May 10, 2007

 

A Remembrance

One of the first solid memories I have of her is when I was about six or seven years old. It was a crisp autumn day and I was out playing by myself when I spotted her waiting at the corner bus stop just a half block from our house. I yelled down to her, asking where she was going. “Downtown to do some shopping,” she answered. “Would you like to come with me?”

Wow, downtown. Now that was a treat I had previously only enjoyed with mom, and seldom at that. I tossed my mitt and ball up on the stoop of our house and went running down to meet her. “I don’t have any money for the bus,” I said, almost out of breath from the jubilant sprint caused by her invitation. I half expected my indigence to be a deal breaker, but was also half sure that big sister could figure out a way to get me on that bus even if it meant stowing me away.

She produced a roll of dimes and opened the end, then counted out six and handed them to me. “That’s three to get there and three to come home,” she said with a matronly tone that was appropriate considering the sixteen years between us. I had scarcely ever been more wealthy in my short life. I don’t recall too many more details of that day except having had lunch at the Woolworth's counter and coming home with a small bag of booty, all financed by my awesomely adult big sister with the rolls of coins.

She had just graduated college that spring. Though the school she went to was a city bus ride away, she lived in the dorms at first. But she moved back home due to financial constraints, which I suppose was not atypical for a lower middle class single white female in the early 1970s. God knows she was on the lookout for a way out as soon as the job market provided the means for her to share a pad with one of her girlfriends in a similar predicament. That or Mr. Right would come a courtin’ yes indeed.

Around that same time she was planting the unseen seeds of rebellion and training a sympathetic ear toward her younger siblings. I remember hearing in later years of her decision to vote for anti-war candidate George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election and how well that did not sit with my parents, card-carrying members of Nixon’s silent majority. In a lot of ways she was swept up in the flow, for our Republican mother and father were the odd ones out in our heavily Democratic city. Though she would not latch on to the radical elements of the day that were ostensibly maturing into the future leadership of the Democratic party, she cultivated a healthy skepticism through observation of the ruts created by the spinning political wheels of the Nixon-Goldwater ilk.

Being the eldest of seven would be a daunting task by itself. Add the separation of 18 years from the alpha to the omega, top it with a zealously religious mother who had, after spending more than five years of her life pregnant, finally succumbed to post-partum depression (undiagnosed in those days) and you have the bona fide recipe for exasperation of a teenage girl in the 1960s. Her Beatles records were smashed and she became default babysitter, often near full time, for the littlest of us. Despite whatever clashes she had with her mother she maintained a loving rapport with us, and when she finally did meet Mr. Right (and I’m talking right as rain here), she no doubt relished the rescue.

Little sis, third from left, with big sis and family (mid-1980s).

They began their own family, and as little aunties and uncles we had a blast with our new nieces. The mother-daughter tension was still prevalent, and made grandma’s presence just a shade less welcome than the rest of us while also affecting my sister’s parenting skills. Still, family gatherings were happy if somewhat jejune. We lived for the visits from and especially our visits to a suburb that seemed light years away to those of us without driver’s licenses. When the license finally did come, I remember it was a great treat for a request for chauffeur duty to be granted.

To some degree in our family each consecutive sibling’s coming of age was accompanied by a corresponding increase in the level of rebellion. By the time my younger sister and I were entering adolescence, our parents were at wit’s end from the cumulative effect of all their children’s various levels of apostasy. Some who will remain nameless were looked upon suspiciously as “The Golden Child,” the Jacob to another’s Esau. Fortunately such dysfunction never led to any unsavory wielding of pottage over another – we were just checking the width of the guardrails on our way to adulthood. But that wearing down of the parental units put my eldest sister in the position of surrogate counselor. Her wisdom was often helpful but never totally pure, as her lens was smudged with the grime of her relationship with our mother. Still it was comforting to have that sympathetic ear to contrast professional family counseling sessions with mom, who stuck tar to her heels on the position that we just didn’t want to do WJWD.

An example of the aforementioned rapport that will forever be in the family oral, and aw hell now written, history is the time of my first arrest (yes first, shut up). I was away at college, so what do you suppose the offense could have been? DUI? No. Drugs? Perhaps later. Public intoxication? Well, I was, but that was not what the cop who put his burly hand on my shoulder as I was turning from the wall and closing my zipper booked me for. That’s right, I got busted for public urination. Seems the owner of the garage that I and twelve other guys were pissing on was himself pissed at having to live adjacent to a popular fraternity house with just two toilets. I mean the joint was jumpin’ – what’s a drunk nineteen-year-old with a maxed out bladder to do? The fine wasn’t a whole lot, but more than your average indigent college kid could scrape up for cigarette money. And I couldn’t have the parents knowing about this, no sir. Hello sis? Heppabrutha out, eh? She got a good laugh out of it over the phone, one which no doubt bubbled up again as she closed up the package containing a check to cover the legal expenses. That’s right, a package, which I also thought strange as I picked it up the following week from the front desk at the dorm. I thought I heard her giggling as I opened it to find the check inserted inside a disposable diaper.

While Dad supervises Jan helps me get it just right on my wedding day (1993).

Little sis had her share of troubles, too, and our big sis was a mediary and often outright fortification against the mom brigade. Mom wasn’t totally wrong. She saw her daughter making some unwise choices and was jaw-set to right the wrongs. She grew up during the Great Depression, and had her last baby when she was nearly 41, so along with the tumult of change that was 1970s America there was created a generation gap theretofore unseen. Big sis’s house was frequently a refuge for the baby, and I’m thankful for that.

The years have combined and melted into a dream like I suppose they do for most people, and in our now solid adulthood we have substantial geographic distance separating most of us. As a result of the family diaspora, the emotional distance has increased and lives get lived with only brief reports to fill the spaces. I know one report that consistently impresses in me the size of my sister’s heart is the enormous number of people she knew and the number of those people who have nice things to say about her. Our family reunions are not frequent enough, but at least the fond hearts have cause to celebrate the long absences from one another. This next one will be minus one heart – an unfillable space that over time will hopefully seem less obtrusive if no less poignant.


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Comments:
That was a beautiful celebration of your sister, O'Tim. Sounds like you were very lucky to have each other.

PS: We've got something in common: My first (yep) arrest was for public urination too!
 
I had a feeling your recent silence had to do with this. I almost called last night, in fact. I'm so sorry. I wish I knew what to say.

You know where your friends are, when you need us.
 
So sorry, O'Tim. Beautiful post.
 
Ah, another Tim w/ a rap sheet! I could tell you stories! I'll save that for a private email (never know what potential/present employers Google you on a periodic basis). I am jealous of you ability to spin a yarn with words. She was very special, I can tell. It hurts to lose someone like that. As you get older, life is much more about loss... It's very hard! I'm looking forward to grandkids (although not TOO SOON!)to turn that around the other way.
Too bad you have your hands full with that boy, I'd like to have finally had that beer with you when I was in Nashville two weekends ago. Keep the faith, man!w
 
Earlier this week you and your sister were on my mind, and I was wondering how she was doing. I wish she were still with you and your family . . . thank you for sharing her so generously with us. Lovely lady, in every way.
 
Beautiful.

Thinking about you, buddy.
 
Dang you, you made me cry. She sounds like she was a gem. It sounds like she was very much herself and had a huge heart.

Thanks for sharing your hurt with us.
 
Thanks to all of you for sharing and thinking about me. I am with family this weekend, and Jan's memorial service is Monday. I'll float amidst the blogosphere as I am able, but I may not be posting for awhile.
 
I've been saving this post to read for several days now. Today I devoted the time to reading it that such a well-crafted post deserves.

My thoughts are with you while you're with your family. Take care.
 
that was very nice. Again I am sorry for your loss.
 
Absolutely lovely. Seems a fitting tribute. Much love there.
 
Tim: I'm sorry to learn that you've lost your sister. She sounds wonderful and this post, so beautifully written, is a lovely tribute to her.
 
A beautiful tribute, and well-deserved I'm sure. Take care of yourself, Tim.
 
Thanks again, all. A note to update - Jan had several hundred people attend her memorial service. It was incredibly touching to see that.
 
Fucking death.
 
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