*Featured Artwork: “How Grey Was My Garden” by Elizabeth Cassidy
Every Easter Mother made us matching tulle dresses with layers of itchy ruffles and ribbons. After a perfunctory stop at a non-denominational church, we always went to the country club for brunch, swinging our matching Easter baskets, ringlets and hair bows bouncing, white Mary Janes clicking on the polished floor. Mother gloated over her creations and Dad hugged his “two pretty little princesses.”
During what seemed like an endless meal, we fussed and fidgeted, kicking each other under the table, scuffing our shoes and pulling at our hair bows until we were excused to join the other kids on the golf course for the Easter Egg Hunt. Hand in hand we pranced out the French doors onto the patio while Mother called: “Marguerite, take care of your sister.”
Later I whined: “She never listens to me. I told her to stay with the other kids but she had to wander off. What was I supposed to do?” She had pulled away from my hand and skipped off toward a fluffy black and white tail disappearing behind the 4th hold, calling: “Here kitty. Here kitty. Here kitty. Kitty. Kitty. Kitty.” It wasn’t a kitty.
She stood outside the French doors red faced and screaming but no one would let her in. I put my hand on the other side of the glass. She frowned and banged it with her fist. No one said a word as we drove home with all the car windows open.
“What’s in a Name”
Mother always hated her name, Dixie—too “Dixieland,” too “Dixie Cups,” too “Old
Dixie,”—but how could she refuse Dad’s last and only request as he left for The War: to name their second child, if she was a girl, Dixie. My sister hated the name too, even though she was called Dixcita, meaning little Dixie, which became shortened to Cita, signifying small, which she was—small, delicate in health and stature with immense blue, grey eyes and naturally curly hair. I was what Mother called “raw boned,” heavy, peasant stock with squinty pig eyes and straight hair. Cita told jokes and was flirty. I read books and was dull. Everyone knew Dad loved her best. She was so like him.
But the name “Cita” presented problems. We all called her “Citie,” which sounded like “seedy”—not a good name for someone who in adulthood looked like Catherine Deneuve and knew it. The fact that she was constantly asked to explain and spell her name, is probably what drove her to compulsive smoking.
Mother named me after her cousin, Marguerite. I hated my name too. It was too long and too hard to spell but mostly because I was only called that in anger: “Marguerite, stop slouching.” “Marguerite, pick up your clothes.” “Marguerite, have you lost your glasses, again?” When I wasn’t bad, I was “Margie” (with a hard “g”) which I didn’t think about much until high school when an insipid TV program called “My Little Margie” (with a soft “g”) became popular. Now “Margie” sounded too plebian for my burgeoning sense of self and Marguerite began to sound unique and exotic. I suffered this subliminal identity crisis until, finally, in my thirties, I moved from California to the East Coast where “Margie” morphed into “Marguerite” and a whole new circle of friends welcomed my new persona. Since then, however, my sister has eschewed the French flower for its common name, and persisted in calling me “Daisy,” which I take as a loving sobriquet but know in my heart means revenge.
I’ll Take the Bus
When she bit me in the stomach, I should have realized our relationship would be forever fraught. She was three and I was six. I guess being born during a thrashing thunderstorm affected her temperament. But most of the time, we were best friends. Sometimes we even looked like twins when Mother made matching outfits for us on special holidays and carefully ironed our hair into Shirley Temple ringlets.
Living in the country enforced togetherness. Whether riding our horses over miles of rolling brown California hills or belting out favorite fifties show tunes, we were always in sync. We shared a special language and for years spoke to each other in an amalgam of obscure references incomprehensible to others, which made them even funnier to us. “Oh, I’ll take the bus,” referring to Mother’s tendency toward martyrdom, I still blurt out from time to time eliciting puzzled expressions from friends and family.
Then I went away to college and came back wearing black, smoking cigarettes and spouting Jean Paul Sartre. She went to finishing school in Italy and came back blonde and spouting Italian. Suddenly we were speaking different languages, had different attitudes, different styles. But still, she painted my fingernails the night before my wedding. I printed my first photograph in her darkroom and went on to make photography a career. When marriage, children, and geography separated us, we talked for hours over the phone. We shared a passion for Italy and vowed to end our lives together, walking arm in arm down the Via de’ Tornabuoni in Florence, wearing black and gossiping like quintessential old Italian ladies.
Then Mother died and we were once more separated by language. What should have been a common language, the language of grief, was a sticky language. A sticky grief. A grief that attached itself to stuff: Dad’s desk, Mother’s teapot, his books, her fur coat, their house, and a past made up of memories that couldn’t be divided. Old animosities bubbled up like hidden cancer cells. All conversation stopped. Now we are old ladies but we are not walking down the Via de’ Tornabuoni reliving juicy tales of youth. We haven’t talked for twenty years. Every day I walk to the mailbox hoping for an answer to my last letter—just a postcard that says: “Oh, I’ll take the bus.”
a wonderful, touching and funny tribute to sisterhood. but wherever she is, go and see her before that opportunity is lost.
Moving. Thank you for putting into words the grief of missing your sister who is alive but estranged. You’re not alone.