I could hear her retching in the tiny bathroom. Staggering, she headed back to our double bed like a shadowy skeleton, covered in creases of morning sunlight. I studied my seventeen-year old sister as she lay dozing with her eyes closed, breath sour. A coat of perspiration was crawling into her matted chestnut hair and dotting her pale face.
“Are you sick?” I asked.
Hearing me, Dianne’s eyes opened. She put her face close to mine. Holding my breath, I listened.
“Quiet! You’ll wake everyone up. No, I’m not sick. I just don’t feel well.”
“But you haven’t been feeling well for almost three weeks,” I whispered. I was worried. At eleven, I counted on my sister to take care of me. With my father always working, and my mother usually pregnant and sick, benign neglect ruled in our tiny house. We had little money, no attention – but lots of kids. When one of the seven of us needed help, we went to each other, and I always went to Dianne.
“It’s just a bug that I can’t get rid of,” she said. “Just forget it, and do not tell Mom or Dad.”
Resting on my elbow, I stared at her, while twisting my thin blonde hair.
Sighing, she took my hand.
“I’m fine, Mare. Really. Don’t worry, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
As Dianne slept, I tried to reassure myself before we got up and dressed in our school uniforms. It was spring of 1962, and I was in the fifth grade. Dianne was a senior at Our Lady of Hope High School, in Queens, New York, and in the miserable position of being the oldest, and a girl. Because of this, a lot of the work was placed on her shoulders, including shopping, cooking, laundry and babysitting. Being the fourth of seven, I was lost in the middle of the pack, my five brothers scattered around me in age. I didn’t have many responsibilities beyond setting the table and making my bed.
“You’re so lucky,” Dianne always said. “Why can’t I be fourth in line?”
Many nights, lying in our little bed, she would confide in me.
“I hate it here. I’m getting out of here as soon as I can. I’m going to marry a rich guy and never have any children.”
“Can I come?” I always asked.
Like most of my brothers I was independent and spirited. Being part of a large, attention-seeking group, it seemed you had to be. Dianne was like that, but even more so than the rest of us. Once, when she was younger, after swearing out loud, we watched with horror as my mother rubbed Ivory soap into Dianne’s mouth. When that punishment seemed headed toward us, we always screamed before it got close, crying for forgiveness. But not Dianne. Looking my mother in the eye, hands on her hips, Dianne slowly chewed a piece of soap and then swallowed it. Turning, she gave us a triumphant smile and sauntered out of the kitchen.
After school, Dianne was usually given a list of groceries to pick up for our supper. Using the family’s empty baby carriage, she pushed it five blocks to the supermarket. The pram was big, gray and embarrassing, with cracked leather sides and four spoked wheels that seemed to groan from years of carrying each of the six babies around. And since my forty-year old mother had recently mentioned that she was pregnant again, it looked like the old coach was going back into service. Dianne hated using the carriage, but she had no choice; there were too many bags for her to carry. While steering this behemoth, she often went out of her way to avoid seeing any of her friends, even if it meant going blocks in the opposite direction. I often accompanied Dianne on her treks to the supermarket.
“Why are we going this way?” I would ask, while holding on to the handle. “The store is the other way.”
“Don’t worry; we’ll get there,” she’d say.
Two years before, after baby number seven was born, my parents switched bedrooms with us. Dianne and I were moved into the larger room, which now housed our double bed along with baby Jeff’s crib. Often, late at night, Jeff would lie there crying until Dianne got up and changed him. Placing him between us, she would comfort him and lull him back to sleep.
“Shhh, shhh,” she’d whisper.
His tiny swaddled body was like a peanut, with Dianne and I forming the shell around him. Many nights, listening to my sleeping sister and the sweet murmurs coming from my brother, I worried that I would roll over and squish him. But somehow he survived, and he eventually moved into the black hole of a room that the four other boys shared.
Dianne got away from the house as much as she could, attempting to be a teenager without any responsibilities. Meeting her girlfriends at the park near our house, she sat and laughed with them while practicing the latest dances from American Bandstand. It was at the park where she met Joe, who was twenty. An only child from the next town, he was being raised by his grandfather. Stocky with a blonde crew cut, he often wore his college sweater over his khakis and tan bucks. Joe was a senior at a local university and had a car and money. He represented the very freedom Dianne savored. My siblings and I watched in awe as he pulled up in front of our little house in his grandfather’s green convertible. Standing around it, we petted it like a prized pig at a fair.
While Joe waited for Dianne to come downstairs, we surrounded him on our faded brick stoop. He often recited the winners of the Triple Crown or tricky state capitals for us. Captivated, my brothers and I listened, not caring if we knew what he was talking about.
“Tell us again about the soda and potato chips that come to your house!” we asked him.
“The truck comes every month with a new delivery!” Joe said.
He was a star, with chips, soda and a car.
Joe showered attention and praise on Dianne, and she lapped it up like a starved animal. She stopped fretting about her mousy hair or the acne on her face; Joe saw none of that. We watched his face light up when Dianne entered the room. “Here’s my smart, beautiful girl!” Gazing with envy and wonder, we watched as Dianne got into the convertible, waved to us and disappeared to another world.
Dianne smiled when she spoke of him.
“He’s wonderful!” she’d coo to me in bed. “So smart and worldly. And, so romantic!”
‘Ugh!” I’d respond. “Disgusting!”
The enormous chasm of maturity and naiveté between the ages of 11and 17 was clearly evident. Still shady on the facts of life, I had no interest in boys or hearing about the charms of Joe.
Meeting him secretly while telling our parents that she was staying at school or hanging out with her girlfriends, Dianne began to spend all her free time with Joe. Suspecting that this relationship was more intense than they had first thought, my parents started putting more demands on Dianne to stay home. Their other strategy was to make sure she had a sibling with her whenever she left the house, thereby providing an ally to report back to them. But this only made Dianne more determined to be with Joe. Dragging a child by the arm, off she went. Madly smitten, our parents were not going to get in her way.
As June and graduation approached, her vomiting began to wane. When two nursing school scholarships were presented to Dianne, my mother was thrilled. Attending nursing school would provide Dianne with an immediate job afterwards, and, it was free.
I was relieved that my sister wasn’t ill or dying. But my relief was soon replaced with fear. Many nights, I woke to hear her quietly sobbing into her thin pillow.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” she assured me. “Go back to sleep.”
But it worried me until one Saturday morning in July when my mother got a phone call from Joe’s grandfather. My sister was working her weekend job at Woolworth’s five and dime store, and the rest of us were home, doing our chores in between watching Andy’s Gang and Rin Tin Tin. I studied my mother’s face during and after the phone call. She looked stricken, as though someone had died. Drained of color and shaky, she sat on the sofa most of the day, cradling her pregnant belly.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” I asked her.
“Go out and play,” she said. I left the room. Her moods were unpredictable when she was pregnant, and I knew better than to press her.
That afternoon, Joe pulled up in the dream car. Waiting inside by the window, my father walked out to meet him. I followed him, along with two of my brothers.
“Get back in the house. Now,” my father said.
What’s happening? I wondered. What’s wrong with everyone?
I sat inside and listened to my father shouts and Joe’s low murmurs. Back and forth it went, until my father stamped back indoors. My mother, her face in her hands, never left the sofa. Racing to my bedroom, I found my tiny transistor radio and played it as loud as I dared.
After a while, my mother opened my door and sat next to me on the double bed Dianne and I had shared for so long. Staring at my faded kitten poster tacked to the wall, I waited. A humid breeze eked through the screened window, but it was still hot and stuffy in the room. My mother looked worn and tired, her hands resting on her stretched-too-many-times-pants.
“I want to talk to you.”
Oh no, I thought. What did I do?
“You’re sister’s done something very, very bad,” she said.
Secretly relieved it wasn’t me, I relaxed a little.
“Dianne is pregnant. She and Joe are going to have a baby.”
Stupefied, I just looked at her, finally whispering, “Like you?”
My mother turned away for a moment and then snapped back.
“Yes, like me, but she’s not married. You have to be married in order to have a baby. This is a mortal sin, what she’s done. Do you understand?”
I nodded. “Is she going to leave?” I asked.
“Yes, after she gets married. She’s moving in with Joe and his grandfather.”
I felt my heart freeze. Dianne’s leaving me.
“When is she having the baby?” I asked.
“February, the same time I am.”
How can this be? I felt my world folding.
My mother leaned in close to me.
“Listen to me. This is important. When people hear about this, they’ll be shocked and disgusted. You might lose some of your friends. Their parents won’t want their children playing with you.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Your sister did, and she’s in your family. But here’s what I want you to understand.”
My mother then delivered the warning that forever altered my life.
“Don’t you ever embarrass us this way. Don’t you ever do anything that would bring shame to this family. You follow the rules, and you’ll be fine.”
My eleven-year-old mind whirled. My sister was leaving, and so were my friends. And now, I had to be really careful about what I did or didn’t do. My stomach hurt.
Standing up, my mother walked towards the door.
“When is she getting married?” I asked.
“Friday night. A mass at church and then a dinner afterwards at Sullivan’s with the family. Not you, though; just the older boys. You’ll stay here and babysit the rest of the kids.” But I want to be there! I screamed silently. And at that moment I realized that my position in the family was changing; I was the oldest girl now; my sister’s responsibilities would become mine.
I waited for Dianne to come home that night. As she slid into our bed, I stared at her. She looked sheepish and nervous at the same time.
“I’m not moving that far away,” she said. “We’ll come and get you; you can visit us.”
“Everything will be okay. It’ll be fine.”
The next day my mother took Dianne shopping for a wedding dress. Walking into the bedroom that afternoon, I stared. A solid blue dress hung from the top of the closet door. I felt its lacey top, long sleeves sitting above a full skirt. Leaving the room, I went looking for my mother. I found her lying on the couch, dozing.
“Why isn’t Dianne’s dress white, like a regular wedding dress?” I said.
“Because she doesn’t deserve a white dress; she’s not a virgin. Only virgins wear white.”
What’s a virgin?
Friday night, standing at the door waving, I watched as my sister, dressed in her tainted blue, was whisked off to church to be married, the dark of night shrouding her shameful act.
As the months passed, I saw Dianne on weekends, and missed her desperately.
I witnessed my mother’s and sister’s bodies slowly distort as their babies grew inside them. When we all stood together, my long thin body was the valley between two mountains.
The babies, a healthy brother and nephew, were born ten days apart.
Life at our house had definitely changed; we had a new baby, Dianne was gone, and I had begun my transformation into a different person. Carrying my fear of shaming the family, I gradually became less lighthearted; my scrappy spirit started diminishing. Carefully, I weighed situations that might incriminate me for even the smallest infraction, the blue dress hanging on permanent display in my memory.
Mary Ann Cooper survived a childhood surrounded by six brothers and a sister. She resides in Westport, CT and has recently entered the world of writing. Mary Ann is working on her memoir, “The Hollis Ten.” A chapter from that memoir, titled “Tiny Tears,” was an Editor’s Pick for Open Salon.
© 2013, Mary Ann Cooper