Friday, January 30, 2009


At our last Family Reunion, which we have every year on the date closest to our mother's birthday, I walked with Helma to the wooden structure that housed the Park restrooms. I held her arm, because her legs seemed to be incapable of holding herself up. She was pathetically thin, just a wisp of a woman, her hair glistening white in the sun, clinging to my arm. I held her up as we walked slowly up the slanted hillside, the grass crunchy and dry surrounding us, the heat from the sun relentless as it can be during Michigan's short summers. Slowly, step by step, we moved forward until we reached the restroom.

As we walked, I thought of the two girls we had been so many years ago, walking with arms entwined down the driveway, peeking at the tall grasses and tumbled brush around us, looking for snakes. It seemed to us that every stick, every dry branch on the ground was the head of a snake peering out at us. Our hearts beat with naked fear, our arms trembled as we clutched each other, our legs threatened to give way.

Snakes were our enemy. Snakes surrounded our lives in the summertime, lurking in the grass, appearing mystically in our path, a dreaded enemy. If we saw a snake, we ran as fast as we could toward home, toward Mom and her broomstick, toward safety. I will never forget the sheer terror of those walks and the feeling of relief as we reached the door to the house, spared once again from a grisly death from snakebite, from one of those slimy, evil creatures springing upward to spit their vicious venom into our veins.

Later, when I married, my husband used to joke about my terror of snakes. He claimed that I could spot a snake in the grass from a mile away. He wasn't afraid of snakes and would pick up a garter snake, tuck it in his shirt, and come over to give me a kiss and a hug. When I saw the snake, which I never failed to do, I would shriek and run back toward the house. My five sons thought it was the funniest thing ever! They didn't realize I was reliving the experiences of those youthful years with my sister.

Helma married very young. There was only two years between us but, after she married, it was as if she graduated into adulthood, while I was left behind in childhood, so we lost the closeness we had had when we were very young. She was very pretty with dark, lustrous hair, a creamy complexion, and the pale green eyes that were so prevalent in our family. Mom claimed that Helma took after her, that she had looked just like Helma in her youth. Since I never saw a youthful picture of my mother, I could not check that out. Still, I was a bit disgruntled by it all, because I was compared to Aunt Dorrie, who was short, overweight and wrinkled. I didn't have enough sense to realize that Aunt Dorrie had probably been a beauty in her youth.

Eventually, Helma had her first three children. Bobby Joe, Diana and Kathy. I adored those children. They would throng around me, calling me Aunt Boy, and clamoring for a story. Diana and Kathy were much like their mother and me. They were constantly at odds over just about everything. Kathy called Diana "Nose," and Diana retaliated by calling Kathy "Feet." Being with them always brought me back to the days when Helma and I were very young and constantly thinking up things to make each other miserable.

I used to have a hiding place on my bedpost. There was a round brass ball that could be unscrewed from the post. In that ball, I hid my treasures...poems I had written, a pretty rock, a sparkling piece of glass! Naturally, Helma found it, and felt compelled to read my poems aloud. I was mortified.

"Someday I'll be a famous poet!" I told her.

She was scornful! "You'll starve to death!" she said. "Poets live in attics and starve to death."

As we grew up, Helma became my self-appointed guardian. When I became a Clark Gable fan and ripped a picture of him out of a magazine at Harry's Drug Store, she discovered it.

"I'm going to tell Mom!" she said.

"It fell out of the magazine," I insisted. "I just picked it up off the floor"

"That's not true! You're going to jail! You're a thief!"

This was too much for me, so I bopped her. This gave her two things to tell Mom, who lectured me about stealing and about hitting my sister. Mom never really disciplined us, but would sigh and roll her eyes as though raising two girls so close in age was a burden difficult to bear. I lost quite a bit of sleep that night worrying about that remark about jail. I could see myself facing a judge and trying to explain my attraction to Clark Gable. As the days passed by, I realized that the incident was forgotten and Helma was already working on more important things, like her hair.

Her favorite hairdo was a pageboy, with a cultured wave curling over her forehead. She worked to make that wave stay in position in just the right way. I would watch her, sitting at a chair in the kitchen, my own hair a thick pile of dark straw, and try to think of some derisive, horror-inspiring ridicule to slather on that wave.

"Looks like Prince's mane!" I said finally. She turned to look at me, cute as a button, the wave plastered into a perfect shape.

"Look at you, strawhead!" was her retort. "Now, girls!" my mother called from the next room, "Don't get started!" At this point, Helma and I would look at each other in silent contempt, snort prettily and walk away from each other.

Several years ago, I attended Helma and Joe's 60th Wedding Anniversary Celebration. Someone had fashioned a board where pictures of Helma at various stages of her life were pinned up for viewing. One picture caught my attention. There was Helma on the beach, hair in place, serene and smiling. Behind her, like a dark cloud over the bright sun, was me, hair a tousled, ominous pile, my dark skin making Helma's fair complexion glow in comparison. Though we looked somewhat alike, it was like the glowing Fairy Princess and the glowering Gypsy Queen.

As we walked up that slight hill toward the Park restroom, I realized how much I loved this little slip of a woman, and how much I had loved her as a girl, when we bickered and complained and drove our mother into tears with our nonsense. She was bossy, superior, aggravating and nonsensical, but she was my beloved sister. She still is, and I hope she knows that this love was there all along, as it is with Kathy and Diana, as it is with sisters everywhere.