Sisters

Playing School

Emile, Ginger, Gayle, Kelly ready for school, 1965

When I was seven years old I tried my hand at what would become my future profession.

On a late summer afternoon, I smoothed the front of a stiff red and white church dress, brought my tanned shoeless legs together, repositioned my white plastic headband, and looked my class over from the white brick fireplace mantle that raised me three inches above those I’d be instructing that day. Kelly, age three, wearing light blue shorts and a sleeveless white cotton crop top sat barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted living room floor; she held a Big Chief tablet and a red crayon. Gayle, age five, wearing a faded hand-me-down t-shirt with a never worn navy blue school uniform skirt, sat erect on a small wooden chair and tapped her brand new letter-practicing book with a pencil and wriggled her toes as she stretched her feet to touch the legs of a red and yellow plastic chalk board that came with my special surprise birthday gift that year: a Suzy Smart Deluxe Doll Set!  

Suzy Smart with her chalkboard and desk

Suzy Smart, dressed in a white blouse under a red plaid jumper and standing two feet tall, completed the class and sat stiffly in her own red and yellow plastic desk. I smiled down at my class of three and held up a piece of chalk to draw a large capital letter “A” on the chalk board. 

“Today we practice our A’s.” I established eye-contact with each student and added, “Y’all must draw ten A’s for me. Now go!”  Gayle took to the assignment like a Cajun to hot boudin. Having to use her lap was all that kept her from making uniform A’s. Kelly tried her first A, but the slanted lines were uneven and her letter did not look like the teacher’s. 

“I’m gonna make the little ‘l’s’,” she said and started covering her first page with a letter she liked.

I focused on the obedient ones. “Good job, Gayle,” I said.  Suzy gave me her straight-forward stare. “Nice listening, Suzy.” 

Then I knelt down next to Kelly. “Your ‘l’s’ are very good, but we are working on ‘A’s.’  Here. Let me show you how.” I put my hand over her fist and guided the red crayon through the perfect A formation. “Like this.”  

Kelly pushed aside a stray strand from a pigtail and said, “OK,” and continued to drew more l’s. 

“I said ten letters and you made like fifty-five l’s already. You need to learn your A’s.”  

“No A’s in my name.” 

“Good! You know how to spell your name, but I’m teaching all the letters today.”

“ ‘A’ is the very first letter,” said Gayle as she completed her tenth “A” and gave us all, including Suzy, proud smiles. She wrapped a long strand of jet black hair behind her ear and waited for further instructions.

“How many letters?” asked Kelly.

Getting a bit of teacher inspiration, I said, “We should sing the A-B-C song!”

The human students stood up to belt out “A,B,C,D,E,F,G…”  Susie listened. As Kelly screamed out the final Z, she grabbed Gayle’s hands, and led her in circles for the “Now I know my ABC’s” part.

I knew I was losing control of my class.  “OK. Good job, y’all. Now let’s practice the second letter – B.”  The dancing pupils added impromptu hip-shaking for the song’s end.  “Sit down, class, sit down.”  Both obeyed, but first Kelly traded her red crayon for Gayle’s new pencil.

“Hey. Give it back,” said Gayle.

“Just let me borrow it.”

“You suppose to ask.”

“Can I use your pencil?”

“Please.”

“Pleeeease.”

“Say pretty please.”

“Pretty please, ya dumb sneeze.”

“She called me ‘dumb,’ Teacher.”

Kelly stuck her tongue out at the snitch. I clapped my hands together. “Class. Y’all gotta listen.” Gayle snatched her pencil back and bounced the crayon off Kelly’s pert pug nose. Kelly grabbed the letter practice book and ran behind me.

“I’m agonna rip this up,” she said. Gayle could not wait for the teacher’s help. She knocked over both Suzy and her desk as she rushed after Kelly. 

I tried keeping the girls apart, but Kelly danced behind me and moved the book in circles around her face. “Na! Na! Na! You can’t get me,” she chanted right before Gayle got ahold of her right pigtail. The letter book fell, the chalk board collapsed, and Kelly sprang into fight mode. With me between them, both girls got fistfuls of hair. For several seconds the hair-pulling tug-of-war was a stalemate. Gayle’s longer arms gave her an advantage, but Kelly’s hotter temper made it a fair fight.

“Stop it! Y’all are wrong, wrong! Stop!” I said as I got out from between them.  Kelly was biting her stuck-out tongue to concentrate. Gayle held both of her sister’s pigtails when Kelly dropped her sister’s hair strands. Her smaller stature lacked the force she needed to make Gayle release the pigtails, so Kelly leaned back a bit and kicked her left foot high enough to get her foe right in the tee-heinie. The taller girl let go of the shorter one’s hair and fell to the carpet. She put both hands over the place of pain and let loose the “OWWWWW’s”

“That’s what you get,” said Kelly.

Gayle moaned like a dying opossum.

I sat on the wounded girl’s chair in defeat. Kelly tapped a line of dots on the fallen chalkboard as Gayle moaned on the floor. The taps and the owww’s melded into a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm in my head.

I looked out the room’s picture window to see a black and white world. A door marked ‘Fire Escape’ appeared to the right of the window. I walked to and through the door and looked down a narrow London street. Four mop-headed guys rushed past me. I gasped when the last one turned back and said, “Hurry! This way, luv.” I ran to join George and the three other Beatles. An old, clean man with round spectacles passed me. “Outta me way! I’m parading,” he said. I wore a short purple mini-dress and groovy white boots. In my left hand I held a beautician’s comb. “Here I come, George,” I said and sped past the grandpa. I followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo down alleys, through doors, and over fences before I thought, “Why are we running?”  Grandpa gained on me and as if to answer my mental question said, “They’re getting closer, lads!” From around the corner sped sixty-two screaming girls!  George reached for my right hand and pulled me into a limo parked on the street. I squeezed between George and John. Paul smiled hello and Ringo tapped my knee with his drum sticks. I held on to George’s hand and John tweeked my nose and kissed my cheek. To hide my nervous joy, I started styling their hair. First, I combed George’s and then leaned forward to comb Paul’s and Ringo’s. John pulled his cap low over his hair, so I turned to Grandpa. “I ain’t got much hair, ya cheeky girl, but you could massage me bum,” he said. Paul winked at me and told Grandpa, “Stop being such a mixer now, ya old troublemaker.” The car braked in a flash and we all tumbled out the limo and through a stage door. Cops held back new crowds of hysterical girls. I lost George’s hand but kept up with the band down dark halls, past dusty props, and through curtained passageways. I saw a light ahead and anticipated a magical stage, but going through the final black curtain led me to the white raised brick hearth of my parents’s fireplace.

Kelly and Gayle held tennis rackets and were strumming them like guitars.  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” sang Gayle, and Kelly shook her hips and moved her head back and forth fast enough for her bangs to keep rhythm with the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” The rubble of my alphabet lesson littered the living room floor.  I began picking up chalk, crayons, a pencil, and writing tablets as my little sisters lost themselves in their music.

I sat on the formerly wounded sister’s chair in defeat and decided teaching was not for me.

Sisters

Dig It

The camp sand box
Ginger, Emile, Kelly, & Gayle at the Camp

Dig It  1962-  (Breakfast at Tiffanys)

Only my right hand had dark brown sand stains. A rainy afternoon at Grandma’s camp near south Louisiana’s Calcasieu River meant coloring and playing cards on the front porch or digging in the sand box off the side porch.  My sisters and I had dug holes and shallow moats and created lopsided sand castles for over an hour. The rain pelted the tin roof as Grandma, Stella Parrot, and Momma sat and talked over Salty Dogs on the front porch. 

We had kitchen spoons for shovels and two empty plastic gallon ice cream containers for buckets. My hair was in high pigtails and most of my curls stayed in their rubber bands.  Gayle had a new pixie cut just below her ears, and less hair made her look more confident.  Two-year-old Kelly had hair that barely reached her shoulders and bangs that made her large brown eyes look soulful. 

When her firecracker temper stayed contained, she watched her sisters with a focused stare unusual for a toddler.  Any activity the older girls got involved in had to include her. During sand castle construction, Kelly tried filling one of the buckets until that bored her. But this baby sister would not be left out.  She threw Gayle’s spoon into the rain-soaked grass and stepped into my half-filled bucket of sand.  After many, “Stop that’s” and “No, Kelly’s” Gayle and I took turns burying the two-year-old’s feet while the other sister tended to sand castles. 

Once the main buildings looked decent and Gayle was building a moat, I taught Kelly about tunnels. I dug two three-inch holes with her spoon about a foot from each other.

“This is your hole,” I told Kelly.  “Now use your hands to dig sideways to me.” And I demonstrated how to dig. 

“Dig,” said Kelly, and we worked together.

“You dig my way,” I said, “to make a tunnel.”

“OK,” said Kelly.

After a minute of digging, I moved to Kelly’s hole and saw she was digging down, not across.  “Dig my way,” I repeated.  “Make a tunnel sideways,” and I tried to show her.

“My way,” said Kelly and pushed me aside.

“That’s not a tunnel.”

“Mine!”

So I made the tunnel myself with my right hand, using my fingernails to scrape sand out of my hole and dig to reach Kelly’s hole.  My left wrist hung bent and useless at my side. I wiped loose hair from my face with the back of my good hand. I felt like the tunnel was almost done. Kelly stopped digging and looked over at Gayle’s moat progress. I guessed the two-year old’s thoughts. 

“Hey, Kelly, put your hand in your hole.”  She looked at her boring hole and back at Gayle’s interesting project.  I dug faster.  Kelly stood up.

“Hey! Lookit your hole,” I said. “We made a tunnel! Stick your hand in!”

Kelly reconsidered and knelt by her hole. 

I raised my voice gave her my best smile. “Wow! We made a tunnel! You’ll see when you stick your hand in!” I said. 

And like a miracle, just as Kelly reached in, my fingers broke through the sand, wiggling and reaching for the toddler’s hand.  We both smiled as fingers touched and I strained to shake the small hand. Kelly squealed at the success of the sand tunnel. 

“G.!  G.! Lookit me!” Kelly told the moat maker.  Gayle kept working.

“We did it!  You and me!” I said, and Kelly’s excitement got her up and dancing.  She stomped our sister tunnel collapsing it.

Then she danced toward the unimpressed Gayle. “I did it! My tunl!” she said and her jump destroyed half of the moat. 

“No! Kelly! No!” said Gayle, but Kelly jumped toward the rest of the moat.  Gayle stood and pushed Kelly backwards and her fall destroyed the fancy half of the sand castle where her sister had added rocks and leaves as adornments.  “Stupid Kelly!” said Gayle and threw double fists of sand at the kid.  Kelly kicked with both legs to bring down the other half of the castle.  Gayle tossed half a bucket of sand at Kelly with most of it landing in her eyes.  Kelly screamed and lunged for Gayle, but since the long black hair had been cut off, the toddler had nothing to grab.  The girls tumbled around in the sand. 

I walked to a wooden sand box swing, sat, and used my toes to move it back and forth even though raindrops peppered my back. The swing creaked back and forth, and I listened to zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythms coming from the adults’ radio on camp’s front porch.

I sat on a sofa in my New York City apartment with handsome Fred. I wore a sleek black dress, and my long dark hair was arranged in a fancy twirled bun to accentuate my dangling diamond earrings. I went to the table and from a large hat box pulled out a dramatic black hat with a prominent white sash. As I put on the hat, an orange cat jumped on the table and then out the window even though it was raining.  “Hey, Cat!” I said. 

Fred moved next to me and said, “You don’t have to leave.” 

I said, “But of course I do, Fred, darling,”and I donned a pair of cool sunglasses. “Please help me find Cat.”  I pulled on a beige rain coat, walked out the apartment and down the stairs. 

Fred followed with, “Wait. You know I love you.” I stayed focused on finding Cat and rushed down the busy sidewalk and turned into an alley when I heard meows.  Cat was behind a trash can and I reached down, rescued him, kissed his wet head, and tucked him into my rain coat.  Fred ran to meet us and hugged and kissed both me and Cat.

“You’re getting all wet,” said Gayle as she watched me swinging into the rain. 

“Gingah!” said Kelly.  The sisters had stopped fighting – more interested in my strange behavior than throwing sand.

I jumped off the swing, approached my sisters, and brushed sand from Kelly’s yellow romper.  “Look at you, my darling, you are such a mess.”  I picked up my youngest sister and rested her on my hip.  “Let’s go have a coloring contest.” 

“OK,” said Gayle and kicked the ruins of her sand castle world.  “I want a popsicle!” 

“What an absolutely marvelous idea!” I said, and Kelly smiled and rested her sandy head on my shoulder.