I remember summer.
Sweaty palms filled with sticky candy and slippery handle bars on bicycles with banana seats; sunny skies that were streaked with cotton candy clouds and the sound of chatter and traffic. Sidewalks shimmering in the heat filled with children playing jacks and jumping rope; hop-scotch and clapping with my older sister, Jessica as fast as our little hands could go while chanting “See, see my playmate, come out and play with me! Climb up my apple tree, slide down my rain barrel… forevermore-more-more!” I have forgotten most of the words now, I never could remember them, and Jessica usually took care of that part so I could try to remember the clap-pat-slap-clap part of our game. She was always careful to look out for me that way. I guess being nearly three years older made her feel quite grown up and responsible for me. She enjoyed taking care of the little things, remembering the details and caring for her little sister.
I remember the smell.
Indoors was met with the fragrance of smoldering incense, patchouli oil, leather and velvet that seemed to be on everything we owned. Outside was the strong aroma of composting garbage, fresh cut grass and green things. And the smell of sunshine, I’m sure that it has a scent something like the taste of warm, freshly baked bread with honey and butter and sweet “sun” tea. That was the sweet perfume of carefree summer days that we wore on our tanned faces and bare feet.
I remember the corner store and penny candy.
Chewy chocolate Tootsie Rolls cost one penny each and Jolly Ranchers were just two cents, except the long wafer thin ones that sold for a dime. One of my favorite things to spend my two quarters on was Tootsie Pops, the round sucker with a hard candy shell and chewy chocolaty filling. Jessica always opted for bubble gum of any variety, but her favorite was Bazooka; it came with a comic strip in the wrapper. She would read it aloud to me and I would always laugh along with her even if I didn’t really get the joke. She seemed to think it was funny enough for both of us and that was good enough for me. I remember two cheerful little girls blowing bubbles and giggling together as we skipped home along the sunny sidewalks of Sandpoint, Idaho holding hands and our tall glass bottles of Orange Crush and Coca Cola.
I remember two houses.
There was a big yellow house, I must have been too young to know the street address but old enough to differentiate between it and the little red house in the same town, the one with spaghetti noodles stuck on the kitchen ceiling. An old wives tale no doubt, but we were once told the best way to tell if pasta was ready to eat was to take a slippery, wiggly string of spaghetti and throw it up to see if it stuck to the ceiling. Whether that is actually true or not is irrelevant, as were our repeated attempts because we enjoyed trying it out for ourselves. The little red house was also where I learned to tie my shoe laces in the doorway to the “spaghetti” kitchen and where I had my ears pierced while perched high atop the kitchen counter with a melting ice cube pressed up against my warm throbbing earlobe. But the big yellow house was where we lived when Jessica moved back to stay with Mom and me for the entire summer before she had to go back to our dad’s house when school started again. And it was almost like we were a regular happy family.
I remember one particular day in late summer.
It was 1979, the summer I turned six. On this particular visit, just outside the door as we left the corner store we noticed a long narrow box with a small hand written cardboard sign. Jessica read it aloud, “FREE Puppies!” Well, that seemed like a pretty good deal to us. So with big hearts and little hands we took turns carrying our new puppy home with our bubble gum, candy and suckers. Later, Mom would say that we were the suckers, but she let us keep it for a while anyway. I still remember the delightful feeling of affection, all warm and fuzzy just like our puppy’s soft buttery fur, that we felt for that helpless little animal.
I remember my mom.
She was beautiful, artistic and gentle. I also think she was very lonely. That was another reason why it was particularly nice to have Jessica with us again that summer. That was also the year my mom was arrested for keeping my sister with us after school had started. I don’t know how long it took for our dad to notify the authorities and track us down, but I do know how scared and small I felt going into the police headquarters, “jail” is all I knew to call it, and seeing our mother having her finger prints taken. She seemed so brave and calm, as if everything was under control. She just looked at me and smiled her sweet soothing smile and said it was going to be okay, that, “Daddy just missed Jessica.” While our mom spent the night in jail my sister and I got to spend the night at a friend’s house. Our friend had a happy family, a dollhouse and happy dolls.
I remember playing dolls with my sister.
They were called the Happy Family and the Sunshine Fun Family. They were sort of like Barbie dolls only they came as a complete family, with a Mom and Dad and two kids. Ironic, since at the time our family was neither happy nor fun. I was always fascinated with whole families since I came from what is commonly labelled a “split” or “broken” home. My dad left my mom and me when I was just a baby, taking my older sister with him since she was weaned and potty trained; I was still nursing so I stayed with Mom. I guess it seemed like a nice even split to them at the time. Apart from the occasional visit, we stayed with our designated parent half-way across America from each other. But this summer was different. This was the summer we became sisters again. She gave me piggy-back rides and we played dress-up. We laughed and twirled in the yard and she taught me to do cartwheels. We ate candy and she read aloud our favorite storybooks, one about a Chinese brother with an exceptionally long name and another about a very curious monkey named George.
I remember a large oak tree.
Summer ended and autumn came with the first leaves falling from the old oak tree in the front yard of our big yellow house just outside our bedroom window, as we packed to send Jessica back to live with Dad in Missouri with his new wife and her children, a little boy and his older sister. And so with a chill in the air and an ache in our hearts we sent her “home.” I don’t know just what Mom said to explain how Jessica going back to Dad’s was any better, when we would be missing her ourselves, but I’m sure I did not understand. In the same way that the oak tree had no control over its leaves falling down and scattering in the wind, I could not keep my family from falling apart again. And just as the great big oak tree continued to grow up and grow strong even with its leaves drifting to the ground around it, I began to grow up and grow strong with the changes taking place around me. I didn’t like the big yellow house very much after that. Neither did Mom I guess, because not long after that she decided it was time to move.
I remember a few years later
I left my mom to join my sister when my mother’s health began to fail before she passed away. It was only a few more years after that when Jessica’s health also began to decline. They said it was hereditary. Now it was my turn to give her piggy-back rides when her heart became too weak to climb the stairs on her own. We often laughed and ate candy and read books together. She read every book ever penned by Charles Dickens while I worked my way through the Driver’s Manual and the tomes of Twain. She knew every Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Drood and patiently listened as I would read aloud to her the sonnets of Shakespeare or quote a favorite passage of Tennyson,
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
– In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1849
Then I would sigh and tell about my latest crush and entreat her for sisterly advice.
I remember my sister.
She was always careful to look out for me. She was generous with her possessions, compliments, affection and praise. She wasn’t pretty; she was beautiful both inside and out. She was remarkably friendly and agreeable, part of what made her so likeable. She really desperately wanted to be humorous but usually settled for quirky and sarcastic. She loved bubble gum, bicycles, and puppies, reading books, piggy-back rides, summer and sisters. She always remembered things. It was early morning when she died. It was the day before Memorial Day. It was almost summer time.
I remember the sound
of birds heartlessly continuing their song as dawn rose respectfully to bid my sister goodbye on the morning of her departure from this life.
I remember the smell
of everything lush and green in the old cemetery where a fresh patch of dark earth was gently mounded under a large old oak tree.
I remember sharing
a bedroom, favorite clothes and whispered secrets in the night. I remember her bunk being empty under mine; soft pink covers all neatly tucked and undisturbed.
I remember her smile and her voice…
and the talks we never had that summer.
I remember missing her.
I remember being sisters.
I remember that summer…
I remember every day.© Una-Melina 2001.