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Sisterly Love and Obeisance

I focused on my sister Heather around my eighth year because at seventeen, she had privileges I did not. She did not have to set the table. I thought that A Big Injustice to me. I never considered she regularly set the table before I came of age for household chores.

From my perspective as a younger, Heather was always successful in testing parental tolerance. In the restaurant, she took the five-pound Egyptian note from Daddy and, with no modesty, put it inside her bra, obvious in her action. She was going on a date with Puce, her charming, affable Egyptian boyfriend. The money was security if she had to find her way home without Puce’s assistance. From across the table, a facial expression communicated unfavorable parental reception, but neither parent expressed a negative verbal reaction, as we were in a public place.

She was powerful and beautiful and unto herself. I watched.

I might not know the entire story. In a family of adults (two parents and an older sister by nine years), I often did not because I was too small to understand. Sometimes Heather filled me in from her sense of her need-for-me-to-know basis.

One night, she told me to check the front door of our apartment in Cairo, Egypt every half hour, beginning at midnight. She had lost her house key. It had happened several times before, and Mother and Daddy could not know. Sworn to secrecy and at my sister’s behest, I dutifully, quietly, rose from my bed and checked the door. No sister at midnight, no sister at 12:30 AM, same at 1 AM. Perhaps she arrived at 2:30 AM?

The next day, I gave her my key, hoping to guarantee a future of uninterrupted sleep. I did Heather the favor of confessing to the parental authorities of the loss of my key. A mild reprimand resulted, but no drama. I was very sure I did not deserve punishment.

Another memory is sturdy. In early 1963, Heather and I were in our parents’ Rambler car cruising Dokki, a western suburb of Cairo. Heather had permission to take the car. In our family, permission needed, usually granted. At her mercy and whim, I was proud to be with my older sister and scared we might get into trouble. I was thirteen.

Sand was blowing across the road, and it hampered visibility. Egypt’s weather boasts of the khamsin–50 days of dry winds usually occurring in winter. These temporary currents distribute dust into every crack. Clothing presents minimal fortification for their penetrating force. The sky becomes gray with the constant swirl. Before seeing the desert, I imagined it to be flat. Yet it is also hilly, with ravines and hillocks, as they might say in West Virginia.

We have no paper map for guidance. Heather’s maneuvers take us onto a barren road with sand on either side. There is no traffic, but we detect movement far away and approaching. We cannot tell what it is. We are intent on our exploratory mission, which started with a quest to find an area of the city to plant our family. At least, I remember Heather offering this as the premise for our outing. I think she wanted to get away from our small temporary apartment.

We determine that a man, an Egyptian, is running towards us on the right side of the road. He runs up and down sandbanks. We see another man on horseback behind him and we realize that the second man is chasing the first. The first man is desperate. He runs very close to our car, and we see his exhausted face as he passes us. The horseman gallops by soon after. We cannot see his face, prevented by the angle of the car’s windows and the height of the horse and rider. And then they vanish. We are two American girls driving their parents’ car where they should not be. We are awkwardly out of place.

In a bit, Heather stops the car. We discuss what just happened. I am frightened. I imagine the horseman running down and capturing the first man. Maybe the horseman was a policeman? The desperate man’s face looms large. I cannot push the scene away. Instead, I hold it in. Heather says she thought to stop the car, open the door, and invite the fleeing man inside. That feels wrong to me. It seems like additional unwanted scariness, but I say nothing. We can no longer see this trio and any dust they churned has folded into the khamsin surrounding us. Heather turns the car around. We agree we will not tell this story to our parents. Our permission to use the car did not extend to wild adventures in the desert.

Forty years later, Heather calls me. She has noticed Alexandrite gemstones are selling well on eBay. Our mother wore a ring featuring a large, purple Alexandrite. Heather wants to confirm Mother had purchased the ring for $25. I correct her, telling her a family friend had given it to her when I was born. Where is it now? I lie without hesitation. I don’t know. I cannot tell her I gave the ring, with no sororal consultation, to my girlfriend. She knows about the girlfriend.

This topic never arises again, like most of our touchy topics. Adult conflict between us occurs because our memories of family events differ and both of us stubbornly maintain our point of view. The ring story is but one example of inconsistent reminiscences.

It has not been easy between us, and the uneasiness started early.

At twelve o’clock we all blew noise makers on the balcony. Heather couldn’t condescend to blow one. Sometimes she makes me sick. (JPS Journal, January 1, 1963)

We agreed on the most important issue despite our too many to count differences. When our parents became unable to care for themselves and their four-story townhouse, we moved them to a nursing home. They fervently wished to remain in their home, but even with paid live-in companions, it proved untenable. Thereafter, we visited them together once a week.

Heather has entered the age of unexpected falls, diminishing eyesight and hearing, foggy memory, and fear. I am not far behind. She soldiers on as if nothing untoward will happen, while I fear for both of us as I walk the uneven bricks of our neighborhood. She acquires a bouncy puppy–at least he is a small guy–and I believe Freddy, my partner Jane’s and my much beloved current dog, will be the last in a long list of canine companions.

Perhaps my memory is no better than my sister’s, but our telling of significant events varies, even if we agree on what was significant. She was a force for her husband’s career and their busy lives forsook traditional relationships with family and friends, the very people who help us remember.

As an exercise in empathy, I try to imagine myself as my sister. I should have some sort of clue, but I cannot find a comfortable, verging-on-authentic image. Born a few years after the Depression, Mother and Daddy were struggling for every dollar. They read Dr. Spock, the baby doctor, not the Star Trek Enterprise science and first officer. When Heather cried, they consulted Spock’s book and followed his suggestion to leave her alone in her crying. It is the Protestant ethic for children–work it out or face the consequences.

Did they return to the book when Heather became silent? Mother told me Heather stopped being conversational when she was about seven. She would respond to directions, but she did not engage. Until one day when she started talking again.

I wonder … can I remember my sister talking about her childhood before I existed? No, nothing is forthcoming. I benefitted from what she taught our parents. The night before I went to college and with no questions from me, she instructed me about birth control, which our parents practiced and preached, but for which they provided no details. It is not an exaggeration to remark I will be forever grateful for Heather’s generous, spontaneous lesson.

As a little girl, my sister had pigtails and yellow eyes. Above one eye, below the eyebrow, she had a scar where a dog had bitten her. I think … have I looked at Heather’s face recently? I cannot remember the location of the scar. Which eyebrow?

Pigtails as a child–this, I’m sure, is true. I know from photographs, not from memory. She loved animals, dogs best, verified by more photographs. We had male dogs to keep Daddy company because women had always surrounded him. These dogs had a special penchant for Heather.

At the funeral home, asked for the names of our grandparents for our father’s death certificate, Heather did not know. I did somewhat better. I knew two parts of our paternal grandmother’s name: Alma Conboy. Alma was her middle name and the one she preferred. It was also the name of a battle in the Crimean War. But I could not recall Alma’s husband’s name, my grandfather’s name. I am sure I never knew it. My father never uttered it. I have since retrieved his name: John Meffen, and I also learned Alma’s first name, Minnie.

Again, I try to conjure up my sister as a child. Maybe she was a grown-up person housed inside a little girl’s body. Serious. A Bookworm. We were both like that.

She was always a rebel, but seemingly never getting into trouble. In our rented house in the mid-1950s, her bedroom was in the eaves, far away. In seclusion, she made popcorn on a hot plate in the middle of the night. Our parents did not allow, of course, but she did as she pleased.

I, the dutiful child, rarely told on her.


Jill P. Strachan is the author of Waterfalls, The Moon and Sensible Shoes-One Lesbian Life. After a long career in arts administration, she has forsaken grant writing for the pleasures of nonfiction. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her partner Jane and their dog Freddy.

Jill Strachan | Facebook

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