A Year Behind Sister and Forty
This spring is my sister's fortieth birthday. More to the point, that means my fortieth birthday can't be far behind. Since my sister is only eighteen months older than I am, I followed a year behind her goody two-shoes all the way through school.
By second grade, I was already dreading the moment when Mrs. Stevens took roll for the first time. I knew that a beatific glow would transform her careworn face as she noted my last name. "Is your sister Vicki Christian?" she eagerly asked.
I squirmed uneasily in my chair and admitted that I was, indeed, the lesser sibling of Vicki the virtuous. St. Vicki, that is, of the immaculate anklet and continually upstretched hand. St. Vicki of the highest reading group and lovely manners, always appointed monitor when Mrs. Stevens was summoned to the office. St. Vicki, the tattletale and bossy cow, ever her sister's keeper when it came to matters of deportment and conscience.
I wish I had a nickel for every time I saw Vicki peer at me over the top of her bat-wing style, rhinestone-studded, blue eyeglass frames (which Mrs. Stevens thought were "very becoming") and sniff, "I don't think Mama and Daddy would like that very well."
A family legend was made the first time I had an opportunity to follow my own base instincts instead of her pure ones. One day after school, she and her best friend Cindy were recounting to my mother the incident in which the school's most loathsome boy, Edward, dropped his drawers to his ankles on the blacktop at recess, and bellowed, "Lookie here!"
"What did you do?" my scandalized mother asked.
Vicki and Cindy replied that they had closed their eyes and run down the hill, holding hands, in the opposite direction from Edward. "And what did you do?" my mother asked me.
Being only in first grade and not having the wits to dissemble, I replied that I was on the jungle gym at the time and had climbed to the top to get a better look.
As the years went by, the eighteen-month gulf separating us closed. Vicki was a voracious and indiscriminate reader. What she read set the scene for our dolls. Our mother wouldn't let us play with Barbies. "Their bosoms are too bodacious," she declared.
So we had Tiny Tears dolls instead. Vicki's was Tina; mine was Betsy. We also had a homely, rubber-faced doll we called Brother Deanie. Depending on what Vicki was reading, Tina and Betsy would rescue the hapless Brother Deanie from a prairie fire (our four-poster bed was the stagecoach), change his diaper at Plymouth Rock or present him to King Arthur's Court. It was wearying to play dolls with other girls, who didn't get it and had to be taught how to talk like a Quaker or an Arabian princess. "Now we can play!" we'd exclaim when they went home.
When we packed our dolls away we shared boyfriends, makeup, accessories and clothes. The boyfriends we were generous with, but we got pretty vicious over the rest. Our most memorable battles were reserved for a black velvet choker, a mink hair bow, a pearlized snood and a tube of Bonne Belle white-white. White-white was weird stuff, like typewriter correction fluid, that we dotted around our eyes to achieve the wide-eyed , sexy yet innocent look of Twiggy and Mia Farrow. I guess you had to be a skeletal blonde to pull it off.
Looking back at photographs, our generous applications of white-white made us look as if we were either recuperating from tuberculosis or else incredibly surprised. Why it never occurred to us to buy duplicates of such coveted items-none of which were expensive-I don't know.
My sister has become my dearest friend, and today I am ashamed of the names I called her and the fits I pitched. If they still sold white-white, I'd buy her a lifetime supply. All the same, I can't help gloating that she'll be forty before I will.
If we should live so long, I'll give her a mink hair bow for her eightieth birthday-right before reminding her that I'm still a mere girl of seventy-nine.