My mother had three children, one boy and two girls. I am firmly in the middle. My birth came as a great surprise to my older brother who assumed, I believe, that he would always be the one and only. Upon my arrival, though he had reached the venerable age of 18 months, he once again took to the bottle and his pram. It was not a huge inconvenience to my mother given that my brother had, at that stage, become a quiet wanderer. During nap time, which she enjoyed as well, and in the evening when he was to be fast asleep in his crib, he was often AWOL. In desperation she had taken to covering his crib with chicken wire, caging him in to stop him from wandering off. Immediately after my birth, his jealously kept him close at hand. He could be found as near as the pram or only as far away as the green eyed monster would let him wander. He eventually got over it and we settled into an uneven constantly broken and renewed truce that would last as long as convenience allowed.
When my sister came along several years later I reacted to the usurping of my title of Darling Baby with the same grace as my brother before me. Although I’d been allowed to name the baby, I promptly decided I hated her and set out on a mammoth campaign to make sure she knew. As she grew she learned to give as good as she got. The pitched battles in our shared room and the sharp cruelties of girls were so much more vicious and coldly dismissive than anything our brother could have thought of. His forays were all brute strength and oafish bullying. My sister and I were skilled surgeons. Our battles were built up in scalpel sharp incisions of disdain, delicate balances of power and emotional distance. Our contention was so great, our abhorrence so pure, it does not surprise me, that such strong emotion brought about a closer friendship than that uneasy truce with my brother could ever have accomplished. There were signs that we would be good friends but the seeds did take a long time to grow. As long as we did as a matter of fact but that in itself is not unusual.
And so we are now friends, not my brother with us, but my sister and I to each other. My brother has chosen to walk apart from all of us but we two walk more and more together. Looking back over the years now the bloodiest of our skirmishes are the ones we bring out to parade around for the amusement of ourselves and others. Our greatest battles have taken on the sepia toned patina of nostalgia. I maintain that my victories were the greatest in number and the most definitive in nature. I’m sure, if asked, my sister would say the same. But I can not deny that there was one moment that must live on in infamy in the pantheon of sisterly rivalry. On that day, my sister, through luck or chance, stood supreme.
She must have just turned 10, which would have made me 13. There had been tragedies in our family and we were much on our own in those days. She was just starting to come into her height at 10 with maybe 8 more inches to go. She was thin with dark skin, dark eyes, dark hair, all flash and temper. At 13, almost 14, I was an inch short of as tall as I was ever going to be with stick thin arms, fair skin and strawberry blond cold disdain.
Our white stucco house was bustled in the backyard by a raised stone patio (those being in fashion then) which in turn was sheltered by a large oak tree. The ground between the tree and the patio was rutted and bare. The dirt had been scraped and flattened by the feet of innumerable neighbourhood kids who’d taken a ride on the tire swing hanging from the lowest branch. The end of the yard was marked by an old battered metal shed. We had avoided the shed since my sister’s birthday when my mother had managed to step on a rusty nail while playing hide and seek. The nail had passed through the bottom of her foot and out the top necessitating a break in the festivities and a hospital visit. No one had gotten around to moving the offending board and nail and so the shed sat abandoned with its motley collection of bikes, croquet mallets, horseshoes and lethal metal tipped lawn darts.
On any given afternoon any of us usually could be found throwing those deadly projectiles straight up in the air and then running like hell to avoid being impaled by the rapidly descending death spear or trying to hit each other with croquet balls or mallets if we thought we could get away with it . But given the recent threat of the rusty nail I had opted for a reclining ride on the patio swing instead while my sister turned slow circles on the tire. My sister had wearied of swinging on her rubber perch and was ready for a ride on the patio swing. I was comfortable, lying fully reclined and stretched out to my full 5 foot 4 inch length, and had no intention of accommodating her.
Vitriol began to flow and the curses flew back fast and hard. All those arguments and we never raised a hand to each other, but this day was a day the line was almost crossed. That was something we would try on briefly years later but as children physical pain was our brother’s territory. Ours wasn’t the way of force or the fist. We fought dirty and pummeled each other with words.
My sister’s frustration began to mount and I felt that victory was at hand. Still lying down on the swing I opened my mouth for one more cutting remark and she leaned forward and spit at me. It might have been the wind, it might have been fate taking a hand or it might have been pure luck, who knows? Whatever it was, it sharpened my sister’s aim and my cutting crow of victory became a nauseous gargle as her glob of saliva plopped into my mouth.
Shock on her part and spit in mine silenced us both, but only for a moment. In a frozen plateau we paused while both of us absorbed the act and its consequences. If I hadn’t been lying down I would have caught her. I still don’t know what I would have done if I had. She made it into the house and up the stairs in record time. She hit the bathroom door a split second before me where she locked herself in until the coast was clear. And really even if I’d caught her what good would it have done?
On that day, nothing could have been more perfect than that one moment. All the forces had conspired and there was no offensive I could have mounted to equal that one magnificent act. I tried. Later on that night I brushed my teeth and spit my toothpaste into the tub while she was having a bath but it was an empty gesture. She knew it and I knew it. On that day, I had to concede the field of victory to her. But I did live to fight another day, many other days as a matter of fact. I had my own victories just as complete and undeniable but those I will save for another time.
She was to me, as I was to her, my most esteemed and beloved enemy. We are still soldiers of a sort but life and time have made us allies. As an adult I don’t know if I could love her as much as I do if I hadn’t hated her so completely as a child. I know the depth and breadth of her. We have passed through the fire and have come away tempered, annealed and strengthened in ourselves. I know some of her sins and all of her foibles as she knows a measure of mine. We have warred and like old campaigners we share a past that binds us together. Once my enemy but always and still beloved, she remains ever my sister and finally, my friend.