A tribute to my sister-in-law, who has always been there for me, good and bad times.
|Always my Sister
Being the only girl in a family of boys, I always wanted a sister. My brother, Bruce, is fourteen years older than me. He brought home a sweet girl that actually played with me, reading princess stories and pretending with my dolls. He married her in 1958 when they graduated from high school. Bruce had an “Elvis” look going on with dark hair and sideburns, olive skin and handsome features. Barbara was lovely with her curly long brunette hair, pert nose and lovely eyes. She looked like a movie star to me. I was the cute flower girl, only 4 years old. The photos show a beautiful formal wedding and a happy couple. I am skipping down the aisle spreading rose pedals. I don’t have vivid memories of the wedding. I do recall a bridal shower because I was caught in my first act of rebellion. Hosted it in our basement, I was instructed to stay upstairs. Watching the decorations go up, our plain room must have looked like a fairy castle; white and pink crepe, balloons, party favors and silver wedding bells. There were many pretty shiny presents. I probably thought they held baby dolls I could cuddle with.
On the day of the shower, I managed to get away from dad’s watchful eyes. I remember giggling voices of young women. I got the door open and crept down about three steps. Barbara seemed to glow as she opened gifts with everyone clapping. I must have felt very left out. Suddenly, a masculine hand reached for me and I was scooped up into dad’s arms. He wasn’t happy and I got a swat on the bottom. I think that was the first and last time dad ever spanked me. I was a Daddy’s girl, believing I could twist him around my little finger.
Bruce and Barbara climbed into a 1956 convertible after the wedding and left Grand Rapids, Michigan to drive to New Orleans, Louisiana. Neither one of them had been there and Bruce didn’t even have a job. Being impulsive and young, I guess they figured love would help them survive. My brother went through a variety of different jobs, Barbara worked at Charity Hospital at the switchboard. They did fall in love with the flavor of historic New Orleans and the warmth of the people. It is unique mix of French and Spanish. For me, it seemed my sister was brought into my life only to leave it again.
The very next year dad took a job in Atlanta. We left the melting snow, our nice brick home and extended family. With a moving van behind us, we traveled to a hot, very different land in the deep south of confederate flags, southern drawls and segregation. I was happy about being closer to Bruce and Barbara. The first time we drove to visit them, they had just had their first and only baby. I felt proud to be an aunt at the age of seven. Dwayne was the cutest baby with soft blonde curls, big blue eyes and a happy smile. The three of them lived in a tiny mobile home under a very hot southern sun. A levee separated them from a spooky bayou with lots of mosquitoes that loved to bite me.
That began years of traveling back and forth between the two cities. I remember being a teenager and taking a train or plane without my parents. Barbara and I would take the streetcar (Desire) down Canal St. and shop at Woolworth’s, buying makeup and costume jewelry. Barb looked like she was about 18, I was 15 and guys would whistle. It was innocent fun. We were like two girlfriends at that stage. I could call her long distance once in a while (expensive then)seeking advice about my boyfriend problems. I loved having a sister. She has this wonderful soft voice that soothes and an adorable way of giggling like a young girl. She always listened and I could tell her secrets I wouldn’t tell friends.
We also went to Mardi Gras parades. An exhilarating experience for a teenager watching a strange variety of colorful costumes, each float representing a different Crewe with its King and Queen. Onlookers screamed, pushing each other out of the way, “Mista, throw me some beads”. The best was an Afro-American Zulu Crewe float where they threw out golden decorated coconuts. Some women would partially strip to get the attention of riders that threw out treasures. Nothing like that kind of hedonism exist in Atlanta then. I would stay a couple of weeks each summer. Then the three of them came to Atlanta for the holidays.
The years flew by and I married and had children. I honeymooned in New Orleans for both of my marriages. I love that old historic city, the best of food, music and atmosphere. I have so many memories of being there, some fun and some strange. Like we used to go and buy delicious hot tamales from a street wagon. Then we heard on the news that the place had been closed and fined for using the meat of dogs. There were nights on the levee when we set off firecrackers and I had my first real kiss from an older guy I had a crush on. I could get away with adult behaviors that I couldn’t do at home. Drinking my first Hurricane at 16, named because it had five liquors and lots of fruit juice so really packed a punch. New Orleans is known then for its loose alcohol laws and police corruption also. They had drive through mixed drink locations. I remember driving there was kind of like playing dodge car, everyone had their own rules.
One time we went out fishing on the murky odorous bayou in a small boat with a hand held motor which died. My brother talked Barb and I into grabbing tow ropes and help pull it to shore. We had bites and nasty stuff(??) all over us. As I was going through the water, unknown things were attacking my bare legs. I imagined monsters from the Black Lagoon. Another time, my brother prepared a roasted duck to eat. We just sat down at the table and Barbara started crying hysterically. Turned out the duck had been a pet in their backyard and a snake had killed it so my brother decided to cook it. What a meal! My brother was the only one to eat.
We used to go and explore the plantations that had been abandoned, ignoring the signs. I am sure the ghosts didn't appreciate visitors. It was exciting and dangerous. Plus we went downtown to visit the historic grandious above ground mausoleums in the four city cemeteries. Some of the graves had been broken into or collapsed and bones could be seen. Probably from a dog but it was pretty cool to a kid. Going home to Atlanta meant boredom. My parents were organized, polite and not spontaneous. I did learn to appreciate some of those qualities as I became a parent.
Barbara and I remain close, even taking vacations together. The last one was very special. We took the “Mississippi Queen” an old paddle boat for seven days. We traveled to port cities where we got off and went on tours of the beautiful plantations and historic sites. My stateroom had a balcony and two beds with a large bath. It was a special deal because the cruise lines were about to refurbish the ship. Each morning started with a huge buffet breakfast on the bottom deck. An actor, who portrayed Mark Twain with authenticity, told stories of life on the serpentine river. He made the characters come alive. The delicious chicory coffee and magnificent beignets were present along with Creole specialties and fresh seafood. After a day tour, the boat featured jazz and blues bands on different decks. After a delicious meal was a floor show and dancing till the wee hours. The meals served in formal dining rooms were New Orleans cuisine at its best. My husband wasn’t able to come but I had a wonderful time with my brother, sister-in-law, nephew and his wife.
There have been sad times over the last 20 years when Barb’s mom and mine were both diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Bruce and Barbara kept her mom with them and she was quite a handful. I remember going down there alone on The Cresent (Amtrak), sleeping on their sofa and her mom attacked me in the middle of the night. She thought I was an intruder. Another time she got out of the house and was lost for quite a while. So we shared the heartbreak of taking care of our Moms and watching them succumb to a disease that steals the very essence of who a person is.
These days my very special sister is 82 and we speak about once a week. I have never met any woman like her that could repair a roof, take care of a cattery full of Persian cats(50 at one time) and show them plus work a job. She has always taken care of herself, never gaining more than a few pounds(unlike me), plus using holistic medicine. She introduced me to many natural remedies. Medicine is the only thing we ever disagreed about. Being an RN, I tended to push Western medicine. She took supplements plus drank awful kale shakes and ate mostly vegetarian dishes. In a city with award winning restaurants, Barbara would order a vegetable plate and I would get a calorie rich seafood dish with heavy cream sauce.
They have a lovely home and pool surrounded by fruit trees. We have spent hours sitting on their deck reliving memories through thick photo albums. Barb was always the photographer and dad used to fuss when she wanted him to pose with the turkey. My dad was always so mild mannered, never angry, but when the camera came out, watch out. Today, we are all glad she took so many movies and photos.
Sadly, seven years ago she had a failed hip replacement that has put her in a wheelchair. She suffers from depression, chronic pain and mobility issues. She is still a beautiful woman for her age and when she laughs, I hear that joyful young woman. She can’t live the full life she was planning on. I wish there was some Louisiana magic, a spell to cast to change her into the smiling fun sis I have always known. Barb doesn’t believe in “pagan” magic so that is my way of paying homage to a legacy of “hoodoo” in the city we both love.
I wish so much for my lovely sister-in-law. Most of all, I hope she can find a hobby for pleasure. I want to rid her of the constant pain. She deserves meaning in her remaining years that will give her joy. She has given the rest of our family so much love and laughter. I love you, Barbara Van Sweden Carpenter. We have shared quite a lifetime together. Hope there are more good times ahead.
By Kathie Stehr
August 1, 2021
word count 1866 for Sister's Day prompt