Betty Duffy

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gone to Mississippi

Driving South on Interstate 65 was like traveling through a stop-motion film. Spring advanced by the hour: frozen rain in Indiana and Kentucky, to mossy green in Tennessee, to Redbud North of Birmingham, and Camellias in Mississippi. And the kids as well, grew progressively more energetic as the morning fog cleared off their own heads, and their bodies became aware of their twelve-hour encapsulation.

The last hour of a car trip with kids tends to be most intense, so I handed over the wheel to my mother, to separate errant brothers from invading their siblings’ personal space. Everyone’s tired of holding up their own heads, but no one wants to be the shoulder to lean on.

“I brought some CDs,” my mom had said proudly at the beginning of the trip—a big duffle bag full of recorded Stations of the Cross, Placido Domingo and “Sissal!” We’d done those already, and I think we were all ready for a little rebellion music. “Don’t you have any Clapton or Marvin Gaye?” my mom asked of the contents of my Ipod. And I did just happen to have “Let’s Get it On,” which my mom started to sing along to, and then I felt embarrassed. “I think we’re in the wrong crowd for this song.”

The kids yelled, “We Didn’t Start the Fire!” from the backseat, which is one of those songs you wish had never been written, and much more that the kids had never heard. They don’t know the words, which I suppose is a blessing, so they yell their own variation packed with potty words.

And at last, we arrived with much noise on my sister’s doorstep. Her six kids opened the door with mutual noise, and the neighborhood was momentarily filled with a cloud of noise that could mask the sound of jets taking off at the nearby airforce base. The ground was rumbling. Boys were boxing. My three-year-old peed on the floor.

“Here we are to break your toys and soil your linens,” I said, orienting myself with the contents of my sister’s pantry and fridge, investigating my sister’s point of view down here, one block from the bay and two blocks from the military base. I’ve missed her so much.

One of my boys is a breaker—the kind that seems not to realize his own strength, or else he does realize it, and enjoys using it to destroy things. He’s a rubber-maid-tub-dumper as well which meant that the floor was an impermeable sea of small pieces within minutes of our arrival. Children in the bathtub splashed water over the edges of the basin. No one wanted to go to sleep.

By nine pm a cigarette was long overdue. I dropped two butts behind my sister’s air conditioning unit that she would find in the morning, and chastise me for using the world as my ashtray. But who wakes up and cleans the area in the yard behind the air conditioner? That’s my sister, the woman who takes care of everything and everyone, who had my baby’s diaper changed before I realized it was dirty.

Being with my mom and sister, I revert to an exasperating age eleven. They cook things, and I stand at the counter eating out of the pan. I go through my sister’s closet and bookshelves looking for things to confiscate. I try on her cosmetics and use her hair products. I will not say that I read her diary….It’s possible she hasn’t missed me at all.

My daughter, in the room with her older cousin, immediately goes to the closet and begins trying on her sandals. “What can I have?” she asks, looking through the dresses, and a new assortment of girly toys and dolls. She sits next to Annie as close as possible, then gets up on her knees to pull her bigger cousin’s long hair into a ponytail. Don’t I wish my girl had a sister?

With kids in bed, the three of us poured some wine, sat on the lanai, and I opened up the Dunhills again.

“You know she taught our little brother to smoke,” my sister says to Mom. Also, my husband’s little brother, if we’re keeping score, and I’ve long threatened to teach my sister’s kids to smoke (which I wouldn’t really do…unless they asked), and it’s only a matter of time before Aunt Betty is the fat, stinky old Aunt with broken capillaries and wrinkles all over her face who comes up asking for tobacco-breathed kisses while her nieces and nephews scatter to the darker corners of the house. I can’t wait. (This is innuendo, of course.)

“I don’t really smoke,” I say, taking a drag.

There was too much to say to keep talking about cigarettes, and as my sister says, “You make me sound like such a spoil sport.” She’s not. She’s always been the brains of the family, while I’ve been the family pet. But in her adult life as a military wife, always on the move, making new friends and raising her children, she’s also become very social. She’s had to make herself known anew again and again, while I have maintained a steady retreat into home life, living not far from our parents, keeping old friends.

Our conversations for the night are content for a different post. After two glasses of wine, all of us were falling asleep. My mom opted to sleep on the hide-a-bed, which left my sister and me to share a bed. And our reversion was complete, back to our youth, sharing a room for the first seventeen years of my life.

We had bunk beds. She slept on top, and I traced her body on the underside of her mattress with a Sharpie. She would lower her head to talk about some boy, or to make a joke, and I’d kick her, or climb up to her lair to build a nest of blankets and stuffed animals.

Mom and Dad tapped through the floor of their upstairs bedroom to tell us to be quiet, but we wouldn’t—not until one of them came downstairs, all of our eyes flinching when they turned on the light. “Go to bed!”

Don’t I wish my girl had a sister?


Laura said...

Love it! It's awful when family lives far away, but it makes the reunion all that much sweeter.

Hope said...

As one of three sisters and the mother of one daughter, yes, I so wish my daughter had a sister. She had such a long, sobbing cry over not having one when she was about 10 years old. It still makes me feel sad.

Young Mom said...

That's awesome. I had 4 sisters born in a row after me, and I miss them all like crazy since I live far away.

LazyBones said...

I'm one of 6 sisters from an Irish Catholic family. I've been reading here a while, but I'm delurking to tell you how much I enjoyed reading this post!

Catharina de Bononia said...

You all are making me feel so much better--I'm the Mama of 4 girls (so far) 3.5-year-old twins, a 2-year-old, and a 3-month old.

Thank you for making me hopeful that they'll enjoy these memories of sharing a room (all 4!), and clothes, and snacks, and everything else... and being close in age, and being sisters.

Sometimes I get a little worried, when the 3-month-old is nursing, and the 2-year-old is whining to be picked up, and the 3.5-year-olds are nearby asking me to read a book or put in some pigtails, and I have to ask them all to wait, in some way, while I help their sisters. Thank you for offering such a beautiful picture (you other commenters, too!) of sisterhood--especially of LARGE sisterhood!

Kimberlie said...

You are making me feel guilty. I am one of three girls, the oldest actually. I am very close to my sisters now even though we live in different parts of the continent and even the world. But when we get together, it's like we were never apart.

Now, I have one girl, and she has two older brothers, and we are adopting another older brother with no plans to add another girl to the family. This is it. I figure "the Princess" really doesn't want the competition. And she definitely provides all the drama a 4-yr old girl going on 25 can provide. It's enough for me.

But no, you go and write this post and now I feel as though I am depriving her of her right as a girl to have a sister to grow up with.

Thank you. Thank you very much for that.