From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Sisters Under the Skin

If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time then you were probably an only child.

Linda Sunshine

Some families sort things out around the dinner table. At my grandmother’s house—where I spent most summers— we resolved our problems on the front porch.

Grandmother always sat in the swing doing some bit of work or other—hulling peas or crocheting a throw. I sat beside her, when that place wasn’t usurped by an older cousin, because I loved her and it was peaceful to be right next to her.

It seemed odd to me that we didn’t confine our family difficulties to some indoor room, and when I was old enough to ask about that, my grandmother said, “Well, honey, it gives us some perspective, I think. We aren’t the only people in the world with troubles after all. Just looky there at the street.”

It was true that in this small Southern town there was often a parade of misfortune right there before our eyes. On almost any day, you could see the high school boys get into a fight on their way home from school, or watch old Doc Carrickle’s horse get away from him one more time, or hear Louise and Parnell Webb fighting a block before they came into view. In fact, you could see most any aspect of the human condition at its best and its worst. My family was always careful to be at its best in public if that was at all possible.

And that is the reason I was amazed by the fireworks between two of my aunts. They were my grandmother’s daughters, but I never thought of them that way. For one thing, they were too old for daughters. Aunt Golda was thirty-two, and Aunt Willa, her elder, was thirty-four. They were women in their own right and often said so. Both were anxious to marry, although Willa was the only one engaged. She was the relentless individual of the two; Golda, the conservative, was beyond reproach, so everyone said.

On this particular day, I was sitting on the porch swing with my grandmother, who was shelling peas from her garden. My Aunt Golda was sitting in the green wicker rocker putting pins in very tidy concentric circles in a red felt pin cushion made to look like a tomato. The dog, DD (for dumb dog), was laying in a dust bowl he’d created near the petunias, panting in the heat. It all looked, I guess, very tranquil from the street.

We were all having a nice time, when suddenly Willa appeared on the walkway to the house. She sashayed along, swinging her hips a little. Just as she got to the steps she put her hand to her head. It is hard to say what it was that rested there in her dark red hair. It was purple and looked something like a turban from the movies.

I could feel tension on the front porch just like you can feel static electricity before a storm. DD got out of the petunia bed and came to the steps to watch.

My Aunt Willa plopped herself down in a wicker rocker and smoothed her linen skirt over her thighs. Golda stared at her with an expression that somehow conveyed both contempt and disbelief. She said, “Willa, what on earth have you got on your head?”

“Why, it’s a hat,” Willa said. “Do you like it?”

“It is not a hat. It is a piece of purple velvet just twined around.” Golda made a little impatient circular motion with her hand. “It looks like a purple cow pie.” By that she meant the stuff you don’t want to step in.

“Well, you are in a bad mood. This hat just makes me feel wonderful. I was up in the attic the other day. Fooling around. You know dressing up like we used to do, Golda.”

“Willa, you are a grown woman. This family is talked about enough without you walking around town with that thing on your head. Now take it off.”

“I will do no such thing,” Willa said, gently touching her creation with the very tips of her fingers. “It was lying in the light from that little window in the peak. Just so beautiful, I had to try it on. So I made this of it. I knew Mama wouldn’t care.”

My grandmother looked up from the peas but didn’t say anything.

“I want you to take that thing off your head this minute,” Golda said. “If you do not learn to moderate your behavior, people will begin talking about you in whispers!”

DD moved his front feet up and down in anticipation and I sat upright, ready, waiting and hoping for the battle that was sure to come. Shots had been fired; war was declared. It was going to be an exciting day.

“Honestly, Golda, you are getting to be a regular fashion Nazi.”

And with that remark all kinds of things happened at once. My Aunt Golda leapt out of her chair and snatched the coiled piece of velvet from her sister’s head. The dog began to bark. The tomato pin cushion fell to the floor. Willa picked it up and pulled every single pin out of it. Every one. My grandmother put down her bowl of peas. Willa then threw the pinless cushion into the yard. DD went after it and began to toss it into the air, then shake it with obvious pleasure. Golda, who’d spent a good bit of time arranging the pins, put her hands to her face, began to cry and then ran into the house, slamming the screen door.

My grandmother said, “Well, I never. What is the matter with you two?”

My Aunt Willa looked at us both serenely and said in a very quiet voice, “I knew she’d do that. Such a crybaby. Always was.”

My grandmother told me to retrieve the tomato pin cushion from the dog. It was a soggy, ruined mess. After a few minutes, Willa excused herself and went into town to shop. I got a book about the Amazon River and climbed to the high fork in our maple tree where I liked to read.

On and off during the afternoon, I imagined that we were at the beginning of one of those family feuds that would go on for generations. I imagined Willa and Golda would grow old and cripple up without ever speaking to each other again.

Neither of them came to supper. “I don’t know where those girls could have got to,” my grandmother said as she put the biscuits on the table. I didn’t want to say what I thought: that they’d killed each other in the barn. So I was mostly silent.

After I’d had my fill of the fried chicken, my grandmother sent me out to the garden to pick some mint for iced tea. When I rounded the corner of the house I saw an unimaginable sight. Willa and Golda were strolling down the flower-garden path arm in arm. Their heads were inclined slightly toward each other as they walked in their pale summer dresses past the tall multicolored phlox and the blooming tea roses. I was amazed.

I ran back into the kitchen without the mint I’d been sent to harvest and pulled my grandmother to the kitchen window.

“Just look,” I said. “Mawmaw, just look. How can that be? I thought they were mortal enemies. They were really mad. Mortal enemies. Forever!”

My grandmother looked out the window and then down at me. She smiled ever so slightly and said, “Well, no darlin’, they’re sisters. Now go get me some mint. And call those sweet girls in for tea.”

I thought there were some things I just never would understand. But I did what I was told, and to my everlasting amazement they both bent down and kissed me on the cheek. Then we went inside to have iced tea and play hearts around the kitchen table.

Walker Meade

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