One of the running plotlines throughout the series has been the ongoing friction between sisters Mary and Edith. In this episode, Mary makes a vicious remark at the luncheon table that destroys Edith's chance of happiness with the man who has asked her to marry him. The two get into a nasty fight and, after calling her sister a bitch, Edith leaves for London.
In the end, though, with the encouragement of their grandmother (the wonderful Maggie Smith), the sisters make up (or at least come to a bit of a truce). Edith returns to Downton Abbey for Mary's wedding, and Mary asks why she's come.
“Because in the end, you’re my sister,” says Edith. “And one day, only we will remember Sybil. Or Mama or Papa. Or Matthew or Michael. Or Granny or Carson. Or any of the others who have peopled our youth. Until at last our shared memories will mean more than our mutual dislike.”
The episode ended on a poignant note, with the three children of the three Crawley sisters -- George (Mary), Sibbie (Sybil) and Marigold (Edith) -- frolicking in the cemetery outside the church where the wedding had just taken place, right beside Sybil's grave. Sybil died post-childbirth from a seizure caused by eclampsia. Life goes on, one generation passes, the next one grows up to take its place...
Edith's words reminded me of an old Ann Landers column about bickering siblings that had made an impression on me years ago (for reasons I'll explain in a minute), and I eventually found it through the wonders of Google. :) The letter was from a mother who had been listening to her two teenagers quarreling all day, and blew her top:
"You must become better friends," I said, "because, God willing, you will both live a long time. I will be gone, and your father will be gone, and all your teachers and many of your friends will be gone. There may be only the two of you left, and you will remember what you were like as children.
"Nobody else will remember the Christmases you had, the treehouse you built, the day you learned to ride a bike, the fun you had trick-or-treating, the teacher you loved in the 3rd grade and the kittens born in the laundry. There will be only the two of you, and you had better love each other now, because 60 years from now, only you will remember all the wonderful experiences you shared, and those memories will be golden."
They both became very quiet, and I thought perhaps they were too young to understand. But it must have made an impression, because they never squabbled or tried to hurt each other after that. I wish my parents had explained to my sister and me 40 years ago that sibling rivalry is natural but brothers and sisters who are not good to each other lose something precious.(Of course, the irony is that Dear Ann famously feuded with her twin sister, Dear Abby -- but I digress... ;) )
In his episode recap for Entertainment Weekly, Kevin P. Sullivan writes:
The reason for the surprise return is essentially the thesis of the show. Mary may be a bitch, but years from now, after the world has changed even more, the sisters will be the only ones who remember everything that happened in those halls. Every moment that defined their time there is lost and rendered meaningless without people to share them with.
The conversation reminds me of the Lost finale in the way that it handles mortality, suggesting that all of us and our lives are just blips in time that are defined by the people we share them with. Downton has always been preoccupied with modernity and the changing of the times, but at the core of that fear is mortality. A telephone is just a telephone, but it and whatever comes after it will be around long after Lord Grantham or Mary or Cora. The world will continue to evolve and forget; that’s why we need the people who saw us through it all.(An aside: My favourite DA recaps are the ones in the New York Times, which I think I will probably miss just as much as the episodes themselves. Here's this week's -- enjoy!)
The episode and the Ann Landers letter struck a chord with me. The theme of sibling rivalry is something I understand too well. As I think I've written before, my grandmother and her older sister had a prickly relationship and feuded on & off all through their life. Sometimes they would go for years without speaking to each other, even though they both lived in the same small (pop. 1400) Minnesota town. This made life difficult for those of us who loved them both.
My own relationship with my own sister is not exactly the Hallmark variety (although it's not exactly Grandma & Aunty E. or Mary & Edith either). Perhaps we learned a lesson from our elders.
Like me, my sister has no children (she is childfree by choice). When we die, the memories and experiences we have shared will die with us. Others may share in some of our memories through our letters or blog posts or photo albums -- but only we will know exactly what it was like to grow up together at the time and place that we did.
The lesson that life and memory are transient -- and far too short -- is something those of us who have lost a child quickly learn. It's something that I struggle with -- the desire to pass along the memories and knowledge and experiences that have made my life meaningful to a new generation, in the hopes that some small shred will survive and be passed along to the generation after them. And it's something that's harder to do when you don't have children of your own to inherit the memories and heirlooms and the stories behind them. It's one of the things I find most difficult about life without children -- who will remember me when I'm gone? Who should I leave my treasures to? Who will remember my Katie? What will my legacy be? How can I make an impact, a difference?
A few days after I saw this episode, Mali wrote a gorgeous post about "the keepers of memories" that echoed some of the things I'd been thinking about since the "Downton Abbey" episode. Mali's mother recently passed away, and as they went through her mother's things, her childless cousin D wondered, “are the childless the Keepers of Memories because we look back, not forward?”
I thought about it, and agree that it is possible this is the reason. Perhaps we look back simply because we have the time to do so. But I prefer to think that, as keepers of memories, we’re doing it out of love and a feeling of connection, a belief that the past will matter to the future. That without the past, there is no future, even if personally, I am not going to be part of that future...
Ultimately, I prefer to think that we’re the Keepers of Memories because we know how precious they are, how easily people and memories can be lost, and that once they’re gone, they’re gone. That it’s not always about the family tree, but more about the memories and connections and links.
I'm proud to call myself a Keeper of Memories. Whether my memories and the memories that others have entrusted to me ultimately matter to someone else is out of my control. People will remember and find meaning in what I leave behind, or they won't. In the end, I don't think any of us will ever know our true legacy or the impact that we have made on the world.
But these things matter to me now, while I'm here, and I live in hope that someday, they will matter to someone else too. And ultimately, it's not things that truly matter -- it's people.