The Chardonnay was fruity, the way I liked it. My sister stuck with iced tea. Arlene and I were sitting on the patio of a popular restaurant in Austin, Texas, where my older daughter and her family now lived.
Tonight, however, it was just the two of us.A rare occurrence.
A rare opportunity.
My sister knew my childhood. I needed confirmation and recollection as I muddled through the memoir she didn’t know I was writing.
“How old were we when our father stopped coming to see us?” I asked, spreading butter on the warm cornbread. When he stopped driving up in his green ‘50s Plymouth, stopped honking his horn, stopped taking us someplace fun those Sunday afternoons. “I was about nine, right? You were 13?”
“Um. Yeah, probably.” Arlene swirled her tea. Her wedding rings flickered in the dwindling sunlight. She had never removed them, though widowed for almost 20 years. My husband was back home in California. “Why?”
Why not? My sister and I usually avoided discussing our childhood. We didn’t talk about our past. We hadn’t talked about the past when it was the present.
“Remember how he took us to Kiddie Land?” I continued, trying to prompt her. “We rode ponies. And went on that scary bobsled ride. “An indelible image: the three of us jammed into a sleek capsule rocketing around the tracks; our father, then Arlene, then me, in order of our size. All of us screaming as the speed of the ride threw us together. “It was fun.”
The server placed our dishes in front of us. Salmon special for me. Chicken for her.
“I don’t recall fun.” Arlene stabbed the chicken with her fork, then looked up at me. “He didn’t care about us.”
I stared back and saw Mother’s cold dark eyes. Mother’s face too, a face that hardened every time we mentioned him. Father. She had banished the word from our vocabulary.
“He never cared about us.”Arlene shook her head, her fork suspended mid-air. “Never did.” It was Mother’s message she was repeating. The message we grew up with. Not the validation I was seeking.
I tried again.
“You remember his house don’t you?” The brick ranch home we visited before it too became off limits. Where father had lived with his second wife and the two nieces she adopted when their parents died in a car crash. The nieces who were about our ages. I used to imagine him walking them to school, clutching their hands. “The swing set and see-saw in the backyard?”
Arlene frowned, and pushed her dyed blond bangs away from her eyes. “Why even think about any of that? The past is the past. Let it be.”
Our father had died over 30 years ago. He had left us almost 60 years ago, and might as well have been dead all that time. Did it matter anymore? To me it did.
All I have of my father are those lost afternoons, faded scenes of Kiddie Land: the Cracker Jacks, the Sno-Cones, the merry-go-round. Images I wanted my sister to help sharpen, put into focus. These memories offered me the only proof that he had loved us. I needed her to acknowledge them, to expand my collection. I wanted to know what it was like when we all lived under the same roof. Surely, we had at one time, though I recalled none of it. Four years older than I, Arlene had to remember more. Remembered his coming home from work with tootsie roll pops in his pocket. Remembered his reading us bedtime stories. Had he danced around the house with us in his arms? Maybe he had eaten breakfast with us, joined our laughter as we all listened for the “snap, crackle, pop” of our Rice Krispies.
But these were all my imaginings. Not hers. Perhaps the scenes my sister conjured up were dominated with the yelling and the arguing of unhappily married parents. Even I can still hear it if I choose to listen really hard. I don’t.
On one occasion many years ago, Arlene did share a memory with me, although I forget the context. I may have asked about our father’s weekly visits on Wednesday evenings – the other component of his custody rights: alternate Sundays out; each Wednesday night in. I remembered nothing abut them, and always attributed his quick abandonment of these visits to my mother’s behavior, assuming she would confront our father as soon as he entered the house. Probably about money. Arlene told me that I sat on her lap the entire time father was in our house. Funny, how I didn’t crawl onto his knees. Snuggle against my father’s chest. Was I frightened of him or of my mother’s reaction? I still have trouble imagining myself on my sister’s lap; we don’t hug each other much, maybe a quick brush on the shoulder when reuniting after a few months absence.
That night at dinner, Arlene offered up no more memories. I wanted to fill in the blanks, but she chose not to revisit our story. While I was out there digging it up, she didn’t want to resurrect the past. Maybe having experienced more, my sister had suffered more. Our childhood wasn’t something she wanted to uncover. The scab had formed many times over. Too painful to pull off.
Let the past be? I couldn’t. The past had shaped me, and I needed to keep picking away at it. Painful as it may get.
But I could let my sister be. Although she was a major character, but it was my story I wanted to tell.
“Okay, Arlene,” I decided to smile. “Let’s have dessert. Chocolate mousse?”
Renee C. Winter is a retired attorney who has traded billable time for more writing time. Her memoir pieces have appeared in such literary journals as “Catamaran”, “Exposition Review”, “Memoir Magazine”, “Coachella”, “Qu” and more. She is delighted have “Remembering Kiddieland” published in “Change Seven”. Renee is a mother and grandmother, and lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her husband and curly white poodle mix. She is a volunteer teacher and director of the Santa Cruz Poetry Project, which brings poetry and writing into the local jails. This experience has taught her that good writing can be found everywhere.