For as long as I can remember I’d wanted a little brother. For reasons that elude my memory now, I had decided as a preschooler that his name would be “Tony”. My mother had already defied Nature and the doctor’s proclamation that she couldn’t bear anymore children after her miscarriage when she went ahead and delivered me. But I slammed the womb shut and in hindsight I’m sure for good reasons. Mom could conceive no more children naturally, despite her deep maternal longing for a little girl. Any objective outside observer would have agreed that my parents needed another child in their charge like they needed another hole in their heads for ventilation. But again my parents defied Nature. Driven by my mother’s desire, they began the long process of adopting a baby. Nearly two years later when I had virtually lost my 5-year olds’ hope of having a little brother the agency contacted my parents with the news that they had a brand new baby for us: a baby girl. My parents were ecstatic. Their waiting was over. Their prayers had been answered. All I could offer was dissent.
“It’s the wrong one,” I said, “It’s suppose to be my little brother.”
I felt tricked and betrayed. “You’ll love her just the same. You’ll see,” my satisfied mother tried to reassure me. Of course she was right. On the day we picked up the baby girl that was supposed to be my little brother mom insisted I pull in my pouting lip and hold my new little sister. She placed the quiet infant gingerly in my arms and I looked down into this tiny, sweet face whose big blue eyes looked back up at me as if to say, “I’m here and I’m yours.” I heard her eyes’ message and I felt the kind of button-popping pride usually reserved for new parents and looked back up at my parents, our parents, and declared, “She’s mine!” “I’m glad you’ve changed your mind,” my mother said, “but she’s ours, all of ours. Our little girl, your little sister.” “Right,” I thought to myself, like anything else too pretty, precious, or delicate brought into the house that I claimed as my own because I thought these two hicks that were our parents couldn’t possibly appreciate or care for properly, this little girl would also be mine. I knew then, at five years old, that I’d have to more than just a brother. I’d have to do my big brother best to be her protector and sometimes mother, as we all tried to survive my father.
As I grew older the pure blonde hair I had been born with darkened. The coal black hair my sister had at birth continued to grow more and more blonde. As if this were an ominous foreboding we would continue, propelled from the same trajectory, along very different paths. The feast or famine cycles of our parents’ finances had already seeped into my psyche, making me into a live action version of the greedy Daffy Duck cartoon: “Its’ mine, mine, mine! Mine, I tell ya’, all mine!” My sister seemed unaffected by our parents alternating ability to provide. Her heart remained as open as my grasping hands. During particularly dire times when our father was laid off from work, mom would be unable to hide her despair as she tried to put together enough change to buy milk or eggs. My sister would have already returned to offer to our mother the coins she had shook loose from her piggy bank, while I would still be grilling the poor woman, now in tears, as to exactly when she might be able to pay back if I did loan her my change.
Based on the boys’ behavior I had witnessed at school and reinforced by my fathers’ hard work smells and violence, I decided by the second grade that I didn’t like boys and didn’t care to be one of them. They were dull, stupid, dirty creatures who seemed to only excel at breaking things and hurting people. Sadly, my perception of men from my adult vantage point has been altered very little. My sister, on the other hand, must have somehow perceived their brutish, volatile nature as powerful. To our parents’ horror, as soon as she was old enough to discern the difference between boys and girls she began announcing to anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a boy. In holiday pictures there she’d be posing for the camera proudly with her cowboy hat at an angle, her thumbs hooked in her pants pockets below her brown western pleather vest, while in the background I could be seen accessorizing one of her dolls for all I was worth. I would spend untold hours locked in the bathroom trying to arch my eyebrows with my dad’s disposable Shick razor and putting baby powder on my face in an attempt to look like my newly discovered movie idol, Bette Davis. I would be spanked soundly and sent back to the bathroom to wash my face. “Do you want people to think you look like a girl?”, my parents would ask, thinking they were shaming me. And on some level it did shame me since clearly I as trying to look like a woman. My sister, in sharp contrast, would be under the family station wagon helping dad change the oil or something. Under a car? The only way I ever imagined myself under a car was if my father accidentally backed up over me while I was doing cartwheels in the driveway. Under a car. Jesus. She would get bruises and develop callouses. My hands would remain as soft as a cloistered maiden’s. She could throw a ball, I could throw attitude. None of this is to say we didn’t play together as children, we just brought different abilities to our shared play time. She would build a fort. I would hang drapes and put in track lighting.
Each Christmas we’d hide our dismay at our parents complete denial of our requests, as well as our envy of each other’s gifts and simply correct their mistakes during heated bartering sessions. My G.I. Joe would be swapped for her Barbie. The huge, yellow Tonka dump truck I found useless was traded for enough tiny, tight, teen doll ensembles to keep Barbie in the dressing room well into middle age. The Easy-Bake Oven, though, was the prize. “I will GIVE you Johnny West, his horse, the Lone Ranger. . . mmm, okay, not the Lone Ranger. . .” C’mon village people, the masked crusader with the behind you could bounce a quarter on and the broad chest in the tight powder blue western get up was too hot to handle and too hot to let go of. “You can have Tonto and his horse, all for the Easy-Bake Oven.” She counter offered with the Barbie Dream Camper. “C’mon,” I’d reply indignantly, “what kind of supermodel really goes camping? I want the oven. “Alright then,” she bargained, “I want my Wonder Woman back and the oven is yours.” Years of practice with me had made my sister a nearly worthy opponent. “No way.” I stood firm. Nothing would wrestle Diana Prince out of my hands. My sister seemed to have an evolving and inexplicable interest in Lynda Carter and her island of origin sisters, but I didn’t care. When I practiced my amazing Wonder Woman high jumps off the back porch, the doll was going with me. “Look,” I’d say exasperated, “will you not be eating the lovely cakes I bake with butter cream chocolate frosting?” “You won’t share them?”, she’d ask, sounding hurt and bewildered. “Of course I will, IF you take the old, dusty pioneers, their horses, the sidekick Indian and give me that oven.” Of course she caved in and the pioneers, the supermodels and the two of us wore satisfied, chocolate frosted grins sitting around the make believe campfire my sister had built herself.
As a result of navigating the minefield of our parent’s house for the first decade of my life I was becoming a silent, nervous child who systematically picked my lips and tore off my fingernails until both bled. Defending myself on the school yard playground was not in my nature; defending my sister, however, was my very nature. One Summer our parents sent us to vacation Bible school at the local chapter of The Salvation Army. At the Salvation Army my sister and I were separated throughout the day with the exception of chapel and lunch time in the gymnasium. During chapel we were seated by age groups, again putting my sister out of arm’s length, but within sight. In what would ultimately be our last chapel service the somber chaplain spoke of other children in bondage; children called Israelites, not “young-in’s “. I felt sorry for these children and wondered if their parents had Appalachian roots like mine. As the chaplain droned on the younger kids grew uncontrollably restless. When one of the lower ranking officers moved in, singled out and removed my six-year old sister to the hall, I got up and prepared to follow them. I was quickly and sharply rebuked, ordered to remain in my seat. I clenched my jaw and descended back into the crushed red velvet padded pew, forcing my gaze straight ahead to the lectern while straining to hear what was happening beyond the hallway door. Moments later when I clearly heard my little sister’s crying and pleading, “I want my brother. I want my brother”, I defied the guard’s order and darted from my numbered seat and into the hallway. I couldn’t rescue my sister from much back at home, frequently, being the first born decoy was enough there. Sometimes, despite my horror and protests, she was still the victim of the violent switchings that were our parent’s spare the rod-style of aerobic exercise. I was willing to be damned though if anyone else was going to lay a hand on my sister. So when the God-loving, man-hating bull dyke of a “Captain” snatched my sister away from my immediate grasp with enough force to make her squeal and renew her tears, I kicked the bitch with enough velocity to make her swear and release my sister. I grabbed my sister’s little hand, told her everything would be alright, and commanded her to run with me. We raced down the hall for the door off of the crafts room that spilled into the alley behind the army compound. We bolted past activities coordinators still cleaning glue and glitter off of the tables who stopped us and asked what had happened. These kind, young, civilian volunteers called our parents and we were never made to return to The Salvation Army vacation Bible school. We would receive our instruction and our abuse at home as God had intended.
As we grew up our experience was similar, but our individual responses to our experience were vastly different. In our home that was dangerous and our world that was small and unjust I would escape to the safe, spacious vistas of my own imagination and my own despair. My sister somehow managed to retain both, her quick, joyous laughter and her quick, violent temper. I would internalize things, cry and wish I were dead. She would simply kick your ass and be done with it. By the time I was fifteen years old I had no reason to believe I’d have a future outside of an Institution for the Very Nervous and the Perpetually Afraid. But with the frequent support of Gloria, the chain-smoking matriarch of our next door neighbors, and a Family Services counselor, I developed the determination to not be, as Gloria put it, “my father’s whipping post” anymore. This was apparently a non-negotiable contract I had entered with him at birth and when I broke the contract I was sent away. I was packed up and driven to an orphanage four hours away. My sister cried hysterically, her ten year old heart breaking, as she struggled to free herself from our aunt that held her as our father physically pulled me out the front door. My little sister had worshipped the ground I sashayed on and now I was being taken away. It was like the white trash version of that scene in The Color Purple, as Nettie is literally ripped away from the grief stricken Celie. When my sister reached fifteen, and also broke the contract with our father that she so clearly adored, she too was sent to the children’s home. We stayed in contact frequently back then by writing letters to each other; postcards from siblings trapped in the two separate civil wars of our lives. Soon our individual struggles demanded our undivided attention and we lost touch. Our mother’s death in 1991 brought us back together briefly, but that was the last time I’ve seen my sister.
While I’ve busied myself over the years apparently attempting to lose my gag reflex with men whose sheer emotional unavailability should have choked me, my sister has fought more noble battles. When a local judge refused to allow she and her female partner of more than a dozen years to legally change and share their last name based on no precedent more substantial than his own prejudice, they would not be denied. The couple acquired an attorney and mounted a lengthy, arduous legal battle that, much to our father’s consternation, frequently made headlines state wide and beyond. “I don’t know why they couldn’t just change their names one at a time and not make a big circus about it all over the papers”, he would complain to me during one of our phone conversations. “Dad,” I’d say, purposely irritating him by responding to his presumably rhetorical question, “after mom died and you married her sister, wasn’t there a wedding announcement in the papers?” “That’s different,” he’d replied indignantly. “You’re right, dad. That’s very different, since your daughter and her mate weren’t related prior to their union.” As is his custom he would assure me that he would be praying for me and quickly end our phone call.
As a child I was so certain of my own future fatherhood that by age nine or ten I’d had a short list of possible names picked out for my future offspring. Now, at midlife, the role of being a father seems better left to those better financially heeled, more paternal and less self-indulgent than myself. No one expected my sister, the little girl who wanted to be a boy, to be a mother. A Phys. Ed. teacher? Sure. An auto mechanic? Of course. A mother? No. Well, yes. As it turns out, where there’s a will, there’s a turkey baster. My sister is now one of two proud mothers of two little girls. I’ve been made an uncle by nieces I’ve never seen.
In recent years through an act of my will I’ve forgiven our now stroke-addled and rather feeble father his many mistakes and abuses. My sister, understandably, has no more use for him than she would for any other dick. My own forgiveness for the man remains an act of faith, a work in progress. I completely respect her need to avoid any contact with him, just as I did for many years. It is our separation, the lack of contact or response from my sister that turns my mind back on itself and mars my heart with hair line cracks. Perhaps it is with us as it is with the survivors of any tragedy: plane crashes or war. To look in each others’ face is to necessarily remember, re-live, re-hurt. It’s been thirty-some years now since our parents imposed the end of our decade together as children daily surviving their own special brand of Bible-based terrorism. It’s too far back to reach. If we could, if we tried, would something in us snap like a rubber band extended beyond it’s capacity and we’d lose today; the today that we’ve run so far to find, the today we thought we’d never see? It seems that is an impossible, even an unnecessary risk for the adult stranger that is my sister to take. That’s alright. Alright, cause it has to be.
I can’t see the future any better now than I could imagine what lay beyond I-75 looking out by bedroom window as a child. But now enough wreckage of the past has been cleared that if I look back over my shoulder, open my heart, and squint my eyes, on the distant horizon of memory I can see a proud little three-foot version of me holding this deliciously brand new baby girl with coal black hair and a face that shined with all the innocence of Eden. I can smell the wet, wormy aroma of our mud pies baking in the sun. Most of all, though, I remember that little girl’s laughter; so joyous, so infectious, so original, that it was clearly on loan from the land of stars. I couldn’t save that little girl, but I can set that little girl free. Ultimately, the setting free is, perhaps, the most important part of any parent’s or little surrogate parent’s job. The real dyk-otomy remains that in letting her go I can still proudly exclaim, as I did when I was five, “She’s mine!”
– PreetamDas Kirtana
*this essay originally appeared on http://www.semantikon.com via the generous and talented Lance Oditt and was later featured as a special cover edition of The Dayton City Paper, where some of my earlier essays appeared monthly and that cover is also the source of the accompanying pictures here.
** this particular publishing/posting of this older piece is dedicated to Erin, Sarah, Chase, Zachary, Jerry, Nora, Rebecca, Rick, and all of us who continue to try and heal and reclaim our souls, even as we learn to walk, even with our limp, even with broken hearts, but, incrementally and with each other’s support, Not with broken spirits.