LAST WEEK I TOLD You my side of the story. This week, it’s my sister’s turn. It’s what I call the “She Said, She Said” of all sisters. If you have a sister, you know. If not, believe me when I tell you that no two sisters see any family event the same way. Why not? Well, it’s not that we’re different in spite of being raised in the same household. We’re different because we were raised in the same household. What does that look like? Read on.
I just wanted ice cream, a Good Humor bar to be precise, either Toasted Almond with its crunchy, pebbled exterior, or perhaps a smooth, slippery Creamsicle to gradually whittle down with the warmth of my tongue: licking, licking, trying to stay one lick ahead of meltdown.
Buying ice cream from the hulking white cube of a truck was one ritual of long summer days in my 1960s suburbia, as much as playing outside until supper, or the volatile smell of charcoal-lighter fluid splashing in an arc onto the nightly pyramid of black briquettes. The adults had their happy hour; we had our Good Humor.
Where Mommy was at this moment on this particular evening I do not recall, but no matter. Her long red clutch purse was on the Victorian chaise in the master bedroom, the room she shared with my father. It was furnished with the suite of his-and-hers dressers and twin beds pushed together into one faux expanse, but with that tricky, insistent abyss down the middle where they joined, the one you could fall into. Sometimes we rough-housed in there, my younger sister and I, two giggling, squealing girls in pigtails, and down the crack between Mommy’s side of things and Daddy’s, one or the other of us would go, disappearing.
But this early summer evening I am on my own in the ballroom-sized space with its crystal chandelier and matching sconces, the floor-length draperies and upholstery all in pale green raw silk. The way I remember it, I am nine, and I want ice cream, and I can hear the bells of the ice-cream truck growing louder so there is no time to find anyone grown up and ask for the money I need.
I am on what to a nine-year-old is a mission: seeking the shortest route to getting my immediate needs met. Give me ice cream now.
I race upstairs, two steps at a time, to that familiar room where the people whose job it is to protect me start and end their day under matching nubby, dark green bedspreads. I go and reach my small hand into that big red wallet to find the dollar, as I have in my nine-year-old innocence so many times before. Give me ice cream now.
The bells ring again, and I dig deeper into the clutch – Why is there no single? -and then my hungry rummaging goes really wrong.
I do not find the currency to end my craving, but instead an end to untroubled summer evenings where scoring a dollar bill in Mommy’s wallet was my most urgent desire. In my hand is a small black and white photo of the man who is perhaps my father’s closest friend, the father of my sister’s closest friend, the man with whose wife and family we go to dinner routinely and even travel with sometimes.
I don’t, and I do, understand.
What follows is not the treat I seek, but (to state the obvious, and say it tritely) an end of innocence. I have not even had a boyfriend yet; I don’t wear (or need) a bra – and won’t for years to come. I am a child, with a girl’s white cotton undershirt and Carter’s Spanky Pants beneath the pedal pushers and striped top Mommy bought me; my white mercerized cotton socks are folded over carefully at the ankles. I am a child, but at this instant I am a child who is forced to become the Confronter, a place in the family achieved when hand touched photo. Tag: You’re it. No longer someone searching for a dollar, I began my life’s search for an honest answer, no matter how ugly. And I begin a lifetime habit of asking questions, endless questions, the first of them spoken silently to myself there in that bedroom.
“Why is there a picture of Jack in Mommy’s wallet?” I was not silent for long.
The answers – from Mommy, from Daddy, and even from Marion – were always the same, no matter how I phrased my question: Be quiet, they’d say, in one form or another. Don’t talk that way. Be quiet.
If you have not read my version on the same event, you can do so here. Does Margaret’s version of the same family experience temper mine? No. Does hers differ wildly from my version? Yes. She found out about our mother’s affair when she was nine, after all. Does this make for a very different narrative sister-to-sister? Oh baby, does it ever. Is one of us wrong? Ah, no.
Should another version of the same family moment leave you blocked? Never.