You couldn’t just go about eating a Pop-Tart all willy-nilly, and I wished my little sister understood and appreciated this fact of life. From the corner of my eye, I watched Erin take random, careless bites and then set her Cinnamon Pop-Tart back down on her plate, all asymmetrical and crumbling, for who knows how long. Not only that, but the way she sat on the couch got under my skin as well: not actually on a cushion but on the gap between two cushions, her left sock pulled up tight and disappearing beneath her nightgown while her right sock fell scrunched up around her ankle. The whole haphazard situation forced me to look away and down at my own perfectly rectangular Pop-Tart that had finally cooled off enough for me to eat.
First, I nibbled away all four sides of the flakey, crusty part, holding the plate close to my chin in case any crumbs fell. Then, when all that was left was the smooth cinnamony part, I broke it in half, then took those two halves and broke them in half, and then took those four quarters and broke them in half as well, leaving me with eight perfectly square, bite-sized pieces that I could just pop in my mouth. It was like making your bed: there was a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it and I was just glad I was in the know. My sister (and her arbitrary socks) would have to figure it out for herself.
In the meantime, the two of us sat glued to our 27-inch box TV that sat on our living room floor, enjoying yet another viewing of The Goonies. Having watched the movie no less than 42 times, it had slowly become our morning ritual on the weekends: wake up, make our Pop-Tarts, park ourselves in front of the boob-tube and zone out until one of our parents told us “That’s enough TV! Get outside!” We would start the movie at 8:00 a.m. and loop it all day long if our parents allowed. It wasn’t unusual to come in from playing outside for a quick drink of water, and hear Data yelling “Fifty dawa bill! Fifty dawa bill!” at which point you had to watch for just a few more minutes before you went back out. Erin’s favorite part was Chunk’s “truffle shuffle,” and mine was when Chunk gave Sloth a candy bar and befriended him, even though he was terrified. Despite his lackluster physique and atrocious eating habits, Chunk just might have been the bravest one of the bunch.
It was October, 1986 and I would be ten years old in just a matter of weeks. I was beyond excited to finally be in the double digits. My sister was only five-and-a-half—
practically still a baby, I thought. During the summer months, we would have long been outside playing, but during fall in Vermont 8:00 a.m. was much colder and more grey. As it was, the sun had barely risen by the time we awoke, what with the days getting shorter and more cloudy. My parents were both early-birds, already having been outside puttering around for a while now.
At five-and-a-half, Erin reminded me of a female Opie Taylor. Freckles and Friendliness. She greeted people who came to our front door with a wide smile and a, “Who’re you?” as she took hold of their hand, the absence of her two front teeth only making her all that much more adorable. Apparently, I was less hospitable, standing in the corner of the room glaring at them, suspicious. Everyone liked Erin better than me. Her strawberry-blonde hair was in a constant snarl—what my mother always referred to as her, “rat’s nest.” The back of it always stuck up in the air as if being perpetually pulled by static electricity, and bobbed up and down whenever she ran, no matter how hard my mother tried to tamp it down—much like Erin herself. Like most siblings, we couldn’t have been more different. She had red hair, I had brown; she was fun, I was serious; she was welcoming, where I was aloof; she was talkative while I was pensive and shy; she was more rational and down-to-earth while I was not so much.
For example, when our beloved cat Boots was hit by a car later that winter in the frigid month of January, my father found her one morning on his way to work. He placed our poor then-petrified Bootsy out back behind the garage and informed our mother, who was given the duty of breaking the news to us. So, as gently as she could, she sat us both down on the brown, plaid couch and told us, “Daddy found Bootsy outside this morning. She was hit by a car last night and died,” sympathy in her eyes. Before she could even finish what she was saying, I screamed angrily at her and ran upstairs a hysterical mess. Erin, on the other hand, remained as still as could be on the couch cushion looking dubious and perplexed.
“Was she frozen and stiff when you found her? Was she hard?”
I was all emotion and she was just about the facts. I would miss her sleeping around my neck at night, her purring lulling me to sleep. My sister seemed to have to fight the urge to poke her dead, frozen body with a stick. The only good thing to come of Bootsy’s death was that we finally both stopped sneezing.
On this particular autumn morning, while getting caught up in the heroic and courageous adventure of a bunch of kids trying to find One-Eyed-Willy’s treasure in order to save their neighborhood, I myself suddenly had the urge to try something brave. Something I’d wanted to try for a long time, but couldn’t, if my parents were around, because whenever I mentioned the idea to them, they always seemed to think it less an idea of bravery and more of stupidity. But they weren’t around.
My sister and I grew up in a moderately old house built sometime in the early 1930’s that sat on what had probably been the Main Drag years ago. Grand Avenue. An old black-and-white picture of the house in its original form hung by the front door and I would gaze at it and want to crawl into it and see what life would have been like back then. It had been surrounded by cornfields on all sides and was missing our garage. A beautiful roofed porch was attached to the front that was no longer there. I imagined all of the happenings that took place in our home back then, like women washing clothes by hand in a tub with a washboard, always donning aprons over their polka-dot dresses and listening to their favorite programs on their radios. Today, both sides of the street were lined with houses 50 feet apart. Everyone knew everyone, and obnoxiously loud Harley Davidsons could always be heard going by, drowning out the six o’clock news on TV, making my dad exclaim, “GodDAMN it, what did they say?” My mom never wore an apron.
In our dining-room, which was situated under my sister’s bedroom, there once sat a wood stove in the far corner. Its chimney pipe had snaked its way along the ceiling, up through my sister’s bedroom floor and through the roof from there. Because of this, my sister always had a big hole in her bedroom floor. Why my parents never covered the potential death trap, I don’t know. I imagined little girls warming their hands by the stove, or a mother stirring soup and asking Gretchen or Matilda to set the table in the older version of our house. In our version, you would often see Erin’s face poke through the hole asking, “Mom! What’s for dinner?” or my dad yelling up to her, “Get down here and pick up your wet bathing suit that I almost ran over with the lawn mower!” It also served as the perfect prop for snow scenes that took place in the plays that we put on for whatever poor souls happened to be in our vicinity that day. One of us stood below the hole in a scarf and mittens, shivering and chattering our teeth, while the other dropped handfuls of twisted-up paper that plummeted to the dining room floor in a matter of two seconds, looking nothing at all like snow. They always clapped for us anyway.
Thinking of yet another use for the hole, I set aside my plate on the end table, next to my father’s scanner, took one last swig of my milk and headed up to my sister’s bedroom. I had always wanted to shimmy myself down the hole in her floor and into the dining room like a graceful acrobat, but I knew if my parents were around they would never let me. I was scrawny, so I knew it would be an easy task. Once upstairs, and sitting on her pink carpet, I perched myself at the edge of the hole and let my gangly legs dangle down below, my feet and ankles peeking out beneath my nightgown, and contemplated how, exactly, I was going to maneuver this. Below, I could hear Sloth mimicking Chunk: “Baby? Ruth?”
“Easy,” I thought to myself. “I’ll just start with my feet, slowly lower myself straight down, and when I reach my armpits, I’ll straighten out my arms and gracefully glide through the hole and land on my feet.” No one would be the wiser. So, with all the confidence of Mary Lou Retton, I began my descent. With both hands planted firmly on either side of the hole, I hoisted myself up and slowly began to lower my feet, ankles, calves, knees, and thighs through the 12-inch-wide opening.
By the time I had reached my waist, I paused for a few seconds to re-adjust my hands, and my arms gave a little tremor. I persevered and lowered myself even further to just above my belly, but quickly realized that “gracefully” may have been an overshot. I hadn’t planned far enough ahead to realize just how far the dining room floor was from the ceiling—it seemed a lot closer just 30 seconds ago. Downstairs, Chunk had just accidentally smacked Sloth in the face with the Baby Ruth. Things were going downhill fast.
The strength in my spindly little arms and frail wrists was beginning to wane and I found myself kicking and swaying my legs in an attempt to keep from falling. I was also losing my breath. Too much weight was being placed on my arms, so that any attempt for me to grab something and pull myself back up through the hole was out of the question. Grunting and panting, I held myself up as best I could by keeping my legs moving.
Meanwhile, downstairs, my innocent and oblivious little sister sat comfortably on the footstool of our ottoman, nibbling away at her cinnamon Pop-Tart, eyes glued to the TV, while a mere seven feet behind her, just over her right shoulder, a pair of jerking and spastic legs dangled from the ceiling in a fit of silent frenzy.
Realizing too late that I had reached the point of no return, and that this was going to hurt, in typical Me fashion I launched right into freaking out. Instead of sounding like someone afraid to fall a few feet, one might have thought someone was actually hacking away at my knees with an ax, as I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“Eeerrriiinnn! Erin help! Help!” Since my parents weren’t around, she was my only hope.
Poor, oblivious Erin, who was simply trying to enjoy her quiet Sunday morning, had no idea about the torrent of bodily convulsions going on behind her—until she turned away from her cartoon to witness two flailing tube-socked legs floundering from the dining room ceiling, accompanied by screams and shrieks for help. Like any loyal sibling, she asked no questions, but quickly sprang into action.
“Help! Help! I’m stuck! Oh my God, I’m stuck! Help! Help! I can’t get through! Help me! Help me, Erin!”
Being more level-headed and less emotional than I, she immediately grabbed a dining room chair, situated it directly below my whipping limbs and climbed on to it. Standing precariously on the chair in her little floral nightgown, she tried to grab a hold of something, anything to get me under control, but was simply met with numerous kicks to the face and head by the discord of feet and knees thrashing about.
“Hold still!” she yelled up to me.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even process what she was saying to me amid my own screams of “HELP!” and “DO SOMETHING!” and “I’M GOING TO FALL!” Briefly looking down through the hole, all I could see were my own feet in a windmill of terror and occasionally I would feel Erin’s cheek smack against one. In a valiant effort to avoid any more blunt force trauma to her head and face, and try to gain control of my legs, my poor sister tried in vain to grab ahold of my feet while ducking and dodging them at the same time.
How had our serene Sunday morning of Pop-Tarts and The Goonies taken such a ludicrous turn?
I can’t remember how long she tried to subdue me, as crises can easily skew anyone’s true sense of time, but finally, in what was most likely a Hail Mary move on my part, I straighten my arms up and over my head. My entire body fell through the hole, crashing first onto my sister, then to the floor in a decidedly un-graceful manner and causing both of us to fall off the chair onto the dining room floor in a heap of panting and gasping rosebuds and daisies.
For several seconds, all was quiet as the two of us tried to regain our bearings. Erin warily looked at me, then up at the hole, and back down at me again as I busied myself with putting the dining room chair back in its rightful place so that things did not look like they had been disturbed in any way.
I thought it would be a good idea. Maybe parents are parents for a reason. I sat, going over in my mind what had gone wrong with my execution, yet how lucky I was that no adult happened upon the situation, and Mom came breezing through the dining room holding a pile of clothes that she was taking upstairs. Sometimes it seemed like all my mom did was laundry.
“Whatcha doing?” she asked, fatigue in her voice. “I thought I heard you girls squealing earlier.” Sitting next to each other on the couch, neither one of us breathed a word of what just took place, but simply shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads, feigning confusion and ignorance as we got back to Chunk and Sloth, who were headed down into the caves to help their friends. She continued on upstairs with our folded underwear.
I turned to my little sister and her rat’s nest. “Sorry,” I whispered. I don’t think it even entered Erin’s mind to tattle on me, which was unlike my propensity to tell on her every chance I had. She seemed confused that I would apologize to her.
“It’s okay,” she said, with a subtle shrug of her shoulder, which only had the inadvertent effect of making me feel even worse. I was immediately reminded of the time I sprayed Windex straight into her eyes and thought I’d blinded her for life. Since Halloween was only a few short days away, I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist playing our favorite game outside.
“Hey, you wanna play The Worst Witch outside? You can be Mildred Hubble and I’ll be Miss Hardbroom.” Within minutes we were dressed and shoving our hats and mittens on as we ran to the huge pile of leaves that our parents had raked for us the day before. We jumped in them, and buried each other, and took two brooms from the garage and pretended to be witches at the Cackles Academy. As the first snowflakes of the season meandered their way down to us, I was filled with a feeling I didn’t know the word for, only that it felt so good.
If there is one thing I’ve learned from being part of a family it’s that there is nowhere to hide. We all have to sift through our own stuff right in plain view of each other. Our underbellies are exposed from the start, and there is nothing we can do about it. Every family is one big mess of flawed humanity and at some point, someone always ends up getting inadvertently kicked in the nostrils.