My Sister’s House
My parents helped my sister and her husband buy this house in Cincinnati, in 2007 or 2008. The only way I’ve ever seen the house is in pictures my mother has in an album. (It was sold after Tracy died in 2009…a short time to enjoy that dream of home ownership.) I had a sense, by description, of her place being sort of stuffed with furniture and jumble.
My own house at the time tended to be jumbly, partly because I kept a lot of cats, partly because the house was small and old, and came to me needing a lot of repairs (or renovations) that I didn’t have done. As people in that boat know, when you don’t have places to keep things; when you don’t have closets and shelves and cabinets, or sufficient of these, and when you have a lot you don’t want to get rid of, but aren’t using at the moment…
Things tend to stack up on surfaces. Such as magazines you don’t have time to read. I went through a phase of liking People, Us, In Touch, all the reviews of celebrity gowns at the award shows—around the era of J Lo and Ben Affleck. CDs, DVDs…you’ll remember how much space those could take up, the VCR tapes that preceded the DVDs…
And then I had a lot of shoplights, and burned-out fluorescent bulbs for them, which are hard to get rid of, part of my annual seed-starting. I put a lot into my garden in Chauncey. After years of expansion I was running out of time to keep the yard trimmed and all the beds weeded.
Things accumulate, like new writing projects. That’s one of the difficulties of being at a certain level of income. A rich person with a McMansion probably has, by weight and number, a greater tonnage of possessions than any Appalachian hoarder. But fitting it all in a small space makes appearances more inviting of condemnation than spreading it into dozens of rooms and storage buildings, etc. Income, when your housing, for what it is, doesn’t cost much, and your car is paid for, and you can’t take vacations, because those are outside the budget, and you can’t borrow money to fix things up, because then all your disposable income would go to payments…
And if you work an unhappy job, you need treats. You can buy new clothes, you can buy music and subscribe to magazines. You can take up hobbies and buy the gear for them. So my house was very cluttered. Others in my family had the same habits, and I assumed this of my sister.
But we never saw each other. Our adult lives were spent in a constant enemy state.
I learned from the pictures that Tracy kept houseplants, something our mother started us on in the 70s, when houseplants were big. She (you can see) had a nice backyard with a shed, also a little deck.
So why did we dislike each other?
I did not have friends growing up, which at my present age I don’t mind saying frankly. There are so many people who don’t have friends. They’re under pressure to feel embarrassment, afraid being other than the cultural ideal will lead to bullying. There’s a lot to say on this subject, more than can fit a single post, but think how sad it is so many people enter abusive or miserable relationships, because they would do that to themselves rather than be attacked for living alone. Being bullied is a lifelong experience, middle aged people are bullied in the workplace; even once-powerful people, when they lose control over their lives (as in the nursing home), are bullied.
The dynamic between power and powerlessness is a major driver of bullying. So those who begin life pushed to the margin find themselves stuck there, uncool, disliked for being uncool, shunned for fear of showing friendliness to this ostracized person.
I can’t say what motivated my sister’s early behavior. When we were children, we always played together. When we first came to Athens, my brother and I were pre-school age; my sister about five, and soon enrolled in kindergarten. I remember playing outdoors in the driveway, next door on the sidewalk of Mrs. Chadwick, who babysat for us. One of the great things of my life at that age was the milkman who, delivering to Mrs. Chadwick, gave me a lime-flavored popsicle. Just because…and I think at the age of four I was already somehow indoctrinated into a midwestern peculiarity, which some readers may recognize: the idea that having things—anything at all, I assume, taking into account the jealousies I’ve known—is not fair to people who don’t have them, so any little happiness has to be a source of guilt.
My parents would at times take us to visit friends of theirs who had children, and on those occasions, my sister, who was my friend at home, would go off with the other kids and shut me out. I was left standing around with no place to be in a strange house, where there was nothing I could choose to do, no room I was allowed to occupy, a kind of awfulness I’ve never forgotten.
When we moved to Shannon Avenue, my sister’s best friend was the daughter of a family who lived down the street, a family with four daughters and a son. I was always, for that only period of my life where I had a circle, included. We had campouts in the back yard; this over the side of a hedge from a funeral parlor parking lot, that to kids was place to ride bikes (a time I was daring enough to make curves so sharp they were almost horizontal, and to ride with no hands). We rode bikes in the electric company parking lot across the street. The electric company made an excellent place for kids to visit; it always smelled like fresh-baked cookies, because they had a showroom where electric stoves were demonstrated. And you got Reddy Kilowatt comic books.
Tracy and I talked to each other until our early twenties. She became a non-friend to her little sister as well as, so far as I know, the girl she was once best friends with, at the time she started middle school. In middle school I got pushed out of the group of younger sisters I’d been somewhat friends with, and from that point on, was a labeled person with no possibility of being sought out.
About the fourth grade, homework began, and that was the end of my easy A’s. I could read above my age group; I used to especially love science. I had a little collection, with a bird skeleton (I stuck this to a piece of cardboard, and marked it Exhibit A, a thing I got from watching Perry Mason), a tumbleweed, a hornet’s nest, and a box of rocks and minerals…gneiss, schist, petrified wood, quartz, a little chunk of bright yellow sulphur…
But I couldn’t take homework. I found it unfair, an encroachment on my free time. I didn’t know how to organize the doing of a task…why my room, and later my house, was so messy.
So I fell behind, and from being a smarty, became a C student. My pride then was that I could get C’s doing absolutely nothing. I quit studying for tests, rarely handed in homework.
I graduated from high school on this system.
Athens is an academic town. My sister was the honor student. I was so far outside that milieu, I still don’t really know what it entails. That might have been part of the exacerbation, some sense of embarrassment that I was “dumb”.
I got my college degree after I’d taught myself the discipline I needed to write papers. But to be fair, I still think college in the 80s would have been miserable work. Kudos to the pre-computer students who struggled with carbons and footnotes.
So, a time came when my sister and I never spoke at all; it came when we were adults away from home, and first I, then Tracy, moved back to Athens. I worked at Gold Circle, as I mentioned in another post, and eventually felt very gloomy about it. It seemed hateful to have spent my twentieth, twenty-first, twenty-second years at a job where I was made fun of for productivity—for working while the office furniture was shifted around, on one occasion. Everyone else standing around. And the reason I worked was for having no socialization. I couldn’t stand around and talk, I had no one to talk to.
I moved back in with my parents. Tracy had what I’d thought was a great job, working (clerical) at the veterinary teaching hospital at Ohio State University. I don’t know what troubles she had. She came back, and we sort of jostled, because I was already lodged in my parent’s house, and felt proprietary about my space. I didn’t trust her. (Some history of stealing from each other.) It ought to be said that her lifelong issue was alcohol. My idea of Tracy as an adult was formed from my parents’ accounts of her, since we weren’t friends.
I can’t say what fairer view I could have taken, because I never had her own side of things. We didn’t speak, we played that game of taking shots at each other by saying pointed things to Mom and Dad. To me her way of behaving was artificial. I said to myself for years that there was no way to communicate with someone who wasn’t real.
Now I would say I could have allowed one-sidedness. I’ve learned not to care about the improvement of other people, since looking out for your own improvement is enough…you won’t run out of opportunities for it in your lifetime. Meanwhile, if no progress is made, you can count yourself as having tried.
Probably all this is a puzzle to outsiders. It seems extreme that sisters with no event, no fight, no ideological clash, no big principles debated…not even little things discussed, could end up so at odds as to be strangers. I’ve always had self-esteem (I think Tracy had very little). When people pushed me aside, I wanted nothing to do with them. I don’t think my family managed things very forgivingly, in general. We were sort of pitted against each other as kids, so if someone won, the other had to lose. We had an odd dynamic of Things, like favorite colors, hobbies, TV actors, being “owned”…
An example would be birthstones. Tracy’s was turquoise, mine opal. The dynamic required I not be allowed to like turquoise jewelry, because it wasn’t “my” stone. But I do like it…I think everyone does. And I give permission to the world to buy all the opals you want.
(They can be a little disappointing.)
Tracy wrote poetry…I’ve never seen one. I write poetry…I started in 2014, so she never saw one of mine. She aspired to be a writer of novels, I don’t know whether any of her fiction is kept by anyone who knew her. I’ve never, either, seen any of her stories. I write stories and novels. She aspired at one time to be a filmmaker…though I interpret this. She followed a crowd in high school who made films. I make little videos…truthfully only images to attach my music to, though if someone invents the 36-hour day…
But, because I don’t do musical notation, so that’s my means of preserving my work.
All this should mean we’d have had a lot in common, and leaves the question hanging, of whether the competitiveness, the rivalry instilled in our childhood, the skewed implication that liking what someone else liked was somehow aggressing on their territory, made our enemy state unavoidable.