Good morning, good morning. Here I am again at my little desk, the one with the candles and the mug of (decaf) coffee doused with soymilk. the one with the quiet and the rush of traffic outside that can sound like the waves if I let my ears unfocus enough. The one that settles in around me, drapes itself around my shoulders, whispers, “quit stalling and write now, girl.”
Today is my sister’s birthday. I would like to tell you about birthdays of her past, from when we were little, but I can’t remember any of them. Is this an age thing or a trauma thing? At what point do you quit asking that question? I would like to be able to tell you, when my sister turned six, she had a big party with all of her friends from our school in the city, where we’d moved when I was still in kindergarten and she was only three. She wore a pink dress to the party and my mom made her a cake and all the kids played pin the tail on the donkey with a paper donkey that my mom made out of construction paper and pile cleaners for whiskers. But that’s not a true memory. I don’t know what happened for her sixth birthday, or her seventh, or her eighth. By her 8th we were living in Omaha, weren’t we? It’s not just big-sister narcissism — I can’t remember my own 6th or 7th or 8th birthdays, either. (Let this be a lesson to you, parents who are knocking yourselves out trying to one-up yourselves and every other parent in the neighborhood when it comes to your kids’ birthdays.)
I want to have those memories, though. I want to have a direct thread to the length of our togetherness. I want to remember more clearly how much we loved each other, and what we fought about, and when we disappointed each other and the secrets we kept for each other. I want there to have been good secrets between us. I know we had them. I just don’t remember.
Today I’ll visit my sister in her little apartment, celebrate her birthday with her husband and her child, and our mother, too. Family.
What can I give my sister on her birthday? I can’t give her memories of Before — we each have so few of them. I can’t give a history, a tracing back through the terror into the place where we loved each other without reservation and had nothing to complicate that love. I can’t tell stories of the little girls we were; those stories are buried deep in us now. I spend two week with my beloved in the place she was a child, and she enters into story after story — about her life at home, about each one of the good friends she had in the neighborhood, about her brother, about grade school, middle school, high school,about jobs and sports — about a normal sort of growing up. I listen with delight, of course, because I love her and I want to know — to have known — her at every age she’s ever been. And I listen with an ache, too, not just for the fact of those sorts of stories I don’t have about my own life, but for the fact of memories I don’t have, either.
For my sister’s birthday, I’d like to give her those memories. Not a different past — I can’t consider that, knowing that a different past would change who we are now, would change where she’s found herself and what a beautiful person she and her husband have made — but an easy drop into memories of a time when we were ok just as we were, when we were just girls with a future ahead of us, with normal struggles and worries and longings, when we ran after butterflies and climbed trees and she put up with all of my big-sister meannesses (pretending the dime is less than the nickel, pretending the garden hose is a snake, squeezing lumps of mom’s thick, natural, brown conditioner into the tub while we were in the bath and trying to convince my sister to tell mom she’d gone to the bathroom– can you believe she would’t do it?) When we argued over how or whether to play together, when she complained about always having to be the baby when the neighborhood kids played House because she was the littlest or youngest one, when we collected leaves and rocks and weeds, when she came with me down the alleyway shortcut home from school even though mom told us not to go in the alleys. When she trusted me to lead her into safe places. When the only danger we knew was a sharp piece of gravel under our bare feet. When she got bubble-gum ice cream at the Baskin Robbins and I got rocky road. When we had each other still, even though mom and dad left one another, when we had to walk into new houses and our parents’ new lives, meet their new friends, keep smiles on our faces even though we just wanted everything to go back to the way it was before. We could always make each other laugh, and used to swing on the swingset in the backyard for what seemed like hours — maybe it was 20 minutes, but time elongates the memory, I see us forever there on the swings, caught in that helpless laughter, not able to look at each other because when we do, we start laughing all over again.
These are memories of the time of Before. They’re still in us, all of it is, all those years, all that hope, all that wonder and the regular fears and anxieties of childhood, all that play and possibility. The Halloween costumes and the May baskets and then christmases in our homemade flannel nightgowns and the dresses mom made that looked like Christmas trees. All the open space of Nebraska and endlessly long boring car rides and dad telling us how much longer it would be by telling us how many songs there were to go yet and grandma enfolding us into her arms with a love that was bigger than we were and a little scary. The smell of grandparent’s basements (that, for us at least, didn’t have any danger in them), the smell of the fourth of July in the middle of the country, the smell of the snow in the middle of February.
These memories are still ours, even underneath what came after. Our stepfather didn’t obliterate our histories, no matter how hard he tried. We live them still. Our histories, our togetherness, our sisterhood: that’s what got us through. Today I can’t bring a fat stream of memory, but I can bring homemade scones and [shhh…] and we can eat dinner together and watch her son play and not have words for what it means that we survived as long as we did to be able to make it into this now, with this new life between and through us, growing into his own memories, erupting with surprise at every new experience, just like we did once, together, for so long hand-in-hand.