"Watch your heads, and sit down over there," said Grandma, motioning to a large trunk beneath the musty slants of the attic eaves. And then the storytelling began....

Antiques were folded into dusty boxes around us, their significance left unlabelled but for Grandma's remembering tales. I listened to the stories of my ancestors from the keepers of their treasures in that damp, dark haven where history and the future came together. And during those childhood hours in the attic, I would hear my calling—the.eternal quest for stories told and untold. I answer it still.
Musty smells and mothballs will take me there again, sitting on a box in my memory, enraptured. I hear knockin' on the attic as voices in my head—whispery phrases that need a turn, stories aching to be told, or simply memories wanting another moment of my time. When I hear that knockin', I know there's a voice to be heard and a story to be told. So, be careful on the ladder, watch your head on that beam, and have a seat on that trunk over there. Lean in, for I have some tales to share...

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Friday, March 6, 2009

The Littlest

I don't know when she started following me. I only know that she did. Like the fool that I am, I walked away with my back turned, and kept moving. I only slowed down enough occasionally to make sure she was still there. She always was.

"Wait up, Kelly," would come the whine. I'd move faster, challenging her to earn her right to stay with me. She always did. I still wouldn't let her know that I liked it: her need. In fact, I needed her to need me. It fed me. It gave me purpose. It handed me who I was: her big sister.

"Come on, brat," I would spit at her in a Great Show of Disgust (because what other kind of show was worth putting on?). I'd grab her little wrist in a grip that would make red marks in the shape of my fingers and pull her so fast her own toes would act like hurdles that tripped her up and over herself ('trip, trap, trip, trap went the littlest's feet...'). She never complained. She was just glad to be connected to me, even if it hurt.

It seems I made sure it did, more often than not. I didn't punish her for being littler, or because she wanted to be with me. I didn't even punish her because Mommy and Daddy made me take her with me. I punished her because I so often failed at my job as The Big Sister. It was my first and most important job. As far as I could tell, I wasn't much good at it and figured somebody had to pay for that.

"Why can't you be nicer to your little sister, Kelly?" my parents would ask, or tell me, "You need to forgive her. She's littler and she doesn't understand why she shouldn't do that (hurt you/take your toys/break your crayons/etc.)." Yet I couldn't understand why I got so many spankings while she never seemed to. I just couldn't seem to forgive her for being better than me. Her goodness made me feel mean and ugly, and I didn't like that feeling, not one bit. So I would unleash upon her tender skin and psyche the bubbling furies that coursed through my monstrous soul.

I had plenty of guidelines to help me in my sisterly responsibilities. "Share your toys/books/clothes with her. Hold her hand and take her with you, she's too scared to go alone. Show her how to do it. Give her a turn. Be gentle with her. Don't hit her. Help her with that, she can't do it herself yet," my parents directed. Even my big brother (eight years my senior) had instructions for the job. "You need to look out for her, take care of her when things get crazy," he'd say. Being a Big Sister was a Big Deal. I wanted to do it well, but I found it incredibly difficult to live up to such high expectations. I screwed up on a regular basis.

For one thing, my little sister was nothing like me. I loved danger and intrigue, such as our big brother's challenging games ("Come on! Attack the pillow! Run and hit it as hard as you can! Now wrestle it to the ground! You're weak, weak!" he'd scream, using the pillow to pummel us into the ground with one strong arm; or "Shut up! Shut up! Shut up, stupid!" he'd yell, slamming our faces into the bed every time we'd lift our heads, all of us laughing ourselves limp; and then the favorite: he'd make chainsaw noises, yell, "Timber!" and then, stiff as a board, fall on us as we lay on the bed, using only our feet to try to keep him from crushing us.). She complained about getting hurt or tattled when we pinned her down to tickle her. I loved Daddy's ghost and pirate stories, but he often stopped halfway through because she was too scared to listen. ("I don't want to give her nightmares, Kelly. You understand," Daddy would explain, but I was too selfish to care.) I didn't mind getting into trouble once in awhile if it meant I got to experience something forbidden (like finding and eating the hidden cookies before dinner or hiding in the garage with our friends, ignoring our parents' screams to come inside for dinner). She preferred to obey our parents and steer clear of spankings and groundings. I was also good at holding a grudge, getting revenge, and acting out my frustrations with an insult, sharp slap, or denial of the privilege of my enthralling company. She would forgive, forget, and continue to love, in spite of how thoughtless or mean I was to her. I never understood it, but I certainly took it for granted. One could see how difficult it might be for me to perform my duties in 'taking her with me' when she couldn't or wouldn't keep up with my agendas.

I spent a good deal of my youth trying to teach her to be more like me. Naturally, it was for her own good. I was concerned about how boring her life would turn out to be without me to help her color it in properly. She wanted to grow up to get married, be a good wife, be a mommy, and possibly become a teacher. I couldn't imagine a more droll existence. Not that I didn't want a husband and family too, I just knew it would never be enough for me. I always wanted more, demanded more from life, so I couldn't fathom how the life she dreamed would be enough. I tried to lead her by example. I knew she looked up to me, even idolized me at times, and I was very proud of that. I took it very seriously. Too seriously. And that's how I failed her. Though she followed behind me, faithful as a beaten dog, she managed to do my life better than I could. She shared my activities, my friends, and many of my interests and talents, yet she was content to stay out of the limelight, while I would seek it in whatever manner necessary, regardless of consequence. I simply kept moving forward, my hand yanking on hers as tightly into adulthood as I had as a child, rarely stopping long enough to notice who she was becoming. I was still intent on inspiring her to be more, well, me.

And then one day I did: notice. She wasn't me. And for the first time ever, I thought, "Oh, thank God!" My little sister was a wife and a mother, a homemaker who cared for her children and others in her beautiful home. She was content, happy. Her biggest dreams had been fulfilled, and I was still chasing the fantasies of my childhood, running circles in my dramas, and not learning fast enough what it was I really wanted in life. Once I really stopped to look at her, The Little Sister, I realized that, like I've done so much in my life, I'd been doing everything with her inside-out and ass-backwards.

All the time I was charging forward, dragging her along, I should have been walking beside her, swinging our intertwined hands. The times I was teaching her how to find excitement in her life, I should have been learning from her how to find contentment and peace in mine. When I wouldn't forgive her for being so good (and therefore making me look bad), I should have realized how I was the one, above all, who benefitted from her gift of forgiveness, and stopped making my own destructive choices. My time would have been much better spent all those years learning from her how to love. How to forgive. How to listen, not just to the words, but with the heart. All the while I was pulling her, I rather should have been the one following.

We're separated by now by an international border, a twelve hour drive, and about fifty weeks a year we can't be together. Yet, we've never been closer. I've realized that while other people like to think of their mates as their other half, I believe it of my sister. She's nothing like me, and that's the blessing in this. She teaches me how to be a better me because she knows me so well, and loves me in spite of it. She can guide me back to myself when I get lost and scared and unsure along the way. She always takes time for me, she's gentle with me, and she shares her toys, her home, her family, her ideas, her dreams and stories. She makes me feel safe, able, and most importantly, relevant.

Now I'm still looking forward as I move along, but from an entirely different place. I call out "Lori! Wait for me!" I run along, hoping to one day catch up and earn my right to stay with her.

1 comment:

slaburns said...

Think I know where some of my mystery scars came from... Such abuse! About time you fessed up, Sissy. It was well worth it for all the love I receive from you now, though. This is beautiful and I love you all the more for writing it. Keep 'em coming!