#55 Former Sisters SpeakPosted: July 27, 2013
Back in 1971 when I first moved to New York I spent time with my brother and his wife who were stationed at Fort Dix, N.J. I was included in their wedding but she and I got closer in New York. My brother even occasionally verged on being almost, sort of brother-like back then. By that I mean that once after a few drinks in Greenwich Village, he referred to me as “sis” where no one knew him.
Then they moved back west where everything came tumbling down.
In New York I got bitter reports from my bitter mother. When we talked, the only subject was about how difficult and ugly the divorce was. It was a small town and my sister-in-law’s father was the only judge to hear their case. At least that’s the way it was described to me. As always, I knew there was little point in reporting anything to her about me.
The man in my life then, (#7 The Air Vent Conversation) and I went out west to meet my nephew. He took hundreds of photos of the toddler while my mother was still bellowing of one and only one subject, the divorce and all it’s permutations and how miserably my brother was treated. My brother was silent. My mother’s husband was silent. My nephew was adorable, an especially young victim of divorce.
My brother remarried. We all went to the same high school but I didn’t know her. He immediately adopted her two children, very close in age to my nephew. On another trip west, the new sister-in-law asked me the oddest question. She asked if I had lost a lot of weight. I didn’t know why she would ask that. Was she fascinated by weight? But much later I realized (because all my realizing comes later) that my brother must have described me as fat, the only way he had been trained to think of me.
On the 1985 reunion trip (#50 High School Reunion Stalker) I stopped one evening to visit my ex-sister-in-law. I had not seen her since our days in New York. Because of “The” divorce, we hadn’t been in touch much, to put it mildly. She described some difficult years, but by that time she had a decent job and a nice little house. Over a bottle of wine at her kitchen table she filled me in. I write this as it was described to me.
She wanted to stay in the east when my brother got out of the Army. She pleaded with him not to go back home. Somehow she knew. But my mother made him an offer. This was the first time I was learning about the deal, though had suspected it.
If he agreed to go back home she would set him up in his practice. The pitch included that my father’s reputation would benefit him in his hometown. She offered anything he needed, and she kept her word. She had paid his way through school. Now she bought him into a partnership. She paid for his equipment. She helped them buy their first house and a lake house.
We were probably well into that bottle of wine when my ex-sister-in-law described how after they returned home, Alice, my mother, regularly barged into their house to wake her in the mornings. She’d pull her out of bed while lecturing her about my brother’s standing in the community and how she needed to be a better wife. Standing in the community? He’s an optometrist, not a Supreme Court Judge. Changing the lock was no option if my mother essentially owned the house.
Going back home to live turned out to be more of a nightmare for my sister-in-law than she could have imagined. The lighter nature my brother displayed in the east disappeared. After my nephew was born, while she was taking care of their baby, she pleaded with my brother for couples counseling. She said depression became her companion. My brother answered only to Alice. He had a lonely wife but pulled further and further away. She finally gave up and in tears, bundled up her child and went home to her parent’s house.
On the first night she left, she was in her old bedroom sobbing on her bed. She believed the marriage with the love of her life was over. Someone pounded at the front door of the house. Had my brother come for her? Her tall solid judge of a father opened the door. But it was short Alice who somehow got by him, and stormed into the bedroom to screech at her daughter-in-law. And I mean screech.
My sister-in-law was a statuesque beauty who stood at least 7 or 8” taller than my mother. But little Alice got her into a corner, a position I knew so well. While pleading to be left alone, Alice paid no attention to the sobbing woman or her pain. To my mother, that didn’t exist. She was there to get what she wanted.
First, she demanded the diamond back, the one she gave my brother for the engagement ring. Yes, she demanded the diamond and practically tried to pull the ring from the sobbing woman’s hand. Then she demanded to know when they’d pay her the money she’d given them for the house. She blasted on and on about what a terrible wife and mother this young woman was. She listed more and more of what money she was owed. Thankfully the Judge somehow got my mother out.
As I write those last words I wonder what it would have been like to be rescued from my mother. I never was.
The story I was being told was hideously familiar. We were the only two who experienced what she was capable of. Although I’m sure I did not, could not speak then of my own experiences. I listened. It wasn’t a time for me to speak, and I was yet incapable of digging down to retrieve my own stories. I took it in for I had only heard a very different version for nearly a decade. She told me much more about Alice harassing her and interfering with their marriage.
I was heartsick, ashamed, but knew that I could have done nothing. I couldn’t even protect myself.
The cool part, by the time she told me that story, she had had to sell the diamond.
On that trip I spent time with my nephew. He was old enough that we could get acquainted. But both my mother and his stepmother did all they could to discourage that. One night I was invited to my brother’s lake house. I drove. My brother’s two adopted children went. My new sister-in-law went. My nephew was not included. My brother’s son was never included the entire time I was there. I had to seek him out.
The following summer my nephew came to visit me in Pennsylvania for a grand tour. This was not easy to arrange considering what was going on out west. I knew I needed to give him time to feel comfortable with me. I was on what could have been considered the enemy’s side. He was brave to travel all alone to the other side of the country. When I picked him up at the airport in Baltimore, I asked about his father. He said, “I haven’t seen him in six months.” I had tears in my throat. They lived within ten minutes of one another. My nephew and I had so much in common.
He never complained. But his stepbrother and sister had ski lessons, ponies, and they lived on a golf course. My nephew got none of this.
He wanted to see the Army base where his father was stationed a dozen years earlier. It was sad and sweet. The less he saw his father the more he wanted to know him. As I drove him around the base, I remember bluntly telling that little boy, that if he ever wanted time with his father, it would be up to him. The only thing I could do was let him know I loved him.
Over the years he sent me school pictures and letters. His mother remarried and he had a caring stepfather. They lived in another town.
My nephew and I got closer and closer. His wife and I are closer and closer. They are a miraculous couple.
Then in the early 2000’s I was out west and stopped to see my nephew’s mother on my way back to Seattle. To me she’s always my sister-in-law. We met for lunch and she had one thing she was sorry she had never told me. She apologized about a nagging story. She had my attention.
She went all the way back in the late 60’s when she and my brother were dating. She’d ask him when they were going to spend time with me, the sister. He replied, “You don’t want to know her, she’s crazy.” That’s what my brother said and believed. She said she knew me from school and couldn’t understand, but she never felt right about telling me. It took her almost 40 years to share that. She died more than a year later. It was always clear how much she loved her son. We miss her, and for just a little while a long time ago, I had a sister, Carol Ann. And I don’t think she’d mind my adding here that some of her final words were, “Love is sacred.”
And for about a year in New York, way way back, I had a sort of a brother, I guess because my mother wasn’t there.