Excerpt from Losing My Sister

a memoir by Judy Goldman

     
   

            Five years old, I can always win over my sister by stuffing my whole fist in my mouth.  She huddles with neighborhood friends on the sidewalk, engrossed in whatever it is eight-year-olds do.  I hang around the outskirts, waiting for a chance to break in.  What can I do that they can’t?  Well, there are these little tricks I’ve been practicing.  One is saying the alphabet backwards faster than most people can say it forward.  But I know that Brenda and her friends will not stay put long enough for me to go from z to a.  Of course, there’s this other trick I’ve perfected.  One of Brenda’s friends steps back or maybe just turns around briefly, and I quickly slip inside the circle, work my fingers behind my two front teeth, push and grind until my hand disappears all the way up to my bony wrist, and everyone -- including my sister – goes, “Goshhh!”
            Brenda has me repeat this for other groups.  It never fails to astound.

*

            When it’s just the two of us, we ballet dance in the front yard, arabesques and piqué turns.  We wear the lime and fuchsia crepe paper dresses that Mattie, the woman who takes care of our household, who’s been part of our family since I was three, makes for us.  We love the pinked hems, the stiff ruffles like wings.  We love Mattie, whose brown hands smell like peaches and can turn anything shimmery. 
            I follow Brenda through the grass, as though drawn by an invisible cord.

*

            We spend hours in our backyard playhouse.  We play school, we play store, we play movie stars.  We play and play, humming with summer.

*

            My earliest memory:  Six-year-old Brenda is chosen to be flower girl at May Day, a holiday as big in Rock Hill, South Carolina, as Christmas.  The day is warm, the sky cloudless.  First, the May Court attendants (college students) float down the stone steps of the outdoor amphitheater.  Then Brenda, wearing a pink net evening gown trimmed in ribbon, takes her time making the long descent, turning her head from side to side to survey the scenery and drop rose petals from the little white basket on her arm.  After a pause, a gap in the procession, comes the queen. 
            Schoolchildren dance around the Maypole to entertain the court.  The attendants, graceful as palms in their pale green dresses, pat their gloved hands together in soft applause.  The queen and Brenda, side by side, smile. 
            Afterwards, everyone in the audience pushes down the steps onto the grass to crowd around the queen – and Brenda.  “What a smart little girl you are,” they say to her.  “Those ringlets!  Like Shirley Temple!”  “You’re so pretty!”  At first, she smiles politely, twirling that lock of hair behind her ear she always twirls, and says, “Thank you, thank you.”  After a while, her response is, “I know, I know.”
            Mother will tell this story a million times.  I love it more with each telling.  The appeal is that Brenda is so happy-go-lucky here.  Good things are happening.  She’s smart and pretty and her naturally curly hair is adorable.  She’s the star, and I’m in the audience.  Which suits me just fine.

*

            She’s nine, I’m six.  She draws a girl with perfect lips.  I draw a girl.  My lips don’t turn out like hers, so I erase, draw again, erase until there’s a dark graphite smear on the bottom third of my girl’s face, making her look like she needs a shave.  Brenda notices my frustration.  “Want me to show you how to do lips?” she asks.   
            When she makes earrings and pins out of seashells from White’s Hobby Shop, I make earrings and pins from seashells.  We sit at the card table in the den for hours, squeezing the honey-colored glue, sliding the pastel blossoms into place.  She changes her design.  I change mine.  La Petite Beauty Salon places a big order for Brenda’s jewelry, sells out, orders more.  Brenda objects only a little when Mother asks her if some of my jewelry can be included in the next batch.  I would never have thought of such a thing.  But Mother says it’s what sisters do.  BrendaandJudy.  We’re one long word.

*

            A little older, we publish our own neighborhood newspaper.  I write the articles and Brenda illustrates.  She’s also the marketing director, which means she tells me how far up the street I have to go to sell the papers.  I listen carefully.  I want to get it exactly right.

*

            I’m afraid of the ball.  To cure me, she ties me to a tree in the front yard with our jump rope and throws a basketball at me.  Over and over.  “See, Judy?” she yells, over my sobs.  “There’s nothing to be scared of.  Nothing at all.”

*

            I button up my jacket and unlatch the gate in the hedge that separates our backyard from the O’Neals’, sprint down their driveway to the sidewalk, aiming for my friend’s house, one street and another shortcut away.  Up ahead, I see the neighborhood bully in his front yard.  He’s straight-backed and tall, taller even than Brenda.  I can’t tell what he’s doing.  I wave.  He looks like he’s going to wave back – I think I even see a smile on his hollow-cheeked face -- but instead of waving, he hurls a rock in my direction.  It hits me square in the forehead and a spray of blood immediately gums up my vision.  The houses on both sides of the street go blurry.  My cheeks beat like something electric that’s been turned on and forgotten.  I spin on my heels, run as fast as I can back home.
            As soon as Brenda sees what happened, she bolts out the door.  I know where she’s going.
            Mr. Bully is still in his front yard.  Too bad for him.  She beats him up so solidly, so thoroughly, that Pernettia, who works for the O’Neals and is outside hanging laundry, hears him screaming and has to run over to pull Brenda off him. 
            Brenda is just making sure that, where her little sister is concerned, nobody but Brenda gets away with anything.

*

            She was named after Brenda Frazier, a glamorous debutante with whom all of America had fallen in love, who made the cover of Life a month before my sister was born, the day after Christmas, 1938. 
            As a child, I memorize that magazine cover -- the glorious tangle of brown hair, the little pinched bodice of Brenda Frazier’s strapless gown, the way she stares at something out of the camera’s range, something I assume only Brendas can see.

*

            My sister has our father’s deep-set green eyes, and his curly brown hair.  The two of them are tall.  Boulder-strong.  She also has his personality and temperament – clear-eyed determination, level-headedness, matter-of-factness, fierce principles, obstinacy.  They rely on sensible thinking.  Everyone tells Brenda, “You are your father to a T.”  
            People say Mother and I are just alike.  “Sweet” is the word they use to describe us.  We rely on feelings.  (In fifth grade I even change my name to Laura Love.)  We’re both petite, and our facial expressions and gestures mirror each other’s, but I’m not beautiful like she is.  (Truth is, neither Brenda nor I will grow up to be beautiful.)  Heads turn to follow Mother.  She could be a double for Elizabeth Taylor, the Elizabeth Taylor in Giant, when her make-up is natural, after her hair has silvered.  Mother’s eyes are brown, though, not lavender -- the color of coffee.  Her face and Elizabeth Taylor’s face are both symmetrical, shaped like hearts, crystal-perfect.  Like the character in Giant, Mother is endearing, open and attentive to others.  She writes thank-you notes in response to thank-you notes.  She’s the type of person who asks questions, then follow-up questions.  She’s never just being polite; she’s truly interested.
            My father is the type who decides whether or not what you want to talk about merits a conversation.  He can quite comfortably greet your words with silence.  I take that to mean the subjects I care about aren’t important enough for him, so I assess what I want to say before I speak, organize sentences in my head before turning them loose.  I would never pick boyfriends as a topic, or slumber parties with girlfriends.  When I’m older, I’ll understand he’s just an arm’s-length kind of person, that he can be impatient with anyone, and he’s strict in his views -- there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way.  He lets you know when you’ve done it wrong.  He also lets you know he knows how to love.  All this could be said about Brenda, as well.

*

            The two of them are a team.  Mother and I are a team.
            My brother. Eight years older than me, five years older than Brenda, is so unlike the rest of us he could be on loan from another family.  He has Mother’s brown eyes and there’s something about his chin that’s like our father’s.  But he has his own straight nose and oval face and, even as a young boy, a level of sophistication and wit and remove (and yearning for something bigger and better than our family, than Rock Hill) that make him seem as though he’s speeding toward a different galaxy.  If he would just stick around, Brenda and I would gladly crown him king of this galaxy.  That’s how much the two of us look up to him, lionize him.  Well, Brenda looks up to him, so I do, too. 
            My father’s main goal with Donald is to mold him into the perfect son.  Make sure he grows up to be ethical and hard-working, traditional enough to want to live in Rock Hill and run The Smart Shop and King’s Men’s Shop, my father’s clothing stores. 
            All that molding and disciplining – and demand for a life my brother would never choose -- feels to Donald like waves of disapproval.  Which creates even more distance between him and the rest of our family. 
            One summer, while still in high school, Donald is working at The Smart Shop.  His job this Saturday afternoon, the busiest shopping day of the week, is to change the outfits on the mannequins in the front windows.  Two of his buddies stop in front of the store.  They see him, tap on the glass, and wave.  Donald signals them:  Hold on!  Wait!  He begins undressing the mannequins, one at a time, slowly peeling away their pumps, lifting off their hats, unbuttoning their dresses, pulling the straps of their nylon slips down their arms.  Then, as if the Dixieland jazz that Donald loves were rising all around him, he takes the hand of one of the naked mannequins in his own, circles his arm around her waist, and begins to twirl her.  Giddy, he spins her faster and faster.  The two of them dance as though they’re drunk down to their ankles.  Then he chooses another mannequin.  Each one waits her turn, smiling, obviously happy for the chance to show that she can keep time to the music.  A crowd of shoppers has now joined Donald’s pals out front.  They laugh and cheer.  They even clap. 
            But then my father hovers in the air above my brother. 
            Rule number one is, you do not laugh about the store.  You certainly don’t crack jokes while you’re working.  This is serious business.  Rule number two, you don’t waste time while you’re working.  When you’ve finished dressing the windows, you check to see if the blouses on the front table need refolding.  You make sure the dresses and their hangers are turned the right way. 
My father’s arms are folded across his chest.  For Donald, it’s all over.

*

            Brenda and I are having a secret meeting behind the forsythia bush in the backyard. 
            “So look, Judy,” she says, fanning out the girlie magazines.
            “In Donald’s room?” I whisper with reverence, knowing how grave this is.
            “Yep.  I found them in his closet.” she says.  “And look at this.”
            She holds up a sheet of notebook paper with our brother’s artistic handwriting.  He’s written a story about the TV show, “What’s My Line?”  John Charles Daly, of course, is the moderator who asks the guest to “Come in and sign in, please.”  The guest, a buxom (Donald’s exact word) blonde in a tight, strapless gown, writes her name on the sign-in board.  Dorothy Kilgallen, Arlene Francis, and Bennett Cerf try to guess her vocation.  They ask questions that can be answered yes or no:  “Are you salaried?  Are you self-employed?”  And, “Do you deal in a product?  A service?”  The guest in my brother’s episode, it turns out, is a whore (also his word).
            The big decision for Brenda and me:  What do we do with all this?
            We end up doing the only thing we can do – bury the magazines and story near the back hedge, deep in the green of the lawn. 
            The keen electric charge for Brenda:  joining our father in helping Donald live a more productive, moral life.
            The electric charge for me:  colluding with my sister.

*

            When I’m grown, and teaching writing workshops, I’ll assign this exercise to students:  Tell the myth surrounding your birth. 
            Here’s mine:   
            I was born in Rock Hill – unable to swallow.  Or maybe it was something about my breathing.  I guess it’s odd I don’t know exactly what was wrong, but that has never been the point of the story.
            I was rushed by ambulance from Rock Hill to Columbia, seventy-two miles away, definitely not the closest city.  It would’ve made more sense to take me to Charlotte, only twenty-six miles over the state line.  But it was October 20, 1941, a little over a month before Pearl Harbor, and my mother was thirty-one, with a husband and two young children and a newborn near death.  She knew that if she could just make it to Columbia, where her sisters lived, everything would be all right.
            Mother wanted to ride with me in the ambulance, but that was against the rules.  The attendant said no; she should follow in the car with my father.  The driver said no.  The head of the hospital in Rock Hill said no.
She held me, the entire way, on her lap, in the back of the ambulance, on a pink satin pillow.
            Days later, I was okay.  But Mother never stopped coddling me.  Brenda had Daddy.  I had Mother.  In my eyes, Mother was the prize, the one who was there all the time, the expert at coddling.  Which is the point of this story.  I’ve been resting on that satin pillow my whole life. 
            My sister would probably agree.
            Was Brenda coddled by Mother?  She would say that Mother worried about her, just as she worried about me.  But because Brenda was so much like Daddy – “Just as stubborn, same hot temper,” Mother would say.  “Why, Brenda would sit there in her playpen and throw all her toys out and then scream and scream until I retrieved them for her.” – maybe Mother felt that Brenda didn’t actually invite coddling.

*

            My parents planned to have only two children.  When they had a boy and a girl – “Imagine,” my mother said after Donald and Brenda were born, “one of each!” – they decided for sure that would be it.  Then I came along.  An accident.  Not what my parents expected.  Not what my sister expected.  But Mother turned my birth into something wondrous.  Her standard comment about this:  “What in the world would we have done without our Judy?”
            I just kept arranging myself on that satin pillow, making sure I was as comfortable as could be.

     
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Judy Goldman has two published novels:  Early Leaving (called “masterfully written and fast-paced… highly recommended” by Library Journal) and The Slow Way Back (winner of the Sir Walter Raleigh Prize, Mary Ruffin Poole First Fiction Prize, finalist for Southeastern Booksellers Association’s Novel of the Year).  She’s also the author of two poetry collections:  Holding Back Winter and Wanting To Know the End (Gerald Cable Poetry Prize, Roanoke-Chowan Prize, Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize, and Oscar Arnold Young Prize). She received the Hobson Prize For Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters, the Fortner Writer and Community Award for Outstanding Generosity to Other Writers and the Larger Community, and the Beverly D. Clark Author Award from Queens University. Her poetry has been published in The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Ohio Review, Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere.  Her book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and The Charlotte Observer, her craft articles in The Writer.  Her commentaries have aired on public radio in Charlotte and Chapel Hill. She lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband, Henry.  They have two married children and four grandchildren.  Losing My Sister is an excerpt from her memoir of the same title, which will be published in October 2012.