A Child’s Sister

I have just read my sister’s obituary in the Lakeland Ledger.

Five years ago she stood next to me, grasping my hand, as we watched our mother die.  Coward that I am, I was the one holding on for dear life. She was the one who escorted me through the rite, just like she’s done for every member of of my family since I was twelve.  As practical as I’ve come to be about theoretical things that don’t matter, she was always the one who was practical about the things that did.

In 1956 my father and mother piled the family into a Nash Rambler on a hot July day and headed from just south of St Louis to Florida.  None of us had any idea why, except my father and mother, and they weren’t saying.  My sister later told me that it was because we lived in the shadow of a lead smelting factory and that I had developed bronchitis–a disease I assumed had something to do with dinosaurs.   Florida and ocean air are good for the lungs, I was told. It might have been true.  She also told me that the dog I left behind, an English shepherd named Brownie, would track us down as soon as she picked up our scent and be in Florida days after we were settled there.  Though it stopped my crying, it turned out not to be true.

My sister, whose middle name was Sue and thus always Susie to a younger, attention-craving, insufferable brother, sat in the back seat next to me in a car without air conditioning for a trip to a state with water rather than Kansas and Illinois on either side of it.

By the time we got to Fort Myers, our presumed destination and where the Mayflower Van was headed with our worldly goods,  my sore throat had developed into a major childhood illness: the mumps. The cure was rest, Royal Crown Cola, and saltines.  When my mother asked why the cola, the doctor said, in a drawl my father strained to comprehend, “Well, have y’all evah tried eatin’ saltines without it?”

As I baked in a cheap motel room outside Naples, my sister wrote letters home to boyfriends she had thrown over, and in the custom of the day applied white adhesive tape and turquoise blue nail polish to a class ring from her last steady.  Whenever she’d collected more than one ring, she sometimes let me apply the nail polish to a second.  But it was her policy never to remove the tape when the ring was returned.

I will always remember Fort Myers as the place where I ate my first piece of watermelon and  learned what blind mosquitoes (“aqueous midges”) were.  Driving along the west coast with increasingly frazzled parents–neither parent had a job to go to and they were now confronted with a homesick daughter and a whining invalid son–my always abrupt mother announced abruptly that we weren’t staying in Fort Myers and we began a slow trek inland.

As we did, as though by magic, the solid wall of biteless ‘skeeters  began to dissipate from the back inside windscreen and we focused on eating watermelon.  Both of my parents were musicians (of a sort) so we sang, loudly and constantly as we chugged unhappily along.  It was during that unhappy sojourn that I got to be “Bloop” to my sister’s “Bleep” in the Drip Song and the female part in “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Her favorite anthem that hot season was Rosemary Clooney’s version of  “You’ll Never Know,” which I wasn’t permitted to sing with her.

By the time we hit the depot town of Winter Haven in central Florida, a way station for northern tourists en route by coach from New York to Miami in the old Florida East Coast Railroad, we were out of songs, almost out of cash, and the Nash was coughing badly.  I was feeling better. My sister was feeling worse.  Her homesickness had turned into something real.  She’d caught the mumps.

Winter Haven became home, by default.  It had lakes, and palm trees, lots of nice houses, banyan trees, fresh water swamps, foliage like you never saw in the Midwest,  and loads of alligators.  When I got to be a teenager I resented it being in central Florida and so far away from the coast and would occasionally say as indignantly as I could “Tell me again why we’re not living in Fort Myers.” But the story was always the same.  “Your sister and you.”

Our mother found a job, then a better one, and ended up teaching at the local Catholic school.  Our father did what he could do.  Probably having escaped Missouri to avoid working for his German father, and after a financially ruinous try at running a restaurant in Haines City,  he ended up working for my mother’s father.  Worse, as we found out, there were blind mosquitoes in Winter Haven too.

After her one and only year in the local high school, my sister went to New Orleans to study nursing.  The Greyhound trip to Louisiana with my father to see her capped was the biggest adventure of my young life, probably the proudest of his.

She married a boy from “back home,” a usual thing to do, and because back home was still Missouri for her, that’s where he was from.  She had two adorable daughters who became little sisters to me, steadfastly refused–even when they were instructed–to call me Uncle Joe, and spent most of their time seeing if they could squeeze into the little area behind the back seat of my 1965 VW beetle.  In biblical terms, they grew in grace and wisdom.

Years went by.  I moved away.  There were the usual growing-apart pains that always seem to separate brothers and sisters who occupy different spaces, miles apart.  By this point she was the young matriarch of a family that had grown up knowing only Florida as their home.  She returned to school, earned a few degrees and became what many people still call a “legendary educator.”  Having known her in Girl Scout berets, Halloween party masks, with Calomime lotion smeared over her “blemishes” (our mother detested the words “pimples” and “belly”) it was hard for me to acknowledge the legendary part. But you can’t argue with the newspapers.

She had grandchildren. In August, 2007, one of them, her only grandson, was savagely murdered by a local gang. The effect of this on her was so horrible that the less said about it the better.  It is better not even to think about it. It’s just a theory, of course, but it was something she never recovered from.

My relationship with my sister was not always easy.  It was my fault that it wasn’t. I went from being a young brat to an older one, but always a brat. I mistook her endless exuberance for immortality, and when I learned she had cancer I thought the cancer didn’t have a chance. She would beat it.  She would outlive me by a decade at least.

But she didn’t.

Now I’m the last member of the homesteading troupe that rumbled into Florida without a destination, frightened, sick, and cash poor–when Dwight Eisenhower was still in the White House, when the drinking-fountains in McCrory’s said “White Only,” and the Mass was still in Latin. There is no one to grasp my hand this time, and to make the kiss of death gentle and soft.  Meeting my sister’s death is like  meeting death with his mask off and knowing for the first time–really–that this is what happens to us one at a time.

There is one more song she loved that long while ago, and I have been humming it all day.  It helps.

14 thoughts on “A Child’s Sister

  1. Sorry to hear about your sister, my condolences.

    The number of people who mean something to each of us is limited and it always horrible to lose one of them.

      • It’s sometimes easier to learn to die oneself than to accept the loss of others who mean something to us.

        One’s world gets a bit poorer every time someone who counts departs.

        Maybe you know this, but mourning is strange: it hits you slowly because of psychological denial mechanisms. At least that’s my experience and that’s what the psychologists say too.

      • I fully agree; we are only responsible for our own deaths. We die alone–why Hitchens for example has said that after a while the whole idea seem banal. But the death of others–that’s different! I cannot be philosophical about that.

    • I don’t agree with the psychologists at all Sam. I think humans experience things in different ways. I’ve read the mourning maps – the denial, the anger, the stages of mourning. In my experience it just isn’t true. There was no denial or anger. Just shattering shock, horror, hollowness and emptiness. Just profound grief, horrific loss. Life suddenly seems so small and meaningless. No denial, it’s all too real.

  2. Steph:

    As you say, people have different experiences.

    I found that I intellectualized my grief at first and then slowly, very slowly, the inner sense of loss began to dawn on me.

    It’s probably not the best moment to get into a theoretical discussion about grief, but I did, perhaps tactlessly, bring up the theme first.

  3. Beautiful tribute, Joseph, to your ‘big sister’.

    I am a little in awe, and grateful – as your writing here helps to fill a lacuna in my own experience – my sisters being ‘little sisters’ – not to mention all being still alive.

    The comment “we die alone” reminded me of a thought I had after my mother had died in a hospital room in one of those scenarios we read about quite commonly these days – “surrounded by her loved ones.” It occurred to me that no matter how many dear faces we see in our last moments, it will always be a lonely experience for the one person in the room who knows he is the only one in the group who has to die on that particular day.

    I’m sure you will agree that this kind of alone-ness cannot really be eased by the dying person’s realization that everyone in the room will also eventually die. Nor is the awful singularity any less concrete (I would add) for someone who is supposed to be ‘aided’ by transcendental hopes.

    But thank you.

  4. My deepest sympathy to you and your family on the loss of your sister. I too have an older sister, my only sibling, and we also drifted apart for many years. But, after my wife died 8 years ago, and my her husband died 5 years ago, and with our parents both gone, we have become thick as thieves. This, in spite of the fact that she’s a Republican and, worse, an Episcopalian. Love conquers all, but sometimes it ain’t so easy.

    Although you have already written a beautiful tribute to your sister, something that helped me in my time of grief, and which I’ve read many times since, is a poem that you may already be familiar with. It’s by Mary Frye and was written in 1932.

    Do not stand at my grave and weep.
    I am not there. I do not sleep.
    I am a thousand winds that blow;
    I am the diamond glints on snow;
    I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
    I am the gentle autumn rain.

    When you awaken in the morning hush
    I am the quick uplifting rush
    Of quiet birds in circling flight.
    I am the soft star that shines at night.
    Do not stand at my grave and cry.
    I am not there, I did not die.

  5. The others above have expressed themselves each beautifully in regards the loss of your sister. I lost a beloved brother just over a year ago, so I can empathize with your current and ongoing loss. My deepest sympathies, and my hope that your memories of her will strengthen as does your continued love for her.
    Lost loved ones remain with us forever, which is one of the most wondrous features on this journey called life.

  6. I just wanted to say thank you for writing this; it must have been very difficult. Thank you also to all the other commenters. I am very sorry for your loss.

    My father died a year ago. ‘Life suddenly seems so small and meaningless.’ – this seems exactly right. The answer, I think, and the only response to that feeling is that it isn’t: it’s everything. It’s all we have, and it’s as good as we can make it. It’s hard convincing yourself of that sometimes though.

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