My year as an only child

I love this picture of Jill (second from right), waiting for the bus to take us to Dewart Elementary. I’m behind her, looking matronly.

My only sibling died a year ago today, just as summer 2016 premiered.  I guess, officially, I was also an only child in the 21 months before her birth, but I’m assuming I enjoyed that. This, not so much. I miss her.

No one else walks this world who knows what it was like in our house when we were kids. No one else lives who remembers the vagaries of our father’s titanic temper, our mother’s passive aggression and loneliness. No one else understands that we were such good daughters, we even ate to assuage my mother’s unhappiness (it’s called empathic eating if you want a name). No one else bulked up with me to protect ourselves from the emotional tsunamis erratically smashing our home shores.

And, truth be told, no one else could have been so cheerful about offering up her constant life crises so I could compare my own and say or think, “Well, mine aren’t so bad. I’m doing better than that.” (Family/life as competition — our model.)

I wonder if anyone ever took her picture by herself!

She died of a lifetime of not taking care of herself. But we never learned in our house that we were worth taking care of. We existed to win laurels on which our parents could rest. And so we ate.

We had a tee-insy freezer compartment in our Philco refrigerator that did not keep ice cream frozen. So whenever my father stopped at Ritter’s for a pint of ice cream (which was about every other night), we demolished it immediately.

With no dishwasher, my mother fixed three meals a day (that explains at least part of her frustrations), and we had something sweet for two of those daily meals. We ate out every Friday night — either the deli or the sub shop in Williamsport. Occasionally, we had Sunday dinner at my father’s mother’s — something heavy, German and judgmental. When my mother’s parents came to visit, we went to the Milton Hotel for lobster tails and creme de menthe sundaes. I remember the grownups scolding Jill for dipping her French fries in the melted butter that came with the lobster.

I don’t remember healthy snacks. I remember those three meals. Fruit was rationed for meals. When I went to my grandparents’, I could stretch out in front of their TV (we didn’t have one even though my father worked for Philco) and gorge on Coca Cola and Ritz crackers.

Food was our happy place, our heroin, our comfort. And now I can’t call her up when people are posting endless sappy remembrances for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, and ask “What the hell? What would you put up if a) you were on Facebook and b) you wanted to post a remembrance that encapsulated our parental units?”

I can’t call her up or message her when I want to eat a piece of chocolate the size of Gibraltar, and it makes me sad. Sad makes me want to eat so ’round and ’round I go.

She remembered things so differently from the way I do — it was always fun to play Whose Memory Approaches  Reality? with her. She said our mother told her that her mother said, after the drowning of our mother’s 12-year-old brother, “I wish it had been you.” I can’t imagine that for several reasons, chief among them that no one in our family was ever that direct.

So today I’ll think about how I wish she were still alive and do what I can to keep myself healthy: eating right (I just took some roasted cauliflower out of the oven), exercising (went to my first Kettle Bells class this morning), going to bed before I finish all remaining episodes of “American Crime.”

For those who care, I’m tending our shared memories so you have someone else who remembers when you ate the June bug, when your drunken grandmother fell down the stairs in the ski lodge, when you ran off the road because you were so anxious about a final, when the hawk dropped the dead squirrel on you. Ask me.

1951? She would have been 4.
Matching robes. Matching pigtails.

Just a postscript: I have reread this, as writers like to do to admire themselves, and I do hear the narcissism! It really is all about me with no mention of my sister missing her grandson growing up, her son missing his kind and tender mother. Oh, God, please, not another life lesson!

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