For as long as I can remember, my sister hasn't been able to remember anything. By anything I am referring to sentimental memory. She remembers where all the things are in her house because everything in her house is so meticulously arranged, how could she not? There is none of that messy stacking or pushing plastic containers aside to find the right lid. She has managed to place each and every thing in its each and every place; blocks of post-its are colour-coordinated, bills are in chronological sequence, her remote controls set side by side always in the same order on the coffee table: the TV one is next to the DVD one and the VCR one is on the end because she comes from an age of VCRs and they coexist with the more modern technologies.
Her sentimental memory leaves something to be desired. She has conveniently forgotten most of her childhood and is proud of it. Whenever I ask her to tell me what our mom, who died at the age of 37, was like, she pauses and then, in a most nonchalent way declares, "I don't remember."
This lack of common historical data makes the nice, old time family memory exchanges most unlikely and when they do occur they tend to be a one-sided affair. Most discouragingly, even if she claims to recall nothing, she will not hesitate to correct what she perceives as my mis-guided memory.
"I remember we took egg sandwiches to mom, " I proudly assert.
"You were two. I don't think so," she then tells me that she is going to the kitchen to make something for lunch and asks if she can put me on speaker.
We have been having these speaker conversations for years, but now they are sincronised to the different continents we reside upon. I in Europe, Italy to be exact, and she, Nebraska, in the middle of the United States in a place so flat and so cold that she refuses to leave it, just to spite it, and as it would seem, to spite herself.
My sister has always been plainly honest, unkindly so, arriving painfully to the point in almost any discussion, no matter how grave or delicate. When I told her that I was thinking of having a baby, she told me very plainly that it was just because I missed my dollies and that it would make more sense to go buy one of those than for me to bring a child into the world. Ok, it turned out she was right, but it's the way she says stuff that gets to me.
When I called her from a phone booth in Milan to recount the panic attack I had on the flight that took me to my new home in another country, she announced without conscience or diplomacy, "That was God punishing you."
When I asked her if she was an organ donor, she was quiet and then told me that there was no way she would donate her organs, ever. When I delicately asked why not (explaining how compassionate a move it seemed to me to be), she volunteered that it was nice that I felt so strongly about my convictions and then changed the subject, with a tone that meerly tolerated the musings of a younger sister.
Her insights are extremely versatile and all encompassing. She knows a lot about a lot of stuff and our quarterly conversations usually take the greater part of a day covering everything from soap operas, to film scripts, from child development to political philosophy. This is what makes her interesting and is the reason I like talking to her.
It isn't that she doesn't love me or appreciate me. She helped me write a report on the book, 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' when I was eleven years old, gave me the Boston Women's Collective publication of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', introduced me to The Byrds' 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' and Elton John's 'Goodbye Yellowbrick Road' and invited me to stay with her every summer in Denver, San Diego or Boston, depending on where she was living at the time, rescuing me from, well, our family. She shared her space, her time, her friends, her money, her daughter, her clothes, herself with me. It's just that she doesn't remember any of that, so you can't really sit down and reminisce about the good old days with someone who was there but hasn't got a clue what you're talking about.
Recently I got up the nerve to suggest that she be kinder with her words. She told me to grow a thicker skin. About seven years ago, during one of our marathon conversations, I said, "God, you and I are completely different!" This for me, was a revelation.
"Well, duh," she said.
My sister could ice skate. there are photos of her and mom on the ice across from grandma's house at 102 Waterloo. They look natural, dotting a white canvas with long, extended leg, pom-pom stocking caps, striped socks and felt skirts.
I tried to skate once and was coaxed out into the center of the rink by my schoolmates, guiding me as I weaved the blades inward and outward, inward and outward. Then when I thought it could get no worse, a whistle blew and a man's voice, interrupting the BeeGees music blaring from the speaker system, told everyone to clear the ice. I waivered. I tried to move but could not. Twenty seconds later I was alone, in the middle of the skating rink, a mere echo of myself, mortified. The humming of the ice cleaning machine came closer when I realised that the guy was going to have to swing by and pick me to take me to safety of the carpeted corridor that ran from the ice to the place where you rent your skates. Sitting down on one of those long benches, I unlaced mine, tears rolling down my face and off the tip of my nose. I never skated again. That kind of thing would never have happened to my sister. She liked sports.
She follows football and my dad loves that about her. (I pretend to be interested in football so I can talk to my father about something when I visit.) She knows the game, the players, the rules, the records, the trophy winners and the coaches. To me The Cornhuskers are the team that I used to pray would win so my dad would be in a good mood on Sunday afternoons. Otherwise, things could get ugly. Spit would fly while curse words intertwined with the names of players I never heard of and I would run into my bedroom, put on Liza Minelli records and lay low until he went to work the next morning.
This last Christmas she had some old film restored and transferred to a digital format as a present for our dad and our step mom Patti. I asked her if it had been sad to watch it.
"I sent you a copy- you can watch for yourself."
Is it sad? I persisted. No, she said it had not been sad for her to watch the footage of babies growing up and puppy dogs in the grass and the old house on Jackson Boulevard and the baseball toss in the yard and the little boy, our brother Scott, who at the age of 47 would commit suicide. It had not been sad for her.
I sat down the afternoon her package arrived and watched the frames of a lifetime away that started before I was born. There was my sister, first child, round, dimpled, smiling. There was our brother blowing out the candles on a chocolate cake. There was our dad and mom at the Bronx Zoo and the cherry blossoms of our nation's capital. And there was me. That footage had been taken after mom was gone. I was two. There were cousins and a cat and dog. There was a dolly on my lap.
When she asked me what I thought about the films, I told her she was right. They weren't sad and thanked her for putting it together for all of us. I told her that it was cool to see Scott and she agreed it was and then we talked about manicures and books. She went into the kitchen to fix something to eat and as I pictured her under the light of her stove, opening the fridge door, cutting up vegetables and picking herbs from her balcony, she put me on speaker. By the time I hung up, the sun was down on my side of the world while her day was just getting started. I picked up my dog and took him to bed and as I lay in there, I thought about the time my sister and I took the bus, 15 hours north to visit grandma. She was teaching me French phrases from her high school course. The next time we talked I reminded her about that trip to Rapid City but she told me she didn't remember.
A collection of writing.