Cleaning the kitchen after our mother cooked was a two-hour ordeal, especially on holidays. Every plate, bowl, cup, spoon, and crystal glass was smudged with lipstick or speckled with bits of dried food. There were pots still sitting on the glass stovetop where they’d cooked and held the courses of our meal. Pumpkin soup crusted over the edge where it dripped from the ladle; slivers of greasy, browned onions stuck to the heavy metal roasting pan. Even the cooktop itself required substantial muscle, just when the cleanup appeared to be done. It was the late seventies, and that newfangled appliance was a novelty my mother couldn’t resist in our kitchen, like the trash compactor that promised to smash kitchen garbage down to a six-inch cube but remained stuck in the smashed position instead, or the side-by-side refrigerator that wasn’t wide enough to hold much of anything on either side. That sparkling new kitchen held a promise of modern efficiency but masked problems which required old-fashioned ingenuity to overcome. It was an apt setting for the struggles I began to tackle in my yearning to leave youth behind.
My sister Doran and I were usually the ones relegated to cleanup. Although I dreaded entering the kitchen to attack this job, something happened once we were there which transformed our work into a kind of pleasure. The sink full of warm, soapy water; the radio on the counter providing needed energy through dance-worthy songs by Marvin Gaye or Earth, Wind & Fire; the view out the window of farmed fields, rows of trees, a setting sun; the relief of having the neighboring dining room empty of guests, our show of perfect hostesses now over.
Conversations came easily then, and I enjoyed the time I had with my big sister. I was a young preteen and had a lot of questions about what was ahead of me. Once, she tried to describe what cramps felt like, the kind that accompanied what was referred to as “a woman’s curse.” She looked out our rural window a long time before deciding how to explain it without scaring me. “It feels like a heavy metal clamp is attached to your private parts, pulling down with all its weight.”
She could tell by my reaction that her explanation had had the wrong effect. “Come on…you’re kidding, right? A metal clamp?! Every month for the rest of my life?” I knew from my mother’s complaints that this so-called curse would stop in my fifties, but from my young perspective, that may as well be the rest of my life.
There were other times when standing at this sink brought about my earliest awareness of the lewd and inappropriate thoughts that men could have toward young girls. Around the age of fourteen, more than one older male guest to our home either made comments about my developing body or looked at me in a way I could only describe as hungry. I didn’t entirely understand it, but I sensed it was real, powerful, and wrong. Human intuition develops early in life. It was a hint of the difficult roads I’d have to navigate along my journey to adulthood, one of the few occasions at that age where I was grateful to remain just a girl in her family home, safely drying dishes with her big sister.
Our mother didn’t take to housework easily and never instructed us in any housekeeping method. She would complain when the house got dirty and yell for us to clean it, but I had to guess at what action to take and where to begin. Rag in one hand, can of Pledge in the other, I’d go room to room, wiping dirt off baseboards, right up to the edge of the wall-to-wall carpeting. There could be coats and shoes and glasses strewn about, but I’d start with the finishing work. It’s an approach I still fight today: heading for the detail work while stepping over more obvious messes along the way. This tendency has shown up in my relationships too. Doran leaned into a more natural relationship with housekeeping, a succession of sensible order. Once I thought we were finally done and I could consider a late-night snack before heading off to bed, she was lifting kitchen stools, turning them upside down on the island so she could mop the linoleum beneath.
The house itself felt off-kilter to me. How my mother chose textures, colors, and finishes was puzzling. She had gone from struggling as a young girl in the city to making ends meet as a new mother in the country with our father. She was thrilled to experience financial comfort with her second husband as they built a new house and selected every interior and exterior design elements themselves. The outcome was not good. Like the housekeeping, there was no overall plan for how everything would come together, just the joy of picking out her favorite sofa (burgundy velvet), wall covering (prefinished black wallboard), and carpeting (green and gold swirls)—one piece at a time. The finishing touch was a life-size metal knight in shining armor that stood intimidatingly next to the coat closet in the foyer. There were some grand touches, including an Olympic-sized pool, a second kitchen, full bar, band stage, and dance floor in the basement. Mom was ready for a party now that she’d leapt out of financial scarcity. But the overall effect of this house was that it never really felt like home. It wasn’t like other people’s houses, and it didn’t feel like ours. On the outside, it was a large, sparkling, white-brick rancher with a semicircle driveway, rose garden, and impressive fountain flowing under a bridge into a big swimming pool. On the inside, it felt discordant, mismatched, a setting for something other than family life. Mom reminded us how lucky we were to live in what she called “The Big House,” to have financial security, to have her for a mother, but I couldn’t see how luck was involved. This was her game, her bit of happiness. We were just along for the ride.
What I do remember feeling grateful for, even then, was my sisters. I had three older sisters, and from them, I felt certain I had access to everything wise I would ever need to know. Because they were older, I thought they should have more important things to do than coddle their little sister, and I couldn’t understand why they bothered. I wondered if I would have done the same in their shoes and decided I probably wouldn’t. I’d be busy spending time with boyfriends, studying fashion magazines, chatting with girlfriends. The fact that my sisters sometimes chose to teach or even include me in their more adult lives was baffling to me. Of course, the dishes that mom regularly dirtied were a guarantee that Doran and I would come to know each other as the people we were during that brief phase of our lives. If not for the pile of crusty plates waiting on the counter, Doran would probably have been in her room, studying her magazines, talking on the phone, painting her toenails, and I would have been in my room, reading a book or listening to the radio or practicing my flute. It’s not that we wouldn’t want to know each other, only that we wouldn’t have to, and forming a relationship with someone, even a family member, doesn’t have the same ease and simplicity as our own company. Those dishes helped nurture a genuine bond between us through the shared task we were performing. It gave us the gift of a friendship, a cozy, safe place from which to get to know each other, something the seven years between us might have easily blocked.
My sisters felt pity for me in not having much of a life. Before moving into that house, we’d lived in a bungalow in town near people and shops that provided reasons to walk the neighborhood. My older sisters had a span of two to three years between them—a friendly advantage at that time of life—whereas my nearest was five years older. This big house, with its guard at the door, was built in the countryside where people kept to themselves and there was no reason to walk anywhere. By the time we’d moved there, I was twelve and my sisters were finished with high school. The eldest had married and moved away, so we were down to three. They were beginning to consider their options for building adult lives, and I was in this drafty place without a proper neighborhood, nearby friends, or any companionship outside of school. I might not have seen my own circumstances as so pitiful if not for the view reflected in my sisters’ eyes. But because of this pity, this guilt that seemed to exist for the natural course of their developing lives, my sisters sometimes included me in the more grown-up aspects of their days.
Doran was dating a man who wore a suit everywhere he went. It was the seventies, and leisure suits were popular then. The components were simply pants and a jacket, but it was made from a lightweight polyester that couldn’t wrinkle and was worn without a tie to emphasize its casualness. Basically, it was a cheap plastic suit, but the look took hold for a while, and it was considered hip and modern. Like most fads, it now seems ridiculous, but we hadn’t yet arrived at that point. So this man, Boyfriend X, was taking Doran golfing, and they invited me to go. I couldn’t imagine why they wanted me there, a childish intruder to their grown-up foray, but since I now understand that I was the young, pitiful sister with no life—and it’s true, I had nothing else to do—I was happy to go along, following on the course, riding in the cart, watching X play golf in his suit.
Even before we’d moved into the big house, I was sometimes invited on trips to the store. Once Doran took me to a drugstore for a bit of handbasket shopping, and I watched in awe as a young man approached her and said something like, “You are absolutely gorgeous. I just had to tell you.” I looked up and saw how right he was. Even I could see it. I wanted to hug him on her behalf, but he didn’t see me down there near her waist height. I fully expected her to throw her arms around him with gratitude for noticing her beauty, but instead, she returned his compliment with a cool rebuff I found confusing. I didn’t understand that this unwelcome intrusion was his way of trying to claim something that didn’t belong to him. Maybe these were the reasons I wanted to go along, even on perfunctory trips—to get a glimpse into real exchanges in adult lives, to learn proper reactions.
Sometimes my inclusion was more utilitarian. Doran had a green Volkswagen Beetle with a stick shift. She drove me a half mile up the street in our old neighborhood so I could run into the Hardee’s restaurant, put her coins into a cigarette machine that was kept just inside the door, and pull the lever for her brand. She was wearing enormous rollers in her hair, a whole head full of them, and didn’t want to be seen in public, so she took me along to do the dirty work. But once we got there, I refused. It wasn’t on any moral ground; I just wasn’t sure I’d know how to insert the coins or be strong enough to pull the lever. I was afraid of my own public humiliation, and since she was the smoker and I wouldn’t budge, she accepted her predicament. She gathered her dignity, carried her big-rollered head into Hardee’s, and bought the cigarettes herself.
My mother and stepfather used to throw huge parties in our club-like basement. People got dressed up and came when invited because, as Mom explained, who would turn down an invitation to a free night of booze, food, and live music? This was my mother’s city roots shaking up the countryside. She even had a disco ball installed to encourage dancing. Sometimes, when the house was quiet, I’d go down to the basement, turn on the disco ball, and lie on the floor to watch the lights spin, waiting for imaginary dancers to follow the twinkling dots on the walls. I was waiting, too, for the next right move to nudge me forward into some future life I couldn’t yet see.
For the parties, Mom cooked a lot. It was a skill she took pride in, and here was her chance to shine. She was also a good baker, and there was always a dessert table filled with her homemade pies and cakes. These desserts weren’t reserved for special occasions, though. A counter in the kitchen nearly always held plates filled with homemade pound cake, pecan pie, fudge brownies, or pastries. Usually, a slice or two was missing, crumbs left around the opening where a butter knife still rested in place, anticipating another craving as she passed through the kitchen. These crumbs were a sign no one yet recognized of her emerging depression and the sugary addiction she’d developed to counter it. In later years, I’d come to understand why a missing slice of pie caused me to feel a pang of sadness. Another person’s depression is something you can feel, oddly, just by being in its presence. My early teen years were filled with emotions that had a logic of their own, an understanding of things I couldn’t really comprehend, a preparation for the analyses that would be required ahead.
One day I came home from school late. Everyone was gone but my stepfather—a man with whom I had little conversation—and as I stood near the sink, he watched me like he knew where I’d been that day. Maybe it was guilt causing me to make assumptions about his thoughts, but I’d never seen him pay that kind of attention to me so openly. Could he possibly know about the secret arrangements I’d made in the previous days? My ride to school was going to drop me off at the phone booth in front of a business right next to our high school. There, I would wait for the man I’d met through a sister to pick me up and drive me back to the city to spend the day in his apartment. I’d decided it was time for me to “become a woman,” and he was more than happy to oblige. I’d grown tired of always being the little one, peeking around corners into their lives. I was being left behind, and I thought this was the move I needed to ensure my entry and respect into the world of adults. To my surprise, the arrangements I’d made worked, at least as to the mechanics of the plan. I wasn’t driving yet and didn’t feel confident about giving proper directions—doubted my ride to school would agree to the mysterious plan then wait later at the specified time to return me home—but everything went as designed, even the becoming-a-woman part. Except, of course, that sex didn’t make me into a woman. I still felt confused, frightened, uncertain, and even more like I was looking at life instead of living it. I also felt worried about any damage I may have caused myself or others from my sneaky plan. If this act didn’t make me a woman, did it change me at all? I couldn’t be sure, except that my stepfather seemed to recognize something, seemed to know that I had gone all wrong on his watch. Maybe I had used the Old Spice bar in the shower before leaving my lover’s apartment and was creating a soapy evidence trail without realizing it. Neither of us spoke about it, and he left me there in the kitchen alone, no dishes or sisters for comforting distraction.
One evening not long after, while Doran and I were washing dishes, she told me about a new job she was taking, working as a flight attendant (“stewardess” was dated language, she explained) with a major airline. She’d be leaving for Chicago soon, as that was her airline’s hub, and she’d have to live there until an opportunity to transfer back to the D.C. area became available. In other words, she was leaving me. My dip into womanhood hadn’t leveled the ground between us at all. She was now leaping for adulthood, as she rightfully should, and no man or boyfriend or secret rendezvous was going to keep me from standing alone at that sink. She kindly explained to me what she expected this new life to be like, promising to bring me along for a visit once she got settled—and she did, making Chicago my very first airplane flight. Here she was, kindly including me, offering comfort into this next transition for us both. It was an inclusion I wasn’t sure I deserved, thinking I could foolishly jump into the glamorous world of my older sisters with that one meaningless act, a secret that had since become shameful to me. But the time came, and she left. My sister, my teacher, my dishwashing partner. Her room was empty and I—the one still home—felt homesick.
In about the same year that Doran left to begin her new career, my only remaining sister also moved out of the house, leaving me the last girl standing. Life changed quickly thereafter, with my stepfather moving into one of my sisters’ old bedrooms until cancer finally killed him. My mother’s depression kicked into full speed after that, and while the cakes still stood on the counter, there weren’t many pots and pans to scrub anymore. The disco ball, however, got put to full use at least twice more when two sisters came back to celebrate their weddings under its festive sparkle.
Being the youngest held a new dilemma I hadn’t foreseen when it was my time to move out and into adulthood: I was now going to be the last to go, leaving a sad, lonely, depressed mother alone with her desserts in this big, empty house. It felt wrong and unfair and confusing. My excitement at finally getting my turn (“Your day will come too,” she used to say) was tinged with the first taste of the complexities of real adulthood. But life handed us a surprise gift when my eldest sister returned home with a new baby about to be born. We practically passed each other moving in and out of the house in front of the knight in armor, no longer so imposing but still there watching. My mother had activity in the house again, and was thrilled to not only become a grandmother for the first time but participate in this new baby’s daily life. Depression was put on hold temporarily, my sister found a haven for this big change in her life, and I was free to step into my first tiny apartment, where I would begin the lifelong practice of applying what I’d learned to the challenges of adulthood.
In photo at top of page, Doran is on the left, and Trevy is on the right.