MY SISTER IRENE: LOST IN THE FIFTIES
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming.
My sister Irene and I were adversaries from the time we shared hand-washed diapers from Mom’s old galvanized washboard and tub. Over the years, we’ve partaken in the pain and joy of every emotion, from playful teasing to blatant animosity. The same is true of our younger sibling, Allen. Once, he and Irene went for over twenty years without sharing a single thought or word, with neither feeling any loss or less spiritual enrichment for the lack of it. My punishment for being the middle child has been to listen to them tear each other apart, point an assortment of fingers and draw stubborn lines of alienation.
Not that I am blameless, I admit. Yet, somehow Irene and I have grown closer over the past decade, enjoying humorous little barbs and sharing even a few belly laughs, the most recent of which were a couple of limericks I wrote and sent for her enjoyment. Her response was that she would have them engraved on my tombstone. Silly girl! Had she forgotten that she was threatening the master of monkeyshines, the high priest of pranks and the grand fool of tomfoolery?
As Oscar Levant said, she was a virgin long before it was fashionable. Her children and I suspect she still is, except for maybe that one time when she was twelve and had that bicycle accident. She had always been slight of frame, a physical characteristic that throughout her life made her seem locked in the body of an eternal prepubescent. Her breasts, when they finally appeared, sent her running in proud fulfillment to the store to purchase a bra, a girl’s official badge of entry into adolescence. Her exuberance turned into tears when the sales clerk said she only needed a training bra. I’d never heard of such a thing. Those things needed training? Was I, a year younger than Sis, destined to a similar fate? A training jock? How would I know when I needed one? Where would I buy one? I could only trust that Mom knew. My heart swelled with premature pride at the thought of growing large enough to require the benefits of a training jock. I hoped it would be soon. That would show those bullying linebackers in the Phys-Ed locker room when I dressed out for class!
The appearance of the training bra on the clothesline in our backyard engendered a wave of gossip that traveled through the neighborhood with the speed of light and the force of a tsunami. Irene has breasts! There was no ignoring the impact these three words had on the adolescent males in our community. Irene waited impatiently for them to line up and perform the ritual dances of courtship. To her chagrin, not even Carlos, a hot Latino and the horniest stud in our neighborhood, took note. Irene sashayed along the sidewalks, her chest puffed out in a fashion that made one wonder if such a feat were anatomically possible. It must have been painful, I thought. With her contrived posture, what she had managed to grow flattened against her ribcage and disappeared, leaving only the outline and wrinkles of the superfluous training bra as a reminder that she was now, officially, a woman. As if to further illustrate the fact, she developed an unusual wiggle in her carriage. I knew Mom was taking Sis to a chiropractor to see if he could ease the pains of womanhood she had suddenly developed. Maybe this was a result of his realignment of her bones, which is what she told me when I asked if she was sick. Aware of the frequency of the nocturnal emissions I was experiencing, mostly self-induced, I wondered if my bones required realignment, too.
Allen and I made the most of her lack of success with her new accoutrements. At every opportunity, we suggested that she had been wearing her training bra backwards and didn’t even know it. With the limited vocabulary and inexperienced mind of a twelve-year-old boy, I was unable to understand the mechanics of bra sizing; even with the training bra, there was this thing called cup size. Ignorant as I was, I could agree that there should be some allowance for various stages of development and that, in cases such as Irene’s, beginning breast sizes should more properly be described as saucers or shallow dishes rather than cups. Further, it seems that regardless of whatever size we can imagine, we continue to use the term cup in preference to graduating to something like a bowl. Size “A” cup. Why not size “A” bowl after an agreed upon maximum cup size? In many cases, it was deliciously appropriate. Also, why were letters of the alphabet pressed into service to describe the size of a breast? Wouldn’t numbers do? Those double letters were absolutely mystifying. Were they indicative of greater weight? Girth? Perkiness? Nipple size? Milk-producing capacity? Some subjective esthetic quality? Whatever it was, it had garnered sufficient notice to bring about the bestowal of a second letter in describing some attribute. Yet, why hadn’t they just upgraded the admirable double-D to an E and reassigned the E to an F, etc., etc.? There were plenty of letters left in the alphabet. Picture, if you will, a size N, as some lesser known manufacturers currently do. As for the double-D, the sheer whispered mention of a double-D cup brought a rise in more than the attention of a young, excitable lad such as myself; for whatever it was, I was sure that “double-D” meant it was twice as good as your ordinary, garden-variety D-cup. I even pondered the possibility of mixing letters, such as AD, BC, or DA and wondered what they might mean. Even though I began these studies when I was young, throughout my life, I never seemed to have an appropriate amount of time to become a serious student of the subject, and so it remains unresolved to this day. I do admit to an occasional spate of joyous ogling.
Allen and I were not the two brightest rats in the maze when it came to girls, a condition I blame on my mother who, figuring that by keeping us boys ignorant of things sexual, she would be protected from some mistake one of her stupid sons might make in the throes of ecstasy or in the heat of curious experimentation. Where there is ignorance, there is fear. I suspect Mom was determined to scare us boys into life-long celibacy. Irene got her obligatory copy of What Every Young Girl Should Know, apparently packaged with her first box of sanitary napkins, gift-wrapped in unlabeled and oh-so-sanitary-and-secretive-dark-purple paper. I was probably just as interested in the book as she, but it disappeared within scant seconds of its appearance in our house. Surely, there must be something similar for boys, I thought. Would I get mine “when the time was right?” Or maybe I could check out a copy at the school library. Nah, forget that. Besides The Hardy Boys, The Bobsey Twins, and selected copies of National Geographic, there was nothing interesting in the library. Even with reference books, you have to already know what you want to look up before you can look it up. If you already know, why look it up? I was just a kid. I could have asked the librarian, but what would I say? “Can you help me, please? I’m looking for a book about bosoms.” Perhaps I could have disguised my intentions and asked, “Can you recommend a book about the history of bras?” Without the benefit of a book, or the explicit guidance of my parents, which was certainly not forthcoming, even to this day I’m not exactly certain that I’m performing my conjugal duties properly. I certainly am satisfied, and my wife, good woman that she is, would probably scream and wildly thrust her pelvis at the appropriate time anyway, ensuring that I incurred the greatest psychological satisfaction for my efforts. Damn! If I’d only had a book! I think the preface of What Every Young Girl Should Know should include—maybe already includes—the sentiment, “Consider yourself lucky. Boys don’t have a book like this.”
Concerned as I was about the perceived deficit in my education, I worried more about Allen. He was a happy-go-lucky kid and I thought he probably never encountered the same questions and emotions as I. Ironically, he fathered six children. I had none. I guess he found a book somewhere, or had sufficient courage to ask the librarian where to find one. Or maybe there is some obscure advantage to having one’s adenoids and tonsils removed at an early age.
Of all the times a girl has to concern herself with modesty, none seems to rival a young maiden’s decision to wear a strapless evening gown for the first time. Dateless but hopeful, Irene prepared herself for the prom by dragging Mom to JC Penney and leafing through all the McCall Pattern books. A decision made years earlier had already mandated that the gown be strapless, full length, have a tight bodice and waist that flowed down to several yards of material that would swirl around her feet as she danced. It would be made of blue satin and organdy and the countless yards of underskirts would be white. The picture on the front of the pattern envelope looked suspiciously like Cinderella in her ball gown. By definition, isn’t every girl at the prom just like Cinderella, virginity and sexual preference aside, of course? Oh, all right, I’ll give you sexual preference, but remember that Cinderella was searching for her Prince Charming, not Princess Charming. Mom made the gown, a grand job that transformed my ugly-duckling sibling into a socially presentable young lady. An unequivocal success. Still, ill at ease as she was with risk-taking, or perhaps due to the perceived danger of accidentally exposing her bosoms, she tugged uncomfortably at the bodice. I couldn’t understand her concern. Wasn’t the hint of exposure or the amount of exposure the purpose of a strapless dress? Wasn’t there supposed to be a spark of excitement in just the possibility of an accidental—or even better—a purposeful exposure? What was her problem? I ventured that her real concern was that it would slip off and no one would notice. What difference did it make, anyway? She still had no date. Unless she was worried that one of the two other girls she was attending the prom with was going to rip off her dress, what was all the moaning about? The next time I saw the garment, two small, puffy sleeves sat firmly on her shoulders and apparently provided the amount of security she required. To my knowledge, no one saw her breasts that night, not accidentally or intentionally.
As much as Irene seemed to personify the essence of prudence, decency and virtuousness, she was a relentless, tattling bitch when it came to us boys. Chronologically our elder, she was the self-appointed overseer of Allen and my worlds. In the daily absence of our working parents, the values of deportment were interpreted as she perceived, and obviously to her advantage. I can’t fault her for being selective in what she told; she told everything. I suspect that in today’s world, she would produce a video copy of our activities to validate her claims. For the record, I never said we were angels. Allen and I lived our lives attended by this miniature nanny ripped from the black depths of an Orwellian mind.
At the end of her first year of college, Sis got married—to a career Marine non-com no less. It’s difficult to imagine what defenses a shy, introverted girl from a poor family could put up against a spit-shinned, hell’s-fire Texan who was a gung-ho marine on top of it all. There was nothing in Irene’s upbringing or education to prepare her for the—pardon the expression—social intercourse between herself and this military interloper from the dirt farmlands of the Texas Panhandle. It seemed there was little in common for them to share; but that was when Irene stepped up to the plate, broke from her shell and applied the know-it-all attitude she always used on us boys to her marriage. She shrugged off her shyness, started talking, and never stopped. Rudy, a nickname she gave her husband—I’m not sure why; something to do with farting and belching. Rudy stuck his head in a western novel and pretty much kept it there throughout their marriage, except for any sporting broadcast. Rudy, a true sports fan, would watch anything from tiddlywinks to tidewater crabbing and everything in between. Irene followed his interests as if they were conjoined twins. While passing through California one time on my way to the Orient, I stopped to visit Sis and Rudy and was treated to an evening at the roller-derby rink where they knew the names of all the players and argued vociferously with another fan seated nearby over obscure infractions of the rules. I remembered how Dad was heartbroken when Sis left home without her violin. He had spent four, hard-earned dollars an hour each week for five years—a goodly sum for a poor family of five in the early fifties—for violin lessons. I can’t contemplate what his reaction would have been to the price of admission to a roller derby game.
As with most contemporary families, we drifted apart, following the progress of each other’s lives through our occasional conversations with Mom. Imagine my surprise when we met after fifteen years and I realized that my innocent, virtuous sister, from the same pee-poor family as I, was capable of being as potty-mouthed as any sailor I ever met, politically two steps to the right of Hitler and as gung-ho for the Corps as her husband. I fully expected to see portraits of William F. Buckley, Jr., Colonel Oliver North, and G. Gordon Liddy hanging in their home along with copies of The National Review and What every Young Girl Should Know conspicuously displayed side by side on their coffee table; and maybe, on a pedestal near the entryway, there would be a bust of Dick Cheney.
From childhood, Irene wanted to be a schoolteacher. When her husband retired from service, they both went back to college and got their teaching certificates along with their daughter. The three of them moved to Texas and taught at the same high school, which was as near the Mexican-U.S. border as you can get without needing a passport or a daily swim across the Rio Grande to get to work. Her subject: Home Economics; everything a young girl needs to know, but not even close to what the young, border-town señoritas take interest in nowadays. Aside from introducing them to the concept of moral values, I always wondered what an anal-retentive, stuck-in-the-fifties girl could teach the youth of today.
She lost Rudy to cancer several years back. He fought the brave fight, but in the end, she took him home to die beside her in the bed they had shared all their lives.
When she had a stroke and her doctor put her in the hospital, I knew how she felt. I, too, was alone when I underwent quadruple, cardiac-by-pass surgery. We kept in touch by phone throughout her recovery and I was pleased that the stroke left her with no handicaps. Like Allen later observed, though, “Would it have been too much to ask for at least a partial loss of speech?”
When next I saw her, from what I could tell her breasts still hadn’t grown. But that was all right. I never needed a training jock, either.
I want to thank both of you for coming to pay your respects today. Allen says he has nothing to say. As for me, I’m proud of Sis today. This is the longest I have ever been able to speak in her presence without being corrected or interrupted.
I’m going to miss her.
Love you, Sis.