The last time I saw my sister we argued over pie.
She was sitting with the latest Ann Patchett, her Cheaters slithering down a nose made slick by July sweat. But behind those glasses Lori was as vigilant as a lynx, policing her siblings and their grimy, greedy children, discouraging any attempt to cut too big a slice of the French cherry dessert she had brought from the patisserie.
It was our tenth family reunion, a gathering that threatened the fragile sanity we had each contrived since fleeing our childhood home. My brothers and sisters, 13 in total, had never all lived in the house at the same time, thank God. Exactly one family photo existed, taken before the childhood exodus. Blurry and ill-framed, it was full of squirrelly kids who could have used more protein but were laughing in spite of it. The oldest sat unsmiling under an undeniable moustache. I was the baby. The lap that held me was Lori’s, and the object of her gaze was not the camera but me.
Lori was the fourth child, I was the last. Our household ethics mimicked the party game musical chairs. We grabbed and hoarded everything from oatmeal packets to toilet paper and tore ass to an empty seat before somebody else got it. But Lori did not blame scarcity on the endless chain of babies. She once said matter of factly, “They were the only new things I ever got.”
My poor parents. Everyday life must have been a hard November rain, with defeat settling like mould onto their every goal. Besides church, Lori was the only civilising influence in the wild rumpus of our home. Militant in her maternal agenda, she taught me how to wash dishes, often without soap, always without a sponge.
She brought my sister Tara and me on camping trips. These overnights seemed promising when she gave us our own flashlights and we French-braided each other’s hair, but they were actually thinly-veiled lessons on delayed gratification and grit. On one trip, during a tedious era when the only sweets allowed were carob brownies, I complained about her in the campground bathroom where Tara and I washed the dishes. My grievances: 1. I was sick of hiking. 2. I missed hot dogs. 3. Lori was a bossy b**** who did not even seem to like us, so why did she bring us?
The words buzzed along with the mosquitoes and fluorescent lights when she blazed in, the braids I had woven earlier bouncing behind her like alarmed children who could not keep up.
She pointed a deadly finger. “You!” she hissed, “are an ungrateful little turd. Since you’re having such a terrible time I will take your butt back home right after breakfast tomorrow.” She spun around leaving a silence that chilled the humid air.
“You’re dead,” Tara said after making sure she really was gone and not spying outside under the open window.
I was humiliated, bloodied by over-scratched mosquito bites, missing The Brady Bunch, but I did not want to go home. Lori was young and beautiful, drove fast, never cried. I liked pretending she was my mother.
But then she had her own family and moved away.
At first they visited a lot, driving home in vans that got newer over the years. Desperate for them to stay at our house and not at her in-laws, I would help my mother get their room ready. I would clean the kitchen floor with ammonia, empty the dozen ashtrays and hide all the laundry somewhere.
But more babies came. Soon she was busy camping with them, sewing clothes for their dollies, singing them “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”. Though she did not graduate college herself, she reigned over a domestic empire that would produce swimming records and high SAT scores.
By my senior year in high school I had my own bedroom, the one with the door. For Christmas I received a Smith Corona electric typewriter, a gift so indulgent in its price and intentions a youngest child might feel slightly ashamed. But I did not. I now ran with the college-prep J Crew crowd, to whom an electric Smith Corona typewriter was not a frill but a need, like sponges and toilet paper.
When I graduated from high school, Lori sent me a card. There was no cash inside so I tossed it aside, ignoring the handwritten message: “I have great expectations of your every endeavour.” I did not need her any more.
As adults, when she visited we filled our 16-year age gap with red wine. One night, at that second-drink sweet spot, I shared an idea for a story I wanted to write about our mother. I lit a Nag Champa incense stick and told her how remarkable it was that even in the densest fog of mothering our mum was able to give special attention. “To me at least,” I added. “I remember getting anonymous letters with nickels taped to them. She’d never admit it was her, probably to make it more magical.”
I took a long drag of my Marlboro Light, eager to sully the too-precious image. Certainly, there had been no Mail Fairy when Lori was little. I could feel the resentment that would sometimes poke through the fabric of my relationships with the older siblings. It was a broken spring in the cot every youngest child had to sleep on, a sharp edge that cut into our little backs.
“You should quit,” she said exhaling a diagonal ribbon of smoke. “It’s really a lowbrow habit.”
The room was thick with the too-sweet Nag Champa.
“Oh, I know what I was gonna ask you.” I snuffed the incense stick into a plant pot. “Could you hem this raincoat I got from the thrift store?”
She was a master seamstress who had made bridesmaid and prom dresses, wool peacoats copied from LL Bean, and window treatments for her siblings. I doubt anyone ever paid her.
I ran to my closet to get the coat and when I got back to the living room, she had cleared off the table and was heading to the spare room. She took the coat from me when we said good night, and left before I woke the next morning.
A few days later a package came in the mail. Heavier than its original version, the newly hemmed coat had an envelope in the pocket with my name and our childhood address written on it. I could feel the bump of the coins, the satisfying heft anchoring me to a cherished memory.
“Dear Amy,” the note read, the words heavier than the nickels, “I’m sorry it has taken me so long to write back.”
When I became a mother I mailed letters with nickels to my own child, and at that tenth family reunion I cut him a second piece of that French cherry pie.
By then, my siblings were evenly divided between those who were in recovery and those who had yet to be. Nonetheless, we all felt the atmosphere change at 5pm, the witching hour for drinkers.
I was slicing the pie with my right hand while holding my son with my left when my sister got up from her chair in the corner and walked over to the dessert table. Proudly sober, an identity that confounded the rest of us because no one had ever seen her drunk, she poured herself some coffee.
“Do you think you could take something else for your seconds so that there’s enough for everyone?” she asked.
Some kid had left the door open again. Inside the house we rented each year for the party, flies were everywhere. I hoped one would land right on her precious French cherry.
“This is the only thing here that Miguel can eat,” I said, gesturing righteously to my son who had food allergies. “I brought a salad. Pulled pork. Rice. And rolls. I guess I should have brought an extra pie, too.” I spun around satisfied, eager to walk away before she said something that would defuse the situation. These AA people were notorious for taking all the fun out of drama.
But she did not. She grabbed her bag, stormed out, and tore down the gravel driveway, angry tyres spewing surprised pebbles.
When she returned less than an hour later, she had another pie. It was still warm, and its almondy softness mingled with the sharp fruit to lure the undeserving rugrats out of their hidey-holes for a few seconds. But all I smelled was a lesson she was trying to teach me about being greedy and grabby, and not a morsel passed my lips.
The next day she made the rounds to say goodbye. I hung out in the bathroom until I heard the soft crunch of her car backing out of the stone driveway.
Four months later she emailed me. Could I send her something she had left behind the last time she was home, something she needed for her upcoming trip to China? This was a dream adventure to which she felt entitled as part of her anti-climactic retirement from motherhood.
Time and space had cleared most of the bad juju between us. I mailed her things to her, happy to prove I was not a selfish turd.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, three days after she returned, she was admitted to hospital, intubated within an hour, and put into ICU. She remained there for three days until she died from the H1N1 flu. It was that quick.
She was the sister who had sent me anonymous mail filled with treasures when I was a child. Who had made my prom dress. Who had hemmed the raincoat I still wear.
We had fought about a pie.