Updated: Dec 15, 2021
I’ve always been an observer of life. Always. My first clear memory is of standing in my crib watching my mother and sister scream at each other. My sister must have been about six. I remember her fat, red face, the mouth a perfect O, tears squeezing from eyes shut tight. And my mother’s sharp angles--elbows, chin, a crooked vein bulging from the collar of her housedress.
I decided early that my father had the right idea. Keep a low profile, watch but don’t do anything to ignite either one of them. He wasn’t quite as adept at it as I was, though.
“Dave,” my mother would remind him through clenched teeth, “She’s your daughter too. Tell her to pick up her toys or she can’t go outside.”
Later it was she’s too young to wear lipstick, or date on school nights or drop out of college or get drunk--and on and on through the years. And he would clear his throat, brush his moustache a few times with one knuckle, and dutifully talk to her.
I remember his nervous giggle “Heh heh. You know how your mother is when she’s on the warpath.” Sometimes he’d wink. “Why don’t you just do as she says?”
Of course, it never worked. They knocked him around, a small man caught between the heavyweights.
But don’t get me wrong. I adored my mother and sister. And as you can imagine, it took all my ingenuity to please both of them. To avoid my mother’s wrath, I played quietly, cleaned my room and my plate, got straight A’s, picked the right friends, and deferred to her good judgment on everything. I never asked for cashmere sweaters or more allowance. Never defied her. And she, in return, gave me frequent grateful hugs. At least she had one well-behaved daughter.
Avoiding my sister’s wrath was a bit more complicated, given my penchant for being good.
“C’mon Joansby” she’d say. She called me Joansby when she had concocted some scheme in which I was to play a minor but crucial role. “We’re going on an ADVENTURE.”
And it always was. A ride on the rollercoaster (forbidden because of the fatal accident of ’48), a walk on the peak of the garage among the zinging electric wires, a trip to the bakery where her boyfriend worked (wrong social class, wrong religion). I was thrilled to be her companion. She was so smart, so old, so daring, so BAD. She led, I followed. She ordered, I obeyed.
Sometimes we got caught. She was five years older and should have known better, mother would say. What if she (me, the poor victim) had fallen, drowned, been raped? How could she! I was innocent, of course and never uttered a word to dispel this impression. I worried that my sister hated me for my cowardice.
The night of the rollercoaster was a spree without match. Our parents had driven into the city, leaving us alone in our summer cottage on Lake Erie. I was about 9 and she was 14. We were to go to bed early.
I studied my sister closely. I never knew if she’d talk all night on the phone, become irritated with me for some small offence (like breathing while she was trying to read), or whirl me off like Dorothy to Oz.
Her face was red from the sun, her nose peeling, her eyes narrow slits. No sooner had our parent’s car reached the end of the gravel drive than she pulled me down the front steps onto the sand. It was still warm underneath, cool on the surface. She threw herself down full length and stared at a tanker moving slowly in the distance.
Our beach stretched from Point Abino two miles on our right to “The Grove,” an amusement park a mile away on our left. On clear calm nights like this one we could just make out the rollercoaster car as it inched up the highest hill--higher, higher. Distant screams echoed as it tore down the other side.
“Go get all the money you can find, Joansby.” I ran. I emptied my bank and searched through mother’s purses for loose change. Three dollars. The amusement park! On a Friday night! My hands were shaking as I gave her the money.
We waded around the wire fences that bounded the public beach, pulling our shorts up high. Mine got soaked in the crotch. And soon music, lights, summer people in carnival mood. She bought the tickets and we strolled from ride to ride. We made a pact that we would head for the cyclone as soon as we finished our cinnamon suckers. These were no ordinary cinnamon suckers, but huge oblongs--cooked, poured, cooled, and ripped off conveyer belts right before our eyes. They burned your tongue and made your cheeks bulge.
“That man who got killed must have been fooling around, standing up or something,” she yelled over the roar of metal wheels on metal tracks. She tossed her sucker into a trash bin. “Let’s go!”
We rode the cyclone seven times. Each time as we inched up the first hill, I looked down through the dark, trying to make out the lights of our cottage. What would mother think if she could see us now! I screamed as loud as I could.
We staggered home like drunken soldiers, singing and laughing.
They were home before us, of course. I was sent to bed immediately.
I pulled the pillow around both ears as my mother and sister started over the top of the first hill.