all the time if I am doing a good enough job, or if she would approve.

I wonder sometimes too if I had known Shelley would we have been friends. I don’t think so – though Rob disagrees – because I don’t make friends easily, especially with outgoing people and judging by her oldest daughter, Farron, who takes after her, I think Shelley was quite extroverted. I know she was deeply committed to her ideals and values whereas I am still figuring most of mine out again. I don’t think I will ever love recycling to the point where I will store styrofoam meat trays in my shed for three years, and then move them across an international border with me to ensure they are recycled. Which is what Shelley did when she discovered that the recycling program in Kansas was not as comprehensive as the one in Calgary. Nor will I ever find composting anything other than yukky.

A farm girl, Shelley was handy in the outdoors and loved to hike and camp. She climbed mountains and would have been thrilled with the wedding invitation Rob and I recently received from her nephew. He is planning to fly wedding guests to the top of a mountain via helicopter where the adventurous ones can ski down after the ceremony with the new couple. My stomach hurts just thinking about it. As an asthmatic with more allergies than should be humanly possible, I am more liability in any woodsy situation than not. Skiing down the Rockies is outside my adventure zone.

Still, we both found love in Rob which suggests some mutual ground I have yet to discover though Rob related to me that Shelley and I have common ground in weight struggles. And he finds my concerns now, and hers of long ago, a bit mystifying. Like me Shelley was a fitness nut who made eating healthy a priority. Weight, gaining or losing, is somewhat of a stereotypical female bonding ground (of course it is also a source of much friction as well), but I think that chunky girls who become fit women are of similar mindsets.

And Shelley dreamed of being a writer. Rob still has a young adult manuscript that she wrote when they lived in the United States back in the nineties. Love of words on the page and the longing to have them read is something I know well. In some ways, it even transcends our mutual love of the same husband.

Sisters do not choose each other. They are born into families and learn to co-exist. Sometimes quite happily and lovingly. Sometimes not at all. More often than not such relationships fall somewhere in between mutual understanding and merely a shared heritage. Shelley and I did not choose each other. Rob chose us. First her and then me. Though today I feel that I have a life that is all my own, it still owes something to the foundations laid by this not quite sister of mine who I know only from the stories and actions of my husband and step-daughters. In my earliest days here on the Canadian prairie where I live in the abandoned shell of another woman’s life, I felt a presence that I can’t say for sure was hers but that seemed to be studying and watching. It was neither welcoming nor repelling. Just there. I haven’t felt that for a while. Perhaps I have been judged and found adequate. I choose to think so.

This was an original anniegirl1138 post reworked for 50 Something Moms.

3 thoughts on “In the Shadow of My SisterWife

  1. Thank you for offering such an insightful and pragmatic view on a situation that matches mine entirely. You have given me lots to reflect on.

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