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by D.M. Simone
When I opened the door, it was good to see her. Her hair was swept up in a loose bun, her clothes laid back and sporty, her makeup discreet. My sister Paula, tall and slim where I was curvy, her red hair long and straight while mine was curly, cropped and brown. Striking a pose, she wiggled a bottle of wine in her perfectly manicured hands, reminding me of many nights of comfort, tears and laughter. Her abandon and my inhibition. Endless discussions about men, jobs and art.
“Hi sis,” she said in that neutral tone of voice, always bordering the sarcastic. “I brought a friend.”
“Well, that’s nice of you,” I said and welcomed her in with a quick hug.
“It’s Californian red,” Paula advertised her gift with a smile. “To cure your homesickness.”
“Well, I’m sad to inform you: I’ve stopped drinking,” I replied and closed the door, avoiding my little sister’s gaze and that familiar frown between her eyes, the one our mother always said would give her wrinkles around the age of thirty-five.
“When did that come up?”
“Only recently,” I admitted and took Paula’s coat, bidding her into my living room.
She gasped upon admittance, marveling at the silverware and china displayed on the dinner table. “What’s the occasion?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” I shrugged. “I just felt chic today.”
“I say.” My sister took a seat. “All dolled up and Gram's best china. Donna Reed Show much?”
She glared at me in my petticoat dress and heels, observing how I served our home-cooked meal, smelling deliciously of childhood memories.
“I hope you still like meat loaf.” I smiled, took off my apron and sat with ladylike precision. “Gram’s recipe. I found it only yesterday.”
“Are you finally going through her stuff?” My sister queried as she took the first bite, reminding her taste buds of our summers up in Rockford – the melancholy expression on her face gave her away.
“I’ve been cleaning out a little,” I answered, eyes wide from a rush of memories.
“Yes, I can tell,” Paula said as she enjoyed another piece. “Going vintage all the way.”
“I figured I could do with a change.” I watched my sister study the old photographs that now embellished my room, the pillows and souvenirs I had dug up from Gram’s boxes previously stored away in her basement.
“If you like outmoded,” Paula remarked, her face free from malice. “Why not?”
“Digging it.” I met my sister’s eyes and chuckled. Gram’s favorite expression.
“I still can’t believe she’s gone,” Paula sighed.
“I know,” I agreed sadly. “Me either.”
Then I took a deep breath, struggling like I had for days, uncertain how to go on. “It’s as if an entire world’s vanished forever.”
“Gram was ninety-five, she...”
“That’s not what I mean.” I struggled for words. “There’s so much knowledge she took with her, so many secrets. I can’t just dial her number and chat with her for hours anymore. I can’t ask her about her youth, a recipe or favorite film stars. It’s an entire generation going now, so many traditions. So much wisdom.”
“That’s life,” Paula shrugged off my nostalgia.
“I know,” I sighed and ran my index finger over the rim of my water-filled wine glass. “It just makes me feel so lonely.”
“And that’s why you abandoned alcohol?” Paula teased me. “So you won’t give into that urge to drown your loneliness?”
“No. That’s not the reason.” I looked up and met my sister’s inquiring gaze.
“You are not going religious on me, are you?” Paula laughed. “Like Grandmother, like granddaughter, following in her footsteps?
I held her gaze, pursed my lips then cleared my throat.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Paula exclaimed and pushed her chair back, her frown as deep as a trench now.
“I found a book Gram gave me years ago,” I defended myself. “I’ve finally understood what it all meant to her.”
“Create in me a pure heart, oh my God...,” Paula started and shook her head, to chase away the memories of our grandmother reciting her prayers or to comment on me inheriting her faith. I wasn’t sure.
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked quietly, remembering my own resistance towards religion for many years.
“If you don’t know...”
“We all have to decide on our own.”
“That’s what Gram used to say,” Paula recalled, disgust in her voice. “You know, you cannot get her back by following her path, Mary.”
“I’m not.” My shoulders stiffened, my mouth went dry. “I just finally understood what it’s all about.”
“It’s religion,” Paula muttered. “We don’t like religion.”
“It’s easy to judge something you don't grasp.” My heart was racing but my voice was calm.
“And you think you do now?” Paula took a deep breath. “Give me that bottle. I need a glass of wine.”
“To drink down your disapproval?” I answered with a tired smile, the wine a sad reminder of our mother’s rebellion against Gram's values, her demure commitment to manners, humility and godliness.
“To drink some sense into you,” Paula gave back and glared at me with gutted eyes.
published 28 September 2012
< Click It
Heading home on the train from the dinner at Mary’s house, I have a chance to think it through, to think the whole thing through. Mary’s got me really worried, the way she’s reacting to Gram’s passing. For God’s sake, the lady was 95! It was high time for her to give it a rest. There’s only so much oxygen around at any one time, and now it’s our turn …
Why does Mary bring this out in me? No one else does this to me the same way. Right? And then I always overreact.
Besides which: I always sense this clammy disapproval she seems to feel about me.
In my apparently pre-ordained role as Mary’s renegade little sister, it has not been easy to prevail against her insidious goody-two-shoes nature. Had I followed Mary’s advice – God, when I say “advice” what I actually mean is more like strong suggestions spoken with more than a hint of prissiness – I’d have kept my ironed dresses tidy, and I’d speak only when spoken to. And had I done that (well, especially the latter), I’d hardly have been the most quickly promoted manager in the history of the office, now would I?
So we’ve always said that I take after Mom. (Though without her slurring of her words as the evening progresses, thank God.) Mary, on the other hand, was always drawn to Gram’s world. I found Gram’s rules and prayers too pat, too difficult to apply in real-life situations which – God damn it! – are rarely cut and dry. In the real world, Gram’s rules didn’t work. Not for me, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved Gram to pieces. And the summers in Rockford exploring the woods along the river and coming back to her cozy cottage as the sun was going down – those were some of the best times I can remember.
But Mary seems to be slipping away from the here and now into some nostalgia-driven, backward-looking time. And I’m worried that once you start heading down that path you can’t make it back to the present. I mean: what happens to your employability if you crochet tea cozies and attend church socials and dress in over-the-knee skirts? What happens to your chances of meeting a healthy, stable, all-American guy?
Wait. I did put away quite a bit of red wine this evening. Come to think of it: that’s also Mary’s fault. A half bottle would not have got me to this mental space the way that whole one did! I need to slow down for a sec. Because actually … this is not about me and Sis. It’s about the bigger picture. And since men seem to disappear on a regular basis from our lives – see Mary’s and my lives, but also see e.g. Mom, see e.g. Gram, when you think about it … the bigger picture means I want to think about the roles of the women in our family. What did Gram do to Mom that turned her into a drinker? Why weren’t the two able to speak to each other, even to be in the same room, for decades?
And come to think of it: were either of them ever able to perceive us, to listen to what we needed?
Well, Gram did ask questions, and she did listen to our answers. And right from the start she knew that Mary and I were temperamentally different. She encouraged us to be as good as we could at whatever we were doing. I just couldn’t stand her churchiness – it felt hollow to me. But that meant that when she noticed I wasn’t receptive she just let go and listened to me. She was a hell of a lot better mother to us than Ma ever was able to be!
Why does this family stuff just churn around in my belly (like the meatloaf, actually, but I know I’ll digest that) forever? Will there ever be a moment when it’s all resolved, fixed, decided, set in stone? And we can get on with our lives?
published 28 September 2012