I was inspired with an intense desire to write when I was very young. My sole and soul inspiration was my older brother. Blessed with a gift of communication and a heart of gold, he could easily assemble his thoughts on paper or serve up a delivery with humor, intelligence and timing that could rival the best pro. When I was barely old enough to read some of the essays he wrote for assignments in school, I was struck with the thought that I wanted to be able to write like that!
I have hounded him a long time to write something for publication. I’m good at hounding usually, but he has been very resistant until now. He masterfully extracted his revenge for my hounding by handing me the following story.
I always wanted to write like this, and determination has succeeded in granting me but a small space in the shadow of his example. Deb
Kenneth B. Kay
I suppose younger female siblings have always, and always will plague the existence of older brothers especially in the early years. In my case, I remember standing outside our house on a crisp October night with my father looking up at the star filled Alabama sky and being totally amazed at his reaction when a shooting star crossed our field of vision.
His excitement puzzled me and at the same time was a bit frightening. It never took a whole lot to get him excited but this sign in the heavens coinciding with the birth of my sister had a life-long impact on him. I have heard him recount the story of that night countless times always with genuine awe and wonder with the same level of excitement and always drawing the same conclusion – that the child born that night under such a sign was indeed something special.
At the tender age of seven, the goings on in my parent’s lives held little if any interest for me unless it in some way directly impacted my self-centered existence. Both of my parents tried to ready me for the arrival of a sibling as best they could but I am certain that there is no way they could have totally prepared me for what did happen.
Mother’s pregnancy had not been easy. She was after all in her late thirties and at some risk in giving birth. The family doctor had come to our house earlier in the evening, and along with our part-time Negro maid and family friend Mattie, was attending my mother in her labor.
Looking back, I suppose I did have some interest in the proceedings but again only in how I was to be personally effected. The idea of having a younger brother with which I could play and help educate in the wiles of childhood held at least a certain level of appeal. Control and yes, even mastery over a smaller and weaker individual might prove interesting and worthwhile in my self-serving view. A sister however was a totally different kettle of fish as I was soon to learn - and how!
Shortly after the celestial sighting my sister announced her arrival as all babies do in a cry that startles and at once draws all local adult attention. I remember sitting on the living room couch staring at the closed door to my parent’s bedroom and listening to the strange noises both child and adult being generated therein and being puzzled at how similar they sounded.
I was finally ushered in to meet her for the first time and at that only briefly. My mother looked exhausted and worn and since I loved her absolutely anything that caused her pain and discomfort was a threat and therefore to be regarded with suspicion and distrust. The small red face with its blue eyes and wispy frame of pale fine hair seemed not to regard me at all and to dismiss me almost at once. I was not impressed.
On about the third day I was given this new arrival to hold and bond with. I was admonished to hold her gently but not drop her on pain of death; to hold her just so to support her fragile head and to be very careful not to pinch or otherwise disturb her countenance.
Having just been fed, the first thing she did was to spit up on my best school shirt; then giving voice to a thin reedy wail deliberately made it all seem my fault. I manfully did my duty and exercising great restraint kept holding her as instructed until an anxious parent took her from my arms. Apparently she was not impressed with me either.
Thus did we bond and the basis formed for our relationship. I was her foil and scapegoat from the start or so it seemed. There was nothing I could do about it because my father had told me that now as a big brother I had new and very important responsibilities to perform where she was concerned. I was to protect and defend her never hitting or mistreating her in any way. I complied as well as a seven year old could in my position because I loved and respected my father. Besides to do otherwise it was made clear to me would incur immediate and terrible punishment. This big brother business was getting tedious fast.
Time and routine brought about a sort of truce and acceptance between us. I tolerated her as just a source of fowl smelling bodily fluids that would surely in time bring about her downfall in my parents regard and return me to my rightful position in their attentions. Little did I know and even less did I understand.
For her part, my sister began to coo and smile when I approached her crib or at times nestled in my mother’s arms. Was it genuine affection, or gas, or was she plotting her next move to take over? Most of the time I suspected the latter. These cooings and smiles always occurred in view of my parents and affected them in strange and frivolous ways. I was put in mind of the old W. C. Fields line in a movie I saw once, “Never give a sucker an even break.”
The loss I suffered in the reduced attention level of my parents they tried to make up for by telling me how important my role in my new sister’s life would be and what a valuable contribution I could make in helping look after her. Yeah – right! No body needed to tell me. Second fiddle was still second fiddle. Everyone wanted to see the new baby – to talk about her accomplishments and antics and not about me or mine.
Eventually things settled out and other activities dulled the sting. School and learning to read did a lot to fill the time and my father was building us a new house about a half-mile away from the old one. At times I was allowed to accompany him and “help” in the construction process. Tolerance, acceptance, and perhaps the beginnings of affection for my sister began to take hold and grow. I began to realize that her welfare and mine were interrelated and important to my parents. Therefore I learned when and when not to assert myself as part of my new role.
One Halloween shortly after we moved into the new house, I got a costume to go trick-or-treating in. Part of it was a hideous rubber mask with a big miss-shaped nose and bumpy skin in orange and red with fake scars. It was my pride and joy for a time. My mother told me not to scare my sister with it but the temptation was just too great.
I sneaked into my parent’s room where she was just ending her afternoon nap with the mask on and I let her have it! Oh the feeling of power at inflicting sheer horror and fear – what fun! But the reaction wasn’t exactly what I expected. Of course there was the initial scream and look of surprised fright but something else showed in her face as it froze at the height of her screams. She went limp and silent almost at once, her eyes closing tight and her little body going rigid then limp again in a rhythmic fashion.
The doctor was summoned and arrived as my parents were anxiously trying to calm my sister and control her convulsions. There followed the first of several long anxious nights as my sister struggled to regain control over herself, which I had destroyed. I knew the depths of shame, guilt, and regret in lasting detail for some time thereafter. I was never really punished that I can recall for the incident. I suppose my parents could tell that I was repentant and in real pain for her sake. They wisely let me work my way through it on my own. I kept the mask for a time afterwards but it was my decision when I put it out in the trash.
My sister did finally recover and season followed season. As we both grew our relationship changed alternating between bored indifference and deep affection depending on circumstances. At times she was like the ancient sailor’s albatross always around my neck and at others I suppose I was the omnipresent over protective big person who was always cramping her developing style.
As a family we often went on outings into the surrounding countryside to visit relatives, go fishing, and gather wild foods we used to supplement our diet. Early spring it was Polk salad - fresh tender greens with a distinctive tang when cooked with eggs that were scrambled with them in butter that was rumored to actually be good for growing children - or so we were told. Later came wild plums and then luscious blackberries for jams and preserves my mother made. In the fall there were wild grapes, nuts and prized musk dines which my father made into wine to “cure” my mother’s fruitcakes that she made for Christmas.
We always had a big garden and grew a lot of the vegetables we ate. My sister and I had chores associated with all these activities and were expected to make actual contributions to or own sustenance. When she was younger all she did was get in the way mostly – that and tattle on me when I loafed or didn’t do just as I was told. It seemed for a time that I was expected to do my chores and hers too. It did give me a sense of pride though to teach her how to do little things and see her get the hang of some small task.
Our favorite outings were always the fishing trips to the nearby streams and lakes. Fresh fat crappies, bream, and catfish battered in cornmeal and fried in grease with hushpuppies and okra or corn graced our table often in the summertime.
On these trips it usually fell to me to look after my sister, bait her hook, and string any fish she caught. If the fish were biting well this meant more often than not that she caught more fish than I did. This of course galled my boyish pride something fierce. If however the fishing were slow, she would get bored and tend to wander off to investigate butterflies, wild flowers, or some other bug or critter leaving me torn between tending her pole and keeping her from harm. Either way my own fishing efforts suffered in my eyes. My father usually “spelled” me when he saw tensions rise in me on these occasions but only sparingly so I could relax for a time until she got her priorities straight. She was still in my charge and I learned earlier than most what real responsibility was all about.
Childhood event piled upon childhood event as time passed each generating its own pleasant and not so pleasant memories. One birthday I got a baseball set with ball, glove and bat. My father, sister and I were playing with it one afternoon and as usual she was getting in the way. My father was teaching me the finer points of catching the ball and as I missed a throw I ran after it and snatched it from my sister’s reach just as she was going to pick it up. I returned the ball to father for the next throw and the next thing I knew I was seeing stars. My sister had taken the bat and in full view of both my parents sneaked up behind me and laid me flat – out cold as a mackerel right on the front sidewalk. Did I forget to mention that she developed a hair trigger temper? Years later when I was in the Navy I brought home a friend with me on a holiday weekend who eventually became her husband. It became a family joke that he was my revenge for this particular event.
Early adolescence brought another season of change in our relationship. We were both in school now and developing our own friends and interests outside the home. I would still read to her or play games in the privacy of our house and yard and we enjoyed each other’s company as well as could be expected but our age difference as well as just being male and female began to cause a distinct but natural tension.
In public certain proprieties had to be observed. Young men with little sisters were expected to act in a different way when in the company of their peers. You degraded and ignored your sister as a matter of course always telling stories and recounting exploits of how you bested her at this or that or how totally dumb and hopeless she was. At that age I don’t suppose any of my friends or I really disrespected our sisters but I suspect that bitching about them was a sort of release.
Anyway, to keep up my manful status with my peers, I told some real whoppers on and about her. I don’t know if any of the mean and possibly hurtful things I said ever got back to her but I always felt a little guilty about it. I sort of hope she did the same thing with her friends about me just to even things out. Knowing her she probably did.
High school graduation, an abortive collage attempt, and getting started in the real work a day world took most of my time and attention for the next few years. All the while my sister was growing, changing and getting herself ready to take on young adulthood and find her own way in the world. Its not that we grew apart really but our lives seemed to dictate that we spent less and less time together.
Eventually, I left home and joined the Navy. Things got a little tough at home in those days. My parent’s health began to decline along with their financial situation. My sister had a protracted illness in her sophomore or junior year in school and rather than fall behind she just quit school altogether. School never held the same sort of interest for her as it had for me. It was never that she was not smart or intelligent; she just had a learn by doing approach and did not have patience enough to sit and be told how to do this or that especially by people she didn’t think could do anything better than she could. Since this included the whole rest of the human race…suffice it to say from that time on she just marched to her own drummer.
By then any income she could earn was needed to keep the family afloat and it was beginning to become obvious that we both would one day soon need to begin caring for our parents. I was able to re-enlist for a special schooling program and earned a tidy bonus, which I sent home to help out the family. I took great pride in doing so. The cash helped stabilize the finances and resulted in a time of relative security with good and lasting memories.
By our young adulthood genuine concern, care, and affection motivated our actions towards each other just as our parents and God had planned all along. As I mentioned earlier, I often brought friends home with me on leave and long weekends. During this time I introduced my sister to one particular friend who did later become her husband and she; being ever the thoughtful and caring person she was, tried to introduce me to several of her friends. More by accident than design on her part, she was instrumental in introducing me to the girl who became my wife. I suppose that in providing each other with our spouses we were trying to establish a surrogate of ourselves to watch over one another when we were physically apart.
Today as I consider my sister’s achievements and accomplishments I am filled with the same awe and wonder as my father on that long ago October night. She has become a thinker and writer expressing her opinions in an articulate and decisive style that leaves no doubt about what she believes. You may not agree with all that she says but you definitely know that she is committed to and fully understands the principles upon which she bases those beliefs. It is indeed a rare and special human being who can so define himself or herself and still be open in their expressions of that to others.
More importantly and lastingly, she has raised five worthwhile children who are and will be contributors to society rather than drains upon it. That is no small feat given the pressures and state of today’s world. I know for a fact that none have spent a night in jail so far. Of course the youngest, her only son, is just entering his teens but he already exhibits enough of his mother’s intelligence and charm to talk his way out of all but the most serious of felonies.
I think what I most admire in my sister is not what she has done but how she has done it. She meets each challenge in life head on with no reserve in effort, no excuses, and in sure and certain confidence of a positive outcome. Is she always successful? No. Who really is? Could she do better or improve her methods? Sure. Who among us could not given the benefit of hindsight? Those are all moot questions in the final analysis. The important thing is that she kept after it not letting setbacks in any way deter her. Her focus was and remains to keep the main thing the main thing.
Oh and by the way God Almighty knows I deeply love and appreciate MY little sister.