Wednesday, November 24, 2004


My sister, Helma, is just two years older than me. She is a beautiful woman, slim, fashionable and quite wealthy. She is also chic, svelte, sophisticated and worldly. She has an adoring husband and beautiful children, as well as an entire gang of even more beautiful grandchildren. She and her husband retired to a gorgeous condo which is furnished in glowing oak and soft, cushiony carpets. You'll have to admit a person like this is hard to like.

I think the problem started when my brother bought us both dolls for Christmas one year. As the children of very poor parents in a very large family, Christmas presents were few and far between, but I remember those dolls vividly. Mine was a baby doll, clad in a diaper and a jumpsuit of sorts. Helma's doll was dressed in a Heavenly blue gown, and she had a shining head of glowing yellow curls cascading down her back. At that moment, I knew that I envied my sister and the competition that has soiled our sisterly relationship throughout the years was like a seed planted on fertile soil. It began to grow and wrap its tendrils around our lives together.

According to Helma back then, I didn't have a brain in my head. I aspired to be a poet, but she blithely said, "You won't be a poet, dummy! Poets starve in attics!" Since I chowed down hefty portions of the meals my mother served, Helma's words put a damper on my poetic impulses. And then, too, there was the bed.

We shared a bed. Exactly one half of that bed was mine, and the other half was exactly Helma's. However, it seemed to me that she commandeered a greater portion than she was allowed. So, to test this theory, I would put my foot over on her territory. This brought forth loud wails of complaint. My mother would eventually come in to quell the commotion and Helma would pour forth her anger. Mom, who adored Helma and thought she was perfect, would then berate me for invading Helma's side of the bed.

Nor did we agree on covers. When I was cold, Helma was hot. She would fling off the blankets and the heavy quilt, always a homemade one stitched together by Mom. But, if I was hot and tried to fling off the covers, once again Helma would wail until Mom came running. I tell you, I resented that Helma more with each passing day.

Oh, we had moments of closeness, like when the dogcatcher's truck rolled into the yard and we knew that Mom didn't have the $2.00 it took for a license. So we hid together under the bed, Fluffy between us, holding her nose so she couldn't bark, terrified that the man at the door would not believe Mom when she denied having any dogs. As far as I know, it was the only lie my very religious mother ever told!

There was also the matter of the snakes in the driveway. We were both terrified of snakes, and the farm where we lived was the Snake Kingdom, some of them rattlers. So we would come home from school and face that driveway with terror in our hearts. Summoning courage, we would walk the driveway together, arms wrapped around each other, knowing that Death in the form of a serpent could reach out at any moment and destroy us.

But, then, we started to grow up. Helma became "cute". She had a boyfriend. Everyone talked about how "cute" Helma was and how "cute" it was to see her with her boyfriend. My dislike intensified. Eventually, Helma married and started having her babies, whom I adored. They were wonderful children, didn't take after their mother at all, and they danced up and down with delight whenever I visited them.

Pop passed on and Mom had a few years left, not enough, but a few. She visited Helma often, sometimes for weeks at a time. In the meantime, I married and had a family. Our lives separated and I seldom saw Helma, except at family gatherings.

But the competition continued, a race that never ended. When I saw Helma, she gave me a rundown of her family news. Her granddaughter had a job at a catering company, the most prestigious one in the state. Her other granddaughter had married a doctor. The family planned a European tour the next summer.

In turn, I shared news of my family. My granddaughter had a part-time job at K-Mart. My other granddaughter's husband was unemployed. My son had a job shining shoes at the local golf course. We had a camping trip planned in August.

Recently, Helma had a 60th Wedding Anniversary Celebration....really, sixty years of marriage to Helma for my poor, beloved brother in law, Joe. Of course, the affair was held in a luxurious hotel, with excellent food and drinks, tables of flowers, and an orchestra. As I sat at my table, I reflected upon my life as sister to Helma.

I can't surpass her. I can't even catch up to her. I can only be what God made me, Helma's little sister, the chunky one that no one remembers. I do love her, so help me, it's true. But Helma was given a head start in this race with me, and I'm going to trail behind her for the remainder of our days. Helma, the Beauty. Herma, the Beast. And it rankles. Oh, God, it rankles.

Sometimes I allow my imagination to soar. I see myself seated at a table, with an assortment of older, bearded fellows. My name is announced and I rise to approach the dais. Then I accept the Nobel Peace Prize with a gracious smile, aiming my gaze at the audience section where Helma is seated. Nah, that won't work! What have I ever done for Peace? Well, then, what about this? I am seated in the audience in a filmy, diaphamous gown, borrowed jewels from Cartier dripping from my ears and dangling from my neck. The presenter rips open the envelope..."And the Oscar for Best Original Story goes to Herma!" I accept the Oscar and again view the audience, where Helma is pea green with envy, her eyes narrowed, her head bowed in defeat.

Will this happen? No. When I reach the Pearly Gates, St. Peter will greet me. "Oh, you must be Helma's sister, what is your name again? She already has her wings, you know. Pure gold. That's the most prestigious set of wings we have! But you...well, here's your wand. Don't break it, it's plastic. Welcome to Heaven!"