Be Careful What You Wish For

My sister is six years older than me.  When you’re a child, this age difference seems to be an insurmountable thing; the divide between high school and elementary school is enormous.  I wanted to hang around with my sister and her friends; they drove, they went to high school, they knew things that I could only imagine.

Unfortunately for my sister, the six years she had on me came in awfully handy for my mother after my parents separated and later divorced.  While my sister was only 13 when they split up, by the time we had moved into our new digs five miles a way, my sister was sixteen.   We were all surprised when my mother bought a new car at the time; she bequeathed her old one, a wood paneled robin’s egg blue AMC Pacer.  It quickly became apparent to my sister that this wasn’t just good luck and good will.

My mother wasn’t an absent parent when she could avoid it, but she was a young, female lawyer in a bustling law firm.  At this time, the early 1980s, she was working seven days a week for over 12 hours a day.  The hours were brutal for her, but they were necessary for her to establish her law career.  This meant that we all got left in the care of my sister.

Every morning, my mother would get up, get showered, and get ready for work.  She never ate breakfast, though she’d smoked at least three or four cigarettes by the time she left.  But before she did, on a bright yellow legal pad, she wrote The Chore List.

The Chore List was a daily list of tasks and reminders for all of us to deal with in her absence.  Usually it read something like this:

M:  Please do the grocery shopping.  Make sure to get carton of Merit Light 100s.  Vacuum.
B:   Please take out the trash and clean your room.
MFL:   Please water the plants and sweep the kitchen.

ALL:  Do your homework.  See you tonight.

My sister and I would often do the shopping together.  My mother would leave a signed, blank check for her that she would fill out at the cashier’s stand.  We would fill our cart with macaroni and cheese, tomato soup, Chef Boyardee and things we all could make for ourselves; my mother was not home to cook dinner very often, so we all usually scrounged up whatever we each wanted for ourselves to eat when we were hungry.   We would get Carnation Breakfast Bars for my mother, who ate them when she tried to diet, until I discovered where she hid her stash and started sneaking them for snacks.  We bought Taster’s Choice Instant Freeze Dried Coffee for my mother, because she didn’t have time to drink more than one cup of coffee in the morning before she left for work.   We bought her chunks of Harvarti cheese which she would eat in small cubes, rather than in slices on crackers like other people did.  We bought her eggs which she would boil for a hard boiled egg sandwich on the weekends.

But always, always, always, we would buy her a carton of Merit Light 100s, with the three different shades of yellow stripes on the white box.  The cashier had to go into the locked cabinet behind the customer service window to get them.  It didn’t matter that the purchaser was sixteen years old and technically you had to be eighteen to even smoke them; no one ever questioned us buying a big box of ten packs of cigarettes.   Once my sister had forgotten them and my  mother was really upset; she couldn’t even get through an hour in the waiting room at therapy without a cigarette.

My sister  wasn’t young enough to still be considered a child, and my mother treated her like an adult because she needed the help.   When my mother came home from dates, my sister waited up for her.  It was my sister who listened to the stories that rolled out of my mother’s mouth when liquor had loosened it up.  It was my sister who waited for the furnace guy after school or drove us to the dentist.

I think it might have been for this reason that my mother indulged my sister when it came to boys spending a lot of time over, or not really enforcing a curfew with my sister.  My mother felt guilty that she was absent so much and asking so much from her, that when she was home, she wanted to give my sister whatever she wanted.  And more than anything, after being cooped up with her bratty brother and sister most days, my sister craved freedom.  And she took it, whenever she could.  After a while, she even got away with not having to go on the every other weekend visits with my father; she took the same break from us that my mother did when he would pull into the parking lot at 6pm on Friday afternoons.

For the six years that separated me from my sister, it was her anger and frustration at being forced to parent me, that drove a much deeper wedge between us.

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