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Dear Abby | JC Lockhart

There are things my mother didn’t tell Abby. She didn’t write about my sister or the nanny. She didn’t mention the night light or my imaginary friends. She ignored the fevers and the funeral.


I was never afraid of the dark. There were no monsters in my closet or under the bed. Still, I slept with a nightlight. It made the pressing isolation of the night bearable. The dark seemed to emphasize the empty space in the room; it felt vast, as if within the walls of my room a whole universe existed in which I was the only person. With the light on, I could pretend the little flicker was a fairy, telling me stories throughout the night. So, every night before I crawled into bed, I flipped the little switch of the night light and began to build a world full of people in my head. But, eventually, I always ran out of stories.


When the comfort of fairy tales wore off, I would tiptoe to my parents' room. The sliver of light seeping from the nursery into the hall reached just to the corner. From there, the dark began to press into me and I ran to my parents’ door. It must have been this burst of movement that alerted my parents of my roaming. By the time I opened the door, my mother was already awake and turned to me.


“What’s wrong, Wendy? Are you alright?” Her voice was always hushed, so as not to wake my father.


“I’m fine.” Even then I was a gifted liar. “Just wanted to say hello.”


“You have to go to bed, Wendy. Mama’s tired.”


With a sigh, she would gracefully slide out of bed. She did everything like that, gracefully. She hadn’t danced since she had given birth to Alice but every move looked as if she were gliding across a stage. Every night she ushered me into my room, it felt like the opening night of a grand ballet. We would glisser through the shadows. I would hold her hand as tight as I could, unprepared for the moment she let go. This happened night after night for weeks.


I think what confused my parents was how long it took for me to develop this habit. That’s why they never realized the root of the problem. It wasn’t until months after the funeral that the dark began to seep into my spirit. I had cried all the tears my eyes could hold, the sadness washed from my body. But the cleansing of my grief left room for an emptiness that I had never felt more acutely. My mother, on the other hand, had long pushed her grief down.  At least, that’s what I thought at the time. I understand now that she never got over the death of my sister.


My sister and I had been close. She was my best friend. My only friend. We had always been isolated children. Raised by a nanny, tutored at a private school, hidden behind a white picket fence. There weren’t many kids in our neighborhood and we were both often sick. After Alice died, fevers continued to burn my skin and I was trapped in the nursery for much of the day. I played with imaginary friends day and night, seeking to fill the places my sister left behind. My imaginary friends stayed with me longer than most children. I talked to myself long into my teenage years, and it wasn’t until I moved to college that I broke the habit. Not until then did I feel I had anyone to talk to.


The lock my parents placed on the door after my mother wrote to Abby only led me to withdraw further from the world. At dinner with my parents, I became silent, and I noticed for the first time how quiet my parents had also become. For years, the only sound in the house was the humming of the nanny. I spoke only when spoken to and this trait was further ingrained into me with the praises I received from adults. She’s so mature for her age, they said. So I remained quiet and friendless.


I found the newspaper clipping after my father’s death. I was back home for the first time since leaving for college. My mother and I were going through boxes of miscellaneous items looking for a specific photo. My mother insisted that he should be buried with it. It was a photo of the four of us, but shortly after Alice’s death, my mother had packed up all the pictures of my sister, including the one she wanted my father buried with. The newspaper clipping fell out from a thick stack of photos. I read it over, memories of those bleak nights resurfacing. My mother had signed the letter as No Privacy. I scoffed; no privacy at home so she sent off a letter for the entire country to read in a newspaper advice column. Abby had replied logically. Place a lock on the door, she had written. 


“What’s wrong?” My mother asked.


I handed her the newspaper clipping.


“Ahh,” My mother said. “I was so thankful that she responded. Abby was a godsend.”


“Do you really think her advice helped?” I could feel my voice beginning to rise.


My mother looked up from the newspaper, surprised.


“I just wanted some privacy.”


“And I wanted company. I hated the nursery with all its empty spaces left bare after Alice died.” I said. 


Neither of us had spoken Alice’s name aloud since her passing. It seemed to ring out in the room, a ghost emphasized by the lack of presence. My mother placed the clipping back into the box and turned her back to me. She was quiet for a moment. When she spoke I could hear the strain in her voice.


"I just wanted to cry in peace. I didn't want you to see me weak. That is why I wanted my privacy," she said.


She walked out of the room. I could hear her rummaging somewhere else in the house. A few minutes later the kettle whistled, and I took that as my cue to follow my mother into the kitchen. The room smelled of ginger and lemon when I entered. It was a smell I had always associated with my mother, but also with Alice. My mother watched the steam curling from her mug, without acknowledging me. I grabbed a mug of my own and poured the remaining water from the kettle over a tea bag.


“I guess it’s just us now,” I said.


“Hmm.” There was a moment of silence. “Your father asked about you before he passed. You should have visited us.”


“I thought you wanted privacy,” I said, immediately regretting the remark.


We spent the rest of the day avoiding each other, going through boxes in separate rooms. By the time I found the photo, the sun had set. I crept through the house looking for my mother. She sat on her bed, the door to her room wide open. After hesitating for a moment, I sank into the soft mattress next to her. When she looked at me, her eyes were red and puffy. I handed her the photo. She held it like a wounded bird. Her body shook, and I embraced her. She felt frail in my arms.


“I’m sorry.”

I’m not sure which one of us said it first, but it didn’t matter. The words echoed between us like a sorrowful song played on a loop.


JC Lockhart is on a journey to rediscover her love of writing. She hopes to continue to hone her craft and share the many stories she dreams up. She lives in Austin, where she works at the University of Texas.


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