I have just read my sister’s obituary in the Lakeland Ledger.
Five years ago she stood next to me, grasping my hand, as we watched our mother die. Coward that I am, I was the one holding on for dear life. She was the one who escorted me through the rite, just like she’s done for every member of of my family since I was twelve. As practical as I’ve come to be about theoretical things that don’t matter, she was always the one who was practical about the things that did.
In 1956 my father and mother piled the family into a Nash Rambler on a hot July day and headed from just south of St Louis to Florida. None of us had any idea why, except my father and mother, and they weren’t saying. My sister later told me that it was because we lived in the shadow of a lead smelting factory and that I had developed bronchitis–a disease I assumed had something to do with dinosaurs. Florida and ocean air are good for the lungs, I was told. It might have been true. She also told me that the dog I left behind, an English shepherd named Brownie, would track us down as soon as she picked up our scent and be in Florida days after we were settled there. Though it stopped my crying, it turned out not to be true.
My sister, whose middle name was Sue and thus always Susie to a younger, attention-craving, insufferable brother, sat in the back seat next to me in a car without air conditioning for a trip to a state with water rather than Kansas and Illinois on either side of it.
By the time we got to Fort Myers, our presumed destination and where the Mayflower Van was headed with our worldly goods, my sore throat had developed into a major childhood illness: the mumps. The cure was rest, Royal Crown Cola, and saltines. When my mother asked why the cola, the doctor said, in a drawl my father strained to comprehend, “Well, have y’all evah tried eatin’ saltines without it?”
As I baked in a cheap motel room outside Naples, my sister wrote letters home to boyfriends she had thrown over, and in the custom of the day applied white adhesive tape and turquoise blue nail polish to a class ring from her last steady. Whenever she’d collected more than one ring, she sometimes let me apply the nail polish to a second. But it was her policy never to remove the tape when the ring was returned.
I will always remember Fort Myers as the place where I ate my first piece of watermelon and learned what blind mosquitoes (“aqueous midges”) were. Driving along the west coast with increasingly frazzled parents–neither parent had a job to go to and they were now confronted with a homesick daughter and a whining invalid son–my always abrupt mother announced abruptly that we weren’t staying in Fort Myers and we began a slow trek inland.
As we did, as though by magic, the solid wall of biteless ‘skeeters began to dissipate from the back inside windscreen and we focused on eating watermelon. Both of my parents were musicians (of a sort) so we sang, loudly and constantly as we chugged unhappily along. It was during that unhappy sojourn that I got to be “Bloop” to my sister’s “Bleep” in the Drip Song and the female part in “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Her favorite anthem that hot season was Rosemary Clooney’s version of “You’ll Never Know,” which I wasn’t permitted to sing with her.
By the time we hit the depot town of Winter Haven in central Florida, a way station for northern tourists en route by coach from New York to Miami in the old Florida East Coast Railroad, we were out of songs, almost out of cash, and the Nash was coughing badly. I was feeling better. My sister was feeling worse. Her homesickness had turned into something real. She’d caught the mumps.
Winter Haven became home, by default. It had lakes, and palm trees, lots of nice houses, banyan trees, fresh water swamps, foliage like you never saw in the Midwest, and loads of alligators. When I got to be a teenager I resented it being in central Florida and so far away from the coast and would occasionally say as indignantly as I could “Tell me again why we’re not living in Fort Myers.” But the story was always the same. “Your sister and you.”
Our mother found a job, then a better one, and ended up teaching at the local Catholic school. Our father did what he could do. Probably having escaped Missouri to avoid working for his German father, and after a financially ruinous try at running a restaurant in Haines City, he ended up working for my mother’s father. Worse, as we found out, there were blind mosquitoes in Winter Haven too.
After her one and only year in the local high school, my sister went to New Orleans to study nursing. The Greyhound trip to Louisiana with my father to see her capped was the biggest adventure of my young life, probably the proudest of his.
She married a boy from “back home,” a usual thing to do, and because back home was still Missouri for her, that’s where he was from. She had two adorable daughters who became little sisters to me, steadfastly refused–even when they were instructed–to call me Uncle Joe, and spent most of their time seeing if they could squeeze into the little area behind the back seat of my 1965 VW beetle. In biblical terms, they grew in grace and wisdom.
Years went by. I moved away. There were the usual growing-apart pains that always seem to separate brothers and sisters who occupy different spaces, miles apart. By this point she was the young matriarch of a family that had grown up knowing only Florida as their home. She returned to school, earned a few degrees and became what many people still call a “legendary educator.” Having known her in Girl Scout berets, Halloween party masks, with Calomime lotion smeared over her “blemishes” (our mother detested the words “pimples” and “belly”) it was hard for me to acknowledge the legendary part. But you can’t argue with the newspapers.
She had grandchildren. In August, 2007, one of them, her only grandson, was savagely murdered by a local gang. The effect of this on her was so horrible that the less said about it the better. It is better not even to think about it. It’s just a theory, of course, but it was something she never recovered from.
My relationship with my sister was not always easy. It was my fault that it wasn’t. I went from being a young brat to an older one, but always a brat. I mistook her endless exuberance for immortality, and when I learned she had cancer I thought the cancer didn’t have a chance. She would beat it. She would outlive me by a decade at least.
But she didn’t.
Now I’m the last member of the homesteading troupe that rumbled into Florida without a destination, frightened, sick, and cash poor–when Dwight Eisenhower was still in the White House, when the drinking-fountains in McCrory’s said “White Only,” and the Mass was still in Latin. There is no one to grasp my hand this time, and to make the kiss of death gentle and soft. Meeting my sister’s death is like meeting death with his mask off and knowing for the first time–really–that this is what happens to us one at a time.
There is one more song she loved that long while ago, and I have been humming it all day. It helps.