How My Twin Sister and I Turned 70 With Grace(land)
A pilgrimage to the mansion of our once-favorite Elvis Presley was really a journey back to each other
Elvis Presley is having a moment.
The recent biopic about him won awards and critical acclaim. The streaming series "Daisy Jones & The Six," starring his granddaughter Riley Keough (recently featured on the cover of Vanity Fair), showcased her authentic rock 'n' roll voice. Two generations of Presley women just made the news by settling their battle over the family estate. I watched and read it all, and so did my twin sister, Mary Jean.
MJ and I were eight when we saw our first Elvis film, "Blue Hawaii." The summer we were 10, we saw "Viva Las Vegas" at least six times. At 15, we were glued to Elvis's '68 Comeback Special. Maybe it was the black leather fringed jumpsuit and his snarling rendition of "Trouble."
"I know what we should do for our birthday." Beat. "Go to Graceland!"
I shouldn't have been surprised when she called. "I know what we should do for our birthday." Beat. "Go to Graceland!" An image of the famed white mansion with Tara-like pillars instantly came to mind. I'd just read about its Jungle Room, the ultimate at-home tiki bar, where parties went on all night.
I knew the estate had been left decorated exactly as it was in 1977, the year Elvis died, the year MJ and I got our first jobs. The mansion still had an avocado green dishwasher (like ours was) and a luxury built-in microwave (the same as we had). There was a 15-foot-long white couch in the living room and a display of Elvis's police badge collection (he loved cops). Hell, yes. I was in.
MJ and I had gotten together regularly over the years, at the Jersey Shore, on a trip to Florida, for graduations, weddings and funerals. We had attended the same college, but after that, our lives unspooled very differently. She lived in the Midwest while I stayed mainly in the Northeast.
Separated by More Than Geography
But as our families grew, geography alone wasn't what separated us. MJ endured far more than her fair share of pain, far more than I. She survived breast cancer at 40. Three years later, her husband died of brain cancer, leaving her with two pre-teen sons and a need to immediately re-enter the work force. She hired childcare for the boys and took the best job she could find as an attorney. It happened to be in Detroit, three hours away.
Often, she would call me on those twice-a-week commutes. The last thing she wanted was to talk about how hard her life was. In this way, years went by, as a whole herd of elephants entered the conversational room we inhabited. MJ's default setting was upbeat chatter to cover her sadness and mine was upbeat chatter to cover guilt about my easier life.
We rarely shared deep emotions, or yelled or cried with each other. We sometime struggled to keep a conversation going, taking cover in low-stakes topics such as how hard it was to find clothes, or how late to let the kids stay out.
Our younger selves could convey a whole conversation with one side glance or eye roll. But now, our easy-going mother tongue had disappeared.
Our younger selves could convey a whole conversation with one side glance or eye roll. But now, our easy-going mother tongue had disappeared. The ground had shifted. I was worried we had irretrievably grown apart. Our 70th birthday was, thanks to MJ, a literal wake-up call. I was hungering for closeness but it was she who suggested the trip. Did she feel the need too?
We would have just about 36 hours in Memphis, and that was a time frame I was good at navigating. I had written several "36 Hours" travel columns for the New York Times and boy, I could put together terrific itineraries and hidden spots. But when it came to spending 36 hours alone with my twin, I wondered if I would be as adept. I was about to find out.
Graceland Did Not Disappoint
We boarded the tour bus to Graceland with iPads around our necks and headphones on our ears, giggling like those eight-year-olds watching "Blue Hawaii." The mansion did not disappoint. Acres of green shag carpet. Four white baby grands. A gigantic Trophy Room chock-a-block with wall-to-wall gold and platinum records. We elbowed each other and pointed at vintage PR stills as we meandered among the throngs of others marveling at a rhinestone-studded jumpsuit.
As we spent an entire day surrounded by nostalgic Elvis memorabilia, the once-familiar rhythm of being together began to seep in.
In the Elvis Automobile Museum, we sat side by side, laughing in a makeshift convertible as MJ "floored it" in front of a giant video of Elvis on a motorcycle careening toward us.
In the Graceland gift "shop" the size of a football field, we perused Graceland snow globes, Elvis bobble head dolls and "(Hunka Hunka) Burnin' Love" T-shirts. As we spent an entire day surrounded by nostalgic Elvis memorabilia, the once-familiar rhythm of being together began to seep in. We had found a place to connect in the kitschy, commercial, heartbreaking beauty of Elvis. But could we talk about the things that mattered?
Over dinner, we ordered a bottle of pinot grigio. The restaurant was quiet, the lighting subdued. We had a banquette and an unobtrusive waiter. Ambience was on our side. We started with the easy stuff: Memphis barbecue, how good the Sun Studio tour had been. By the time we killed the bottle, I was offering an apology for the reams of unasked for advice I assumed she needed in her darkest days. She was thanking me for stepping up to help our parents through the end of their lives when she was juggling so much.
We Kept Talking
We kept talking, with phones turned off, no pets to feed, no chores to do. I ordered a blackberry margarita; MJ an Aperol spritz. I couldn't recall the last time we had faced each other over a cocktail, alone, just the two of us. By the end of the night, I knew about an early, abandoned romance. She knew about my years of infertility and the bouts of serious depression they engendered. The elephants, at least some of them, had left the building.
It was a start, and a strong one. I know there is much more to mine about our pasts and more to share about our hopes for the future. We just need more practice, more time — and more trips. Natchez, Nashville and Williamsburg, Virginia are already on the list.
Here's what I know: the statute of limitations has run out on judgment, resentment, anger, guilt. What remains: Newly-recovered ease and gratitude in being together and a mutual pledge not to take it for granted.
You could call it grace.