Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Big Sister

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Angéle Kamp

Photo by Angéle Kamp
See more of Angéle's work at unsplash.com/@angelekamp

Aunt Louisa carries bacon with her wherever she goes. She says it's for the dog, but her lips shine when she smiles and her kisses taste of singed flesh and salt.

"Louisa has an addiction," Mom says. "It's just like drugs or alcohol. She's going to eat herself into the grave if we don't help her."

You, Big Sister, listen close when Mom talks like that. You do this partly out of concern for Aunt Louisa and partly because you want Mom to let you buy an electronic Monopoly game, even though we already have a regular Monopoly game which both Mom and Dad say is good enough.

I tell Mom that Aunt Louisa is a grown-up, which means she can eat whatever she wants. When I'm an adult I'm going to have peppermint candy for breakfast, chocolate-covered marshmallows for lunch and potato chips and cookies-n-cream ice cream for dinner. You give me that Big Sister look of yours—that oh-isn't-it-sad-how-immature-you-are-Gina look—but Mom laughs and says, "Now doesn't that sound delicious?" Then she gives us our lunch: carrot sticks and celery and pita bread to dip in homemade hummus, with clusters of red grapes on the side.

When Mom's not looking you flick a mushed grape across the table and whisper, "I've got seventy-two dollars saved up, Gina. How much do you have in your bucket?"

I press my fingertips together, as if considering my answer. I know I only have three dollars and twenty-seven cents. But I see no reason to admit this.

"You're only nine," you offer. "You can't be expected to have as much money as a twelve-year-old."

"I like to spend mine," I say, and then quote Aunt Louisa: "Life is for living, not for saving for a rainy day."

Mom sits down with her big bowl. "We have to try to do both," she says. "We have to enjoy what we have, but also make sure we keep a little for later."

"I'm better at that, aren't I, Mommy?" you say. "Gina hardly saves anything."

"It's not a contest." Mom lifts a giant forkful of greens to her mouth. This is how she eats in summer, piles of leaves glistening with lemon juice and pale green chunks of avocado. "You girls should help each other," she adds. "You should be each other's best friend."

"How am I supposed to be Gina's best friend," you ask, "when she's such a baby?"

I bite down on a carrot stick. There are many opportunities here, and I need a minute to decide which one I'm going to take. Do I point out how you wouldn't let me walk home from the pool with you and Kelly yesterday, because you wanted to giggle over some boy? (The same boy you hated last year because he drew dirty pictures on your desk?) Do I mention that time you said that starving people shouldn't be given food because then they would never learn to work for themselves? (This, while you were counting out the change in your bucket—most of which was given to you by Grandpa?) Or maybe I should tell how you whispered to me just this morning, while Mom was in the bathroom putting on lipstick, how you realized our mother isn't as pretty as some of the other mothers, even though she's so skinny, because of her crooked nose. Big Sister, you think I don't save up for rainy days, but I do. Oh, I do.

I can see by the way Mom looks at me that she already feels bad about what you've said. Once, in a private moment, she tried to make me understand how tough it was for you to have a younger sister. "Maisie was an only child for three years," Mom said. "She had all Mommy and Daddy's attention. And then you were born and she had to share everything. It's the way it should be. But it's not easy."

Mom was trying to make me feel sorry for you. But all she did was make me feel bad for myself. Because I never even had one day where I didn't have to share everything.

"Can I go with Aunt Louisa to the Farmer's Market tomorrow?" I ask, and then glance over at you. "By myself?"

"No fair!" you protest.

Mom sighs big with her whole body. "Yes, Gina," she says, "you can go to the market with Aunt Louisa by yourself, under two conditions: You must pick me up a big bunch of kale. And no matter what, you cannot let Aunt Louisa eat any doughnuts."

I nod solemnly, avoiding your gaze. You'll get me back later, in one of the usual ways. But for right now, I've won.

~

"Let's make a bet," you whisper from the top bunk. It's the middle of the night, and we've both woken at the same time, something that happens often. The house is quiet, the room dark except for the glow-in-the-dark stars you've stuck to the ceiling.

I debate pretending to be asleep, but then realize you'll just climb into my bed and stick your hot little tongue in my ear. My friend Jennie told me her older brother farts in her face to wake her up. We both laughed, but when I told her how you woke me up, she scrunched her face and she said that was just weird.

"Bet what?" I say.

"If Aunt Louisa eats doughnuts tomorrow you have to give me everything in your money bucket."

"It's only three dollars." Sleepiness is my truth serum.

"You have to give me what's in your money bucket and your next ten dollars."

You want that electronic Monopoly game, bad. I don't fully understand why you want to trade your real money for pretend, but I think it has something to do with your conversations with Grandpa. The family was rich in the old days, in Europe before the war, but everyone had to start over again in this country. Now Grandpa saves everything, and has money hidden in secret places all over his house. When you come back from one of your visits, you always count what's in your bucket. You say it's because you think I might steal something, but we both know that's not true. Grandpa's stories scare you, and you count your money to pretend you're safe.

"Okay," I say. "But what do I get if I win?"

Silence. Sometimes you forget bets are two-sided.

And then, finally: "What do you want?"

For you and Kelly to always want me to walk home with you, and for you not to care about some boy who draws dirty more than me. For you to love me like Mom loves Aunt Louisa. For you to worry I might die.

"You have to take me to the park with you every night after supper for a week."

You suck in your breath. After supper at the park only happens during summer, and it's only for Big Kids. Us Littles stay home with our parents, unless an older sibling promises to supervise us. I've never been, but Jennie and I have compared notes with kids our age who have. We know you guys sit on the swings and share cell phones, and whisper in each other's ears. We've heard, but have yet to confirm, instances of smoking, flirting and kissing with tongues.

"You'd be so bored, Gina. We just sit around and talk."

I yawn. "There's nothing else I want."

"What about my old princess dress?"

"Nope."

"My Sunday dessert?"

"Naw."

"My next visit with Grandpa?"

I pause. That would mean I'd see Grandpa two Saturdays in a row. But Grandpa doesn't talk to me about life during the war, or show me where he keeps his stash. We play chess and pick tomatoes, and he reminds me how much I look like Grandma, who died two years ago. It's good but not the same. I want in on someone's secrets.

"I'm supposed to get five dollars from Aunt Louisa for taking care of Gregory last week," I remind you. "After supper at the park for a week, or no bet."

~

Aunt Louisa shows up on Saturday morning in one of her ensembles.

 

This is Mom's word. She believes things like clothes and makeup and hair mean something, which is where you probably get it from, Big Sister. By that reasoning, if someone wears what Aunt Louisa is wearing—a bright green jumper with ladybug buttons on the front straps, multi-colored striped knee socks, and a voluminous straw hat—she's telling you she wants attention. Mom thinks Aunt Louisa should dress less conspicuously because her size already makes people stare. But I think her outfits are awesome.

"I hear you're coming marketing with me today, Gina," she says in her sing-song voice, swinging her tote bag through the air when she picks me up for a hug.

"Can I come?" you ask, although Mom already said no.

"Of course," Aunt Louisa says—you knew she would. And then Mom has to explain. Big Sister's being mean to me again and I need a special outing.

"Girls," Aunt Louisa says. "You will be the best of friends and the worst of enemies. Sisters are everything to each other."

"But we never fought." Mom's wearing the peach sundress with the delicate flower pattern and straps that tie in neat bows. Her feet are bare but freshly pedicured, her toenails perfect shiny discs like slivers of pink candy.

"Oh, Sadie," Louisa laughs. "You don't have to pretend for the girls. It's normal."

Mom frowns. "Name one fight we ever had that wasn't just a mild disagreement."

"How about three?" Aunt Louisa ticks the arguments off on her dimpled fingers: "Rodney Smith, Daryl Marsh, and the black satin blazer."

You and I giggle. Daryl Marsh is our dad.

"Those weren't real fights," Mom says, but her color shifts pink.

"Well, at least you won Daryl," Aunt Louisa says. "Not that I put up much of a fight. You two so obviously belonged together."

You and I grin, at peace for the moment under the rainbow umbrella of our parents' love. Dad brings Mom a dozen flowers every Friday, and she lets you and I each pick one to put in our own vase. But when they fight, it's horrible. They wait until they think we're asleep and then hiss at each other behind their closed bedroom door. The next day, they have purple moons under their eyes and stare sullenly into their coffee. But on Saturday mornings, Dad hums while he makes pancakes. Mom dips her fingers into the warm syrup and licks them delicately while the rest of us chow down.

Daddy's in the kitchen now, cleaning up the breakfast dishes. That's how happy he is on Saturday mornings.

"Ready to go, kiddo?" Aunt Louisa asks me. "Let's get there before the doughnuts sell out."

Mom gives me a meaningful look. You hide a smirk behind your hand and I notice your fingernails are the same shade of pink as Mom's toes. You think I'm going to fail in my mission, and it's all part of your master plan, the one that proves your superiority once and for all. Well, don't think it's going to be as easy as all that, Big Sister. I've got more than a few tricks saved up for you.

~

On the inside, Aunt Louisa's vintage orange Bug is, like her ensembles, what Mom would call "busy." A tiny Jesus with a suction cup base wobbles on the dashboard alongside stickers, family photos, and plastic flowers. Miniature fuzzy pink soccer balls dangle from the rearview mirror, and the seats have matching hot pink cow pattern covers. She sometimes burns incense in the ashtray, which makes the car smell exotic, like it just rolled in from Morocco. Sometimes she smokes homemade cigarettes too, but I'm not supposed to say anything about that.

"Can you tell me about Rodney Smith, Daryl Marsh, and the black satin blazer?" I ask once we've gotten on our way down El Camino Real.

Louisa giggles, a delicate sound. Gregory's been waiting in the back seat, and now he leans forward, sniffing the air.

"Bacon, Goo-Goo?" Louisa asks.

Gregory yips.

She cracks open the glove compartment while steering deftly around an unidentifiable smooshed object in the road, and pulls out a baggie stuffed with crisped pork. The scent makes my stomach growl even though it's already full of pancakes.

Louisa takes a bite and then hands the rest of the slice to Gregory. He wrestles it down on the back seat and chews while grunting with what sounds like immense satisfaction.

Aunt Louisa offers the open bag to me. Mom says the chemicals will give you cancer and the fat will make your heart stop.

"Thanks," I say, taking the darkest slice.

"Rodney Smith was my first boyfriend," Aunt Louisa says. "But your mom spotted him first."

"Was Mommy in love?"

"Oh, Gina. Your mom had it bad."

We stop at a crosswalk and a teenage couple strolls past. The girl has long, wispy hair and has tucked her hand into the back pocket of the boy's jeans. The boy is walking faster than the girl—or maybe it's just that his legs are longer—so that every couple of steps the girl has to hop a little to keep up with him.

"So how did he end up being your boyfriend?"

The light changes and Louisa presses down on the gas. The Bug jumps forward with a little squeal, which Gregory matches with one of his own. Louisa throws him another slice of bacon. Jesus trembles on the dash.

Louisa has a funny smile on her face, and I can see her considering how much of the truth to tell me. "Let's just say I had the bigger appetite," she finally says.

"Did Rodney eat bacon too?"

Louisa laughs. "Rodney ate everything."

~

Where Aunt Louisa lives, three towns over, the farmers market isn't as nice. That's why she comes here, to Palo Verde, where Saturday morning is like a mini-fair. There are fruit and vegetable booths, of course, but also baked goods and locally made cheese, handwoven hats and socks, pet foods, ice cream, toys, jewelry, sometimes even live musicians. (I can hear you now, Big Sister: As opposed to what, Gina? Dead musicians?) Aunt Louisa leads Gregory around by his hot pink leash, stopping at every booth that offers free samples. Gregory is like a person to Aunt Louisa in every way, except for that leash and the fact that she has to wrap up his poop in little plastic baggies. "Did you make something for mommy, Gregory?" she'll ask. "Good boy!"

It's in the midst of one of these pit stops that I tell Aunt Louisa about the bet. Don't be so shocked, Big Sister. Just because you and Grandpa like to be sneaky doesn't mean that sometimes telling the truth isn't the best way to get what you want. I think Aunt Louisa will appreciate the fact that I'm not trying to trick her into not eating her favorite food.

Her face does funny things. "Let me get this straight," she says. "Your mom told you to keep me from eating doughnuts, and Maisie bet you ten dollars you couldn't do it?"

"It's because Mommy loves you so much and doesn't want you to die," I say.

Louisa's expression softens. "Your mom's been so worried ever since Daryl had his heart attack. What she doesn't know is that my cholesterol numbers are great. I'm perfectly fine, except for the diabetes."

"But Auntie, do you want me to lose ten dollars?"

"You shouldn't have made that bet, Gina. It was a mean thing to do."

I consider this. "I'm sorry, Auntie. But if I win, Maisie has to take me to the park with her after supper every night for a week."

Louisa asks me why you wouldn't just take me anyway, and I explain about the Big Kids and the Littles.

"That's one thing about your mom," she says. "She never did that to me. Of course, your mom's only sixteen months older."

"That's why you guys liked the same boys," I say. "Like Rodney Smith and Daddy."

Aunt Louisa smiles. "Yes, well, it became clear pretty quickly that your mom and dad belonged together."

I remembered Dad eating his stack of pancakes that morning, how he'd grinned between bites. "I guess Mom doesn't mind Dad's appetite so much."

Louisa laughed in a way that made me think I'd just told a joke, one with a punchline only my aunt understood. "He'll never eat your bacon, though," I added. But that just made Louisa laugh harder.

~

"I don't like boys yet," I say, when we continue our browsing. "But I think Maisie's starting to."

"That happens." Aunt Louisa considers a row of goat cheese samples.

When the sampling is done, I say, "I get why Mommy loves Daddy. But why would Maisie want to spend all her time with some boy who's totally mean to her?"

"Oh, Gina. It's complicated."

"Why don't you have a boyfriend?"

Aunt Louisa tugs Gregory over to the nearest bench and sits down, patting the seat beside her.

"Mommy said you weren't always fat," I say, tumbling onto the bench.

She laughs. "I had a nice little figure, once."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. . . . I get nervous when my weight gets too low."

"How come Mommy's not fat?"

"She gets nervous when her weight gets too high."

Gregory jumps up next to me, and Louisa digs in her bag for the bacon.

"Why are you guys so nervous all the time?"

Aunt Louisa doesn't sigh with her whole body like Mom, but doles it out in little puffs. Like she's not certain she wants the air to leave her body at all. "It's complicated," she says again, which is her way of saying I'm too young to know.

"I understand more than you think," I say, indignant. "What about the black satin blazer? What was that fight about?"

~

We're close to the doughnut booth now, and I can smell their yeasty, sugary scent.

 

I know Louisa does too, and Gregory definitely does, because he's doing a little dance on his hind legs, whining and straining at his leash.

"What's the worst fight you and Maisie ever got into?" Louisa asks.

I flush with shame.

"Come on," she gently prods.

I look at Gregory. He wants doughnuts so bad.

"It was that time when Maisie ruined all my dolls and stuffed animals."

Aunt Louisa nods. "What happened?"

"We were playing doctor, just pretending, but then Maisie wanted to really cut them up. She poked one plastic dolly full of holes and took off its head and filled it with water to watch it all run out. She said this was what happened in Grandpa's war. The doctors filled the babies full of holes."

"You must have been upset," Louisa says, her voice soft now. "I bet you were crying and trying to stop her the whole time."

"No." My throat tightens. "I poked a doll full of holes too. I was laughing. I thought it was so cool that Maisie wanted to play with me and that we could have so much fun together."

Aunt Louisa tosses Gregory another strip of bacon, before offering me the bag again. "So when did the fight happen?"

"Later, when it was time for bed and Mommy asked what happened to all my dolls and why were Teddy's legs cut off and I realized what I'd done. That she'd made me want to ruin all my stuff. That's when I got really upset but Mommy wouldn't punish Maisie because I'd told her it was okay. Because I'd joined in."

I take a strip of bacon that I don't really want and just hold it, not looking at Aunt Louisa. That story still makes me feel ashamed. Not just because I ruined my own toys so stupidly like that, but because it shows that you do have some kind of weird power over me, a power I'm mostly helpless to resist.

Aunt Louisa tells me the argument of the black satin blazer was similar—that she and Mommy fought over who would wear it to their mother's funeral, and each was horrified that the other would pick a fight on such a sad day.

"Wait—that was only two years ago." I remember Grandma's funeral. I'd never seen Grandpa or Mom or Louisa look so sad before. You and I didn't cry, Big Sister, but we talked about how awful it was that Grandma would never make pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving again, and that Grandpa wouldn't have anyone to help him find his keys or his glasses.

"Yes," Louisa says, rubbing the corners of her eyes. "And it was a really big deal. We hadn't shouted at each other like that in years."

"But who's fault was it," I ask. "Who started it?"

She shakes her head. "It doesn't matter. That's not what the fight was really about."

I'm stumped. "This might actually be too complicated for me."

"Don't you see?" Aunt Louisa leans down to pat Gregory. "We were looking for a way to express how upset we both were, but it was too huge to think about our mother dying, so we just got into this dumb fight over an article of clothing that neither one of us really wanted."

"How could you even fit into the same blazer?"

Louisa laughs. "It was your Grandpa's. A little small on me, a little big on your mother. Like I said, it wasn't really about the blazer."

"Do you think my fight with Maisie wasn't really about stuffed animals?"

"I think the closer you get to someone, the more you make them carry stuff for you. All the stuff that you don't want to have to look at or lug around yourself."

"I never really took the stuffed animals anywhere," I say. "Although I did take Raggedy Ann to Florida once."

Aunt Louisa sniffs, and it sounds almost like laughter and almost like crying. "Now, then, shall we get some doughnuts?"

~

Gregory eats them the whole way home. When we pull into the driveway there's only one left in the bag.

"That's for you, kiddo," Aunt Louisa says.

"I'm not going to eat any if you're not."

"Then give it to your mom," she says.

"She never eats that stuff."

"Oh Lord." Aunt Louisa turns off the car and gets out.

My heart beats fast when she knocks on the front door.

But it's not Mommy who answers. It's you, Big Sister, with a triumphant smile on your face.

Aunt Louisa hands you the bag. "I just don't want to eat any doughnuts today, love," she says. "Will you please make sure this doesn't go to waste?"

You narrow your eyes at me, but keep your voice sweet for Louisa. "Thank you, Auntie."

Later, in bed, you'll stick your tongue in my ear and tell me there's no way I can go to the park with you, that you had your fingers crossed the whole time you made that bet. I'll tell you it's okay, that I don't really want to go anyway, that Louisa explained to me about the carrying. I try to explain it to you, but I'm afraid I don't really do a good job. I'm only nine, after all, and there's so much I don't know.

But you, Big Sister, you understand everything. Like, what it's like to have all the important things to yourself. You've been taking change out of my bucket for years, just a little at a time, never dreaming I notice. You're the one who keeps track of all that stuff, the one who keeps count. What does it matter to me? It all belongs to you, anyway. It's always belonged to you. I do it again and again. I poke it full of holes and cut it to shreds and hand you every last bit.

 

 


Erin Eileen Almond recently published her first novel, Witches’ Dance, with Lanternfish Press. Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, Colorado Review, Normal School, WBUR’s cognoscenti column, and The Rumpus. She is a graduate of the UC-Irvine MFA program and Wesleyan University and a recipient of a St. Botolph Foundation Emerging Artists Grant. Erin lives outside Boston with her husband, Steve, and their three children.


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