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Mental Health: Self Exploration; The Early Years with My Sister
Part 2. A Bit of Backstory
What can I say about the relationship I had with my sister? It was odd from the very start, I guess.
I was born in California; My sisters were 15 and 13, I think. My oldest sister was a paraplegic in a wheelchair due to a car accident they had both been in when they were 6 and 5. It was a bad accident with an 18 wheeler big rig that had lost its brakes. Both of my parents had been injured. My father had been “scalped” and had to have the skin of his head sewn back in place. My mother had been “scalped” as well, but in addition, she had her pelvis broken in 9 places and was placed in traction. My eldest sister was put into a full body cast, but her back was broken in the thoracic vertebral area. She could still use her arms, but below the area of the injury, she could feel and move nothing. My youngest sister suffered a few bruises and scratches, but otherwise came out unscathed.
It’s pretty amazing, to be involved in such a horrible dangerous wreck, and be the only one to come out unhurt. How must that make you feel, at 5 years old? To see your sister and mother in that condition? What happened, during those weeks when both of those people weren’t able to be there for her, and her father wasn’t really able to be there for her, either? I believe she stayed with my Aunt for awhile, but your whole life would abruptly be turned completely upside down. I can’t even imagine.
It’s hard to begin the story of your relationship with your sister when she is 13 years older than you are. At this point in time, I wouldn’t even exist for another 8 years. I have pictures in an album, and the tale was relayed to me in bits and pieces over many years. Nobody liked to talk about it. But, before I came along, the family healed as best it could, and my sisters grew into teenagers. Our mother was finally starting to feel a little bit of freedom from care giving.
Then I came along.
Why the back-story? Because I need to make it clear that there is a lot about my sister that I don’t know. She did things, but I cannot tell you why, or how she felt when she did them, and I’m especially clueless during my early years of life.
My eldest sister was confined to a wheelchair, and had no feeling in her body below her ribcage; so if she had health issues going on, she wasn’t even aware of them. When I was 4 years old, she died due to complications caused by the accident. She was 19. My youngest sister was seventeen, and already experimenting with drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. She became pregnant. The child was adopted, and my sister disappeared with a guy on a motorcycle. They went to live in Kentucky. All of this happened when I was four, and I have no recollection of any of it.
So you see, there it is; my total experience with siblings living in the same house with me spanned four years. Memories? Only a very few.
I remember sitting at the kitchen table one day when my sister came in with a friend. I can’t even remember what they were talking about, but they were talking. They had with them a bottle of wine, the kind with a big round bulbous bottom that had a bit of brown macramé woven around the base. My sister went into the kitchen and her friend sat at the table. I distinctly remember: I sat at the end, she sat to my right, and my sister was in the kitchen itself. Her friend leaned back on 2 legs of the kitchen chair, held the almost empty wine bottle up to her eye and tipped it back, watching the contents come up closer and closer to her eye. I remember this, because after they left, the bottle still sat on the table, and I have a very vivid memory of what I saw when I looked in the bottle and watched the red contents slosh around at the base. I remember thinking it wasn’t very interesting, and yet that is one of the most vivid memories I retain of my childhood.
Beyond that, I remember nothing else except visiting the grave of my eldest sister. My parents stood very solemnly over it while I played a game, jumping from headstone to headstone, trying to avoid the grass. I knew why we were there; we were visiting my oldest sister’s grave. I knew it was a sad time. But I felt completely detached from all of it, and I have no memory of my older sister. None at all.
My family moved a lot, and we began again with new homes and friends, over and over. My memory is mush. We moved about 6 months after I was born, and then we moved, on average, once ever two years. My father was an engineer, and wanted to see the world, and so when a job came open overseas, he would apply for it. We lived in California for a bit, and then he took a job in Tehran, Iran, when I was almost 7. We visited with my sister before we left; I believe by this time she was married to her first husband. Most of my contact with my sister was through cards and letters, which were very infrequent.
My sister and me at her apartment in California
All I really remember of this time was that the relationship was estranged for all of us, even then. My father and she would get into loud, heated arguments that I really didn’t understand. I just knew that he felt she was wasting her life, and mom felt she was rebelling. But she was an adult now, and so all they could do was advise, finance, and move on.
They tried to help with money, as often as they could, but with the money came stipulations. If they gave her this money, she must do as they said with it.
She would take the money and do as she wanted with it.
Dad would fly off the handle and rant and bellow; he’d get very upset. Then they wouldn’t speak for months. Later, she would find herself in some other desperate situation, and our parents would offer her money, with the stipulations that she spend it as they instructed.
She would take it and do as she pleased with it.
Dad would fly off the handle again; he would stomp and cuss and rage, and threaten never to help her ever again. But he did. Through all of this, Mom was a calming, rational, compassionate voice. She always managed to talk our father into giving it another chance, and trying again.
This was a constantly recurring pattern.
When we came back to the States, my parents would send me to Kentucky to spend the summers with my sister. I enjoyed it. These were honestly some of the best moments of my life. I loved the smell of hay, I loved the sound of crickets and cicadas, I could play in a creek building little dams for hours. She was usually living in a trailer or an old farmhouse way out in the country, and I was able to play in farm ponds and old barns, walk along narrow gravel paths and explore dilapidated old houses that had been left abandoned in the woods for years. I didn’t have any need for money, because we were way out in the country.
Having said this, though, I was supposed to be given an allowance. She asked me to clean out the metal dog bowls. I went outside and picked them up. To me, it was obvious food had been dumped into them for weeks without cleaning. I took them inside and scrubbed at them. I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed, and got the majority of the caked-on food off, but there was a ring of it left around the lip of the bowl. Being a kid, I figured this was good enough; after all, it was a lot cleaner than it had been when I had started. I asked her if that was okay.
“No, that’s not okay!” She said, very indignant. “Would you want to eat out of that bowl? Clean it properly!”
So I took it back to the sink and cleaned it, bemused. I thought, “No, I wouldn’t want to eat out of this bowl… but I certainly wouldn’t want to eat out of it the way it was, either!” I was confused because it was obvious the bowls hadn’t been cleaned it for days, at the very least. The food was practically welded to the edges of the bowl. How could she claim to be so concerned about this?
As I cleaned it, she continued to scold. “You haven’t been doing any of your chores properly, and so I’ve decided you're not going to get an allowance! Mom sent money for you, but I’m not going to give it to you, because you don’t deserve it.”
Now I was indignant. I spent a lot of time helping her by watching my niece and nephew. I don’t remember ever having actually been issued chores. I remember the feelings I had at the time; I really couldn’t care less about the punishment – there was nowhere to spend money out in the country, really; but I was very offended at being told that the money was being taken because I was being bad.
Because even then, I knew what it was being taken for. To buy cigarettes, alcohol and drugs.
It’s so odd, how dim my memories are; there is only the occasional vibrant one. The next memory I have was when I was at home, with my parents. My sister was visiting, and we were riding in the car. Mom was driving; my sister was in the passenger seat, and I was sitting in the back. They were talking in those happy, coaxing tones about next summer, when I would get to go to stay with my sister again. Wouldn’t I like that?
I remember I was fine one second, and the next I burst into tears and blurted, “No! I never want to go out and stay at my sister’s house again!” They both had looks of complete surprise and dismay. My sister promised me that things would be different the next time I came.
I think my memories are so dim not because anything bad was done to me; I think they are dim because I’m embarrassed and mortified about something I did myself. I was being childish and selfish, and reacted poorly. So I simply block the incident. Unfortunately, I became very good at this, and so I have very little information to relay about my young relationship with my sister. During her first marriage, I spent several summers with her. These always had the same sort of flavor; at some point, she and dad would butt heads and there would be at least one incident where they would yell at each other; money was always the issue. During this time, there weren’t many issues except for the fights with my father. I loved staying out in the country, but there was always a bad aftertaste left from those inevitable encounters.
My parents and I moved to Indonesia for a time; this was after or during the time she was getting divorced and being remarried. The 2 children she had from her first marriage moved out of the state to live with their father, and my sister stayed in Kentucky. I remember my parents would spend hours searching for perfect gifts for her kids, something that was fun but also was native to the places where we were. They would send cards and letters to their grandchildren, but I don’t remember them receiving anything in return. My parents would shrug it off to the bad feelings caused by the divorce. They weren’t even sure the cards and letters ever reached the children, but Mom said all they could do was keep trying, and hope that the bad feelings would pass.
After Indonesia, we moved to Pennsylvania. I was 13, by this time, and my sister was pregnant with her 4th child. If I recall correctly, he was born there. In any case, I remember I was there at the hospital when he was born, and her new beau had excitedly ushered us back into a staff-only area in order to see him.
The new husband was very different from the old one. Her first husband was educated and career oriented; this one looked like a wild-man from the back woods of Kentucky. For me, this is where my relationship with my sister and her family really started. It was probably the beginning of the end. I was a teenager now, and privy to some, if not all, of my sibling's family secrets. Before, it was all very novel, being around people who drank and smoked pot. I had hovered around the fringes of it without ever getting involved. The effects of these things had never gotten truly ugly when she was living with her first husband. If there was drama, she created it. In my heart of hearts, I really believe this is what ruined their relationship. It was too ordinary and boring for her. She wanted the drama. Without it, she didn't feel alive.
Now she was going to get it.