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They all sat quietly in the drawing room, a rest after the constant talk of Albert’s impending return from the trenches. Young Samuel trying to read the paper with his father, mother knitting, and Liv with a book her in hands. Yet Liv’s eyes were fixated not on the pages of her Elizabeth Cady Stanton novel but on the gripping eyes staring at her from the mantle.
The chocolate brown doe eyes belonged to Liv’s older sister, Lydia. Though the photo was dominated by the sparkling pearls and overflowing wedding veil, it was Lydia’s eyes that entranced Liv. Clutching the bouquet, legs uncrossed; there was something the dress’s embroidery and the hat’s flamboyancy couldn’t hide. Liv couldn’t help but sense an insecurity or guilt, as though Lydia was scared or ashamed.
Not able to bear the tortured eyes, Liv leaped up and ripped the photo from its frame. As she ran towards the stair case her mother pounced up and grabbed for the photo, tearing off a corner. Running from her mother’s howls of “Olivia!” Liv retreated to the library. She relieved her eyes from the photo as she reminisced about the sister she would never see again.
Her mother had sent her to tell Lydia it was lunch time but she looked so content Liv didn’t want to disturb her admired, older sister. She was sitting next to her favorite bright orange flowers, reading The Awakening with her body directly under the sun’s rays. After finishing a chapter, Lydia closed her book, lifted her face to the light, and belted out a tune.
She was quickly silenced by the furious approach of her mother. “Get your nose out of that book and head out of the clouds; hurry Mrs. Dashire is here for lunch! How long will you keep your future mother-in-law waiting? And what are you doing out here without a parasol!” Fumbling with her book, Lydia acquiesced.
Following her mother to the patio, she asked why there were three places set at the table. Her mother snarled, “Because we can’t afford you messing this up. You’re already 22; there are not many suitors out there for you and especially few whose fathers are potential business partners for your dad”.
Lydia said nothing during the lunch, except when prodded by her mother. Whenever she answered a question that required an opinion, her eyes nervously darted down to her tea cup. As she listened as the two women planned her future, she nervously fiddled with a long strand of her luscious, dark hair. It caught Mrs. Dashire’s attention and inspired her to ask how Lydia’s hair would be done on her wedding day. Her mother automatically replied that it would be half up and the other half down in a waterfall of curls. Unexpectedly Lydia timidly chimed in, “Actually, I was thinking of cutting it, perhaps a bob. I’ve just been feeling like such an imitation Gibson Girl”.
For a moment her mother was frozen in shock and rage, but then through gritted teeth she replied in as calm a tone as possible, “Exactly. How else will people know I’ve raised you into a proper woman?” The tension was eased slightly once Mrs. Dashire complimented Lydia’s locks and suggested her hair was placed in two buns on either side of her head. Both Lydia and her mother felt inclined to agree.
The next week Liv accompanied her mother and Lydia to Lydia’s wedding dress fitting. The design, of course, was their mother’s. However, the dress didn’t fit Lydia properly. The hem to short, stomach to loose, and sleeves to tight, she struggled against her mother’s design. Faced with her uncomfortable reflection in the mirror Lydia uncontrollably blurted out, “I want to go to college”. Hesitating for an instant, she continued, “I’ve been accepted to Oberlin, mother. You must have known this; you always go through my mail. They loved my writing”. Her mother’s cold eyes pierced her. “Mother, I have so much to say. When I write it’s like my soul sings and then it resonates in other’s hearts and minds”. As her mother yelled and yelled Lydia released one last pathetic plea, “Please don’t make me do this”. Defeated, Lydia began to cry just as the tailor reentered the room. Innocently she chuckled, “I’ll never tire of the happy tears of a bride in her wedding dress”. Eyes down, lips tight, Lydia mustered a frigid nod of agreement.
Lydia drifted through the following weeks, not living her life but merely existing in the orchestrated moments. She mindlessly packed and practiced her vows. Even during her stolen moments in the garden she would not sing but rather would hum, almost mumbling. Not till she stared into a photographer’s lens did she flicker awake.
Her mother had been fretting over the wedding photo since it would be on the mantle for all to see. Just as the photographer snapped the picture Lydia thought of her darling, idealistic sister being bombarded with the image of her role model giving in. She betrayed her aspirations and principles, and thus her sister. And the proof would be atop the fireplace, a constant reminder, for Liv to look up at.
Hit by German U-boats in early May of 1915, Lydia died aboard the Lusitania and drifted quietly into the sea and out of the world. Perhaps Lydia could have broken free since it was still early in the marriage. But Liv knew she wouldn’t have. Somehow that sad reality made Lydia’s death less tragic to her. Ignited, Liv shoved the photo into one of her sister’s favorite books. Turning away from humming, she was ready to warble, roar, and carol her way through the world, and set it all ablaze.