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Sisterland:sisterland

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Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 6 SISTERLAND
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Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 7 Ellen Battistelli and Dede Alexander, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 8 Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 9 Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 10 Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 11 The first earthquake wasn’t the strongest – that wouldcome later, in February 1812 – but it must have been themost astonishing. It occurred shortly after two in the morning, and I imagine it awakening the people ofNew Madrid: the farmers and fur traders, the FrenchCreoles and Indians and American pioneers. More menthan women lived in the river town, and few families; thepopulation was probably less than a thousand. The people were lying in their beds on this cold and ordin-ary night when without warning a tremendous crackingsound interrupted the quiet, a growing thunder, followedby the impossible fact of the quake itself: the rocking notjust of their beds or floors or houses but of the landbeneath them. Whether they stayed inside or hurried out,they’d have heard their animals crying, heard trees snapping, the Mississippi roaring up; so much fog andsmoke filled the darkness that they would have felt theroll of the earth before they realized they could see it,too, undulating like the ocean. In some places, theground split apart and flung up water, sand, and rocks, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 12 entire trees it had swallowed shortly before, and in turn itdevoured horses and cows. Rising out of the cracks andholes was the smell of sulfur, like the wicked breath ofthe devil emanating from deep underground.
For hours, the convulsions didn’t stop, and when eventually their bewildering rhythm changed, it was notto decrease but to intensify: Twice more, at seven in themorning and again at eleven, the earth exploded anew.
And daybreak had not brought light. Still there was thechaos of vapors, the bleats and squawks of domesticatedand wild animals, the collapsing trees and spewing landand mercilessly teeming river.
Only around noon did the earth settle, and only gradually. But what was left? The people’s homes – one-story log or frame structures – were leveled, as were thetown’s stores and churches. The land was broken, theriver roiling. The banks of the Mississippi had simplyplunged into the water below, carrying with them houses,graveyards, and forests; canoes and keelboats had vanished under thirty-foot waves, reappeared, and vanished again.
Though it must have seemed, on the afternoon of December 16, 1811, that the world was ending, moredestruction would follow. In this same remote area,another powerful quake occurred on January 23, 1812,and two weeks later, on February 7, the last and biggest.
In just months, whole towns disappeared not only fromthe Louisiana Territory – soon to become the Territory ofMissouri – but also from the Mississippi Territory andTennessee. People claimed that the Mississippi River ranbackward and that the effects of the quakes were felt hundreds of miles away: that clocks stopped in Natchez, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 13 chimneys collapsed in Louisville, and church bells rangin Boston.
But perhaps these myths were merely that, embellish- ments more irresistible than accurate. Magnitude scaleswouldn’t exist for another century, so calculations of theNew Madrid quakes came long afterward, and thoughthe highest estimates placed them above 8.0 – strongerthan the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the strongestof any continental earthquake in United States history –other guesses were closer to a magnitude 7. Which wouldhave made them frightening, certainly, but not unprecedented.
My husband would say that such distinctions matter, that there are ways of conducting research and establish-ing hypotheses based on credible evidence. My sisterwould disagree. She would say that we create our ownreality – that the truth, ultimately, is what we choose tobelieve.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 14 Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 15 The shaking started around three in the morning, and ithappened that I was already awake because I’d nursedOwen at two and then, instead of going back to sleep, I’dlain there brooding about the fight I’d had at lunch withmy sister, Vi. I’d driven with Owen and Rosie in the back-seat to pick up Vi, and the four of us had gone toHacienda. We’d finished eating and I was collectingRosie’s stray food from the tabletop – once I had im -agined I wouldn’t be the kind of mother who orderedchicken tenders for her child off the menu at a Mexicanrestaurant – when Vi said, ‘So I have a date tomorrow.’ ‘That’s great,’ I said. ‘Who is it?’Casually, after running the tip of her tongue over her top teeth to check for food, Vi said, ‘She’s an IT consultant, which sounds boring, but she’s traveled a lotin South and Central America, so she couldn’t be a totalsnooze, right?’ I was being baited, but I tried to match Vi’s casual tone as I said, ‘Did you meet online?’ Rosie, who was two anda half, had gotten up from the table, wandered over to a Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 16 ficus plant in the corner, and was smelling the leaves.
Beside me in the booth, buckled into his car seat, Owen,who was six months, grabbed at a little plush giraffe thathung from the car seat’s handle.
Vi nodded. ‘There’s pretty slim pickings for dykes in St.
‘So that’s what you consider yourself these days?’ I leaned in and said in a lowered tone, ‘A lesbian?’ Looking amused, Vi imitated my inclined posture and quiet voice. ‘What if the manager hears you?’ she said.
‘And gets a boner?’ She grinned. ‘At this point, I’m bi- celibate. Or should I say Vi-sexual? But I figure it’s all anumbers game – I keep putting myself out there and,eventually, I cross paths with Ms. or Mr. Right.’ ‘Meaning you’re on straight dating sites, too?’‘Not at the moment, but in the future, maybe.’ Our waitress approached and left the bill at the edge of thetable. I reached for it as soon as she’d walked away –when Vi and I ate together, I always paid without discussion – and Vi said, ‘Don’t leave a big tip. She wasgiving us attitude.’ ‘I didn’t notice.’‘And my fajita was mostly peppers.’‘You of all people should realize that’s not the waitress’s fault.’ For years, all through our twenties, Vi hadworked at restaurants. But she was still regarding meskeptically as I set down my credit card, and I added, ‘It’srude not to tip extra when you bring little kids.’ We wereat a conversational crossroads. Either we could stand, Icould gather the mess of belongings that accompaniedme wherever I went – once I had been so organized thatI kept my spice rack alphabetized, and now I left hats and Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 17 bibs and sippy cups in my wake, baggies of Cheerios, myown wallet and sunglasses – and the four of us couldhead out to the parking lot and then go on to drop Vi ather house, all amicably. Or I could express a sentimentthat wasn’t Vi, in her way, asking me to share? ‘I believe in tipping well for great service,’ Vi was saying.
I said, ‘If you feel equally attracted to men and women, why not date men? Isn’t it just easier? I mean, I wish itweren’t true, but—’ I glanced at my daughter right as shepulled a ficus leaf off the plant and extended her tonguetoward it. I had assumed the plant was fake and, there-fore, durable, and I called out, ‘No mouth, Rosie. Comeover here.’ When I looked back at Vi, I couldn’t rememberwhat I’d wanted to say next. Hadn’t I had another point?And Vi was sneering in a way that made me wish, already,that I’d simply let the moment pass.
‘Easier?’ Her voice was filled with contempt. ‘It’s just easier to be straight? As in, what, less embarrassing to myuptight sister?’ ‘That’s not what I said.’‘Don’t you think it would be easier if black people hadn’t demanded to ride in the front of the bus likewhite people? Or go to the same schools? That was so awkward when that happened!’ This seemed to be anindirect reference to my friend Hank, but I ignored it.
‘I don’t have a problem with gay people,’ I said, and my cheeks were aflame, which I’d have known, even if I hadn’t been able to feel their heat, by the fact that Vi’swere, too. We would always be identical twins, eventhough we were no longer, in most ways, identical.
‘Where’s Rosie’s baloney?’ Rosie said. She had returned Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 18 from the ficus plant – thank goodness – and was stand-ing next to me.
‘It’s at home,’ I said. ‘We didn’t bring it.’ The baloney was a piece from a lunch-themed puzzle, a life-sized pinkwooden circle on a yellow wooden square, that Rosie hadrecently become inexplicably attached to. I said to Vi,‘Don’t make me out to be homophobic. It’s a statementof fact that life is simpler – it is, Vi – don’t look at me likethat. It’s not like two women can get married in Missouri,and there’s a lot of financial stuff that goes along withthat, or visiting each other in the hospital. Or having kids– for gay couples, that’s complicated and it’s expensive,too.’ ‘Having kids period is complicated!’ Vi’s anger had taken on an explosive quality, and I felt people at nearbytables looking toward us. ‘And this whole making-life-simpler bullshit?’ she continued. While I flinched at theswear word in front of Rosie, it didn’t seem intentional –there was no question that Vi sometimes liked to provokeme, but it appeared she was swept up in the moment.
‘Children are nothing but a problem people create andthen congratulate themselves on solving. Look at youand Jeremy, for Christ’s sake. “Oh, we can’t leave thehouse because it’s Rosie’s naptime, we can’t be out pastfive forty-five P.M.” or whenever the fuck it is—’ I waspretty sure Rosie had only a vague notion of what theseobscenities, or anything else Vi was saying, meant, but Icould sense her watching rapt from beside me, no doubteven more enthralled because she’d heard her own name.
‘Or, “She can’t wear that sunscreen because it hasparabens in it” – I mean, seriously, can you even tell mewhat a paraben is? – and “She can’t eat raw carrots Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 19 because she might choke,” and on and on and on. Butwho asked you to have children? Do you think you’reproviding some service to the world? You got pregnantbecause you wanted to – which, okay, that’s your right,but then other people can’t do what they want to becauseit’s too complicated?’ ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Forget I said anything.’ ‘Don’t be a pussy.’I glared at her. ‘Don’t call me names.’‘Well, it seems awfully convenient that you get to speak your mind and then close down the discussion.’ ‘I need to go home for their naps,’ I said, and there was a split second in which Vi and I looked at each other andalmost laughed. Instead, sourly, she said, ‘Of course youdo.’ In the car, she was silent, and after a couple minutes, Rosie said from the backseat, ‘Mama wants to sing theBingo song.’ ‘I’ll sing it later,’ I said.
‘Mama wants to sing the Bingo song now,’ Rosie said, and when I didn’t respond, she added in a cheerful tone,‘When you take off your diaper, it makes Mama very sad.’ Vi snorted unpleasantly. ‘Why don’t you just toilet ‘We’re going to soon.’Vi said nothing, and loathing for her flared up in me, which was probably just what she wanted. It was onething for my sister to fail to appreciate the energy I putinto our lunches, the sheer choreography of getting a six-month-old and a two-year-old out of the house, into thecar, into a restaurant, and back home with no majormeltdowns (never in my children’s presence could I have Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 20 ordered a meal as intricately, messily hands-on as a fajita),but it was another thing entirely for Vi to mock me. Andyet, in one final attempt at diplomacy, as I stopped thecar on the street outside the small single-story gray housewhere Vi lived, I said, ‘For Dad’s birthday, I was thinking—’ ‘Let’s talk about it later.’‘Fine.’ If she thought I was going to plead for forgive- ness, she was mistaken, and it wasn’t just because wereally did need to get home for Rosie and Owen’s naps.
She climbed from the car, and before she shut the door, Isaid, ‘By the way?’ A nasty satisfaction rose in me as she turned. She was prepared for me to say, I didn’t mean to be such a jerk in therestaurant. Instead, I said, ‘Parabens are preservatives.’ Fourteen hours later, at three in the morning, our squabble was what I was stewing over; specifically, I wasthinking that the reason I’d made my points so clumsilywas that what I really believed was even more offensivethan that being straight was easier than being gay. Ibelieved Vi was dating women because she was at herheaviest ever – she’d quit smoking in the spring, and nowshe had to be sixty pounds overweight – and most lesbians seemed to be more forgiving about appearancesthan most straight men. I didn’t think I’d object to Vibeing gay if I believed she actually was, but somethingabout this development felt false, akin to the way she’dwished, since our adolescence, that she’d been bornJewish, or the way she kept a dream catcher above herkitchen sink. Lying there in the dark next to Jeremy, Iwondered what would happen if I were to suggest thatshe and I do Weight Watchers together; I myself was stillcarrying ten extra pounds from being pregnant with Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 21 Owen. Then I thought about how most nights Jeremyand I split a pint of ice cream in front of the TV, how itwas pretty much the best part of the day – the whole ritual of relaxation after both children were asleep and before Owen woke up for his ten p.m. nursing – andhow it seemed unlikely that half a pint of fudge ripplewas part of any diet plan. This was when the bed in whichJeremy and I slept began to shake.
I assumed at first that Jeremy was causing the mattress to move by turning over, except that he wasn’t turning.
The rocking continued for perhaps ten seconds, at whichpoint Jeremy abruptly sat up and said, ‘It’s an earthquake.’But already the rocking seemed to be subsiding.
I sat up, too. ‘Are you sure?’‘You get Owen and I’ll get Rosie.’ Jeremy had turned on the light on his nightstand and was walking out of theroom, and as I hurried from bed, adrenaline coursedthrough me; my heart was beating faster and I felt simul-taneously unsteady and purposeful. In his crib,illuminated by a starfish-shaped night-light, Owen waslying on his back as I’d left him an hour earlier, his armsraised palms up on either side of his head, his cheeks bigand smooth, his nose tiny. I hesitated just a secondbefore lifting him, and I grabbed one of the eight pacifiers scattered in the crib. As I’d guessed he would, heblinked awake, seeming confused, but made only onemournful cry as I stuck in the pacifier. In the small central hallway that connected the house’s three bed-rooms, we almost collided with Jeremy and Rosie, Rosie’slegs wrapped around Jeremy’s torso, her arms danglinglimply over his shoulders, her face half-obscured by tangled hair. Her eyes were open, I saw, but barely.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 22 ‘Do we go to the basement?’ I said to Jeremy. The ‘That’s tornadoes.’‘What is it for earthquakes?’ In retrospect, it’s hard to believe I needed to ask, hard to believe I had reached theage of thirty-four and given birth to two children withoutbothering to learn such basic information.
Jeremy said, ‘In theory, you get under a table, but stay- ‘Really?’ We looked at each other, my husband sweet and serious in his gray T-shirt and blue-striped boxershorts, our daughter draped across him.
‘You want me to check?’ He meant by looking online from his phone, which he kept beside the bed at night.
‘We shouldn’t call Courtney, should we?’ I said. ‘They must have felt it if we did.’ Courtney Wheeling wasJeremy’s colleague at Washington University – his area ofstudy was aquatic chemistry, hers was seismology andplate tectonics – and she and her husband, Hank, liveddown the street and were our best friends.
‘It doesn’t seem necessary,’ Jeremy said. ‘I’ll look at FEMA’s website, but I think the best thing is for all of usto go back to bed.’ I nodded my chin toward Rosie. ‘Keeping them with us Rosie’s head popped up. ‘Rosie sleeps with Mama!’ A rule of thumb with Rosie was that whether I did or didn’t think she was following the conversation, I wasalways wrong.
‘Keeping them,’ Jeremy said. ‘In case of aftershocks.’In our room, I climbed into bed holding Owen, shift- Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 23 ing him so he was nestled in my right arm while Jeremyhelped Rosie settle on my other side. I wasn’t surewhether to be alarmed or pleasantly surprised thatJeremy was all right with having the kids sleep with us. Ingeneral, he was the one who resisted bringing them intoour bed; he’d read the same books in Rosie’s infancy thatI had, half of which argued that sharing a bed with yourkids was the most nurturing thing you could do and theother half of which warned that doing so would result inyour smothering them either figuratively or literally. ButI liked when they were close by – whether or not it reallywas safer, at some primitive level it felt like it had to be –and the thought of them sleeping alone in their cribssometimes pinched at my heart. Besides, I could neverresist their miniature limbs and soft skin.
Rosie curled toward me then, tapping my arm, and I turned – awkwardly, because of how I was holding Owen– to look at her. She said, ‘Rosie wants a banana.’ ‘In the morning, sweetheart.’Jeremy had gone to the window that faced the street, and he parted the curtains. ‘Everyone’s lights are on,’ hesaid.
‘A monkey eats a banana peel,’ Rosie declared. ‘But not ‘That’s true,’ I said. ‘It would make us sick.’Jeremy was typing on his phone. After a minute, he said, ‘There’s nothing about it online yet.’ He looked up.
‘How’s he doing?’ ‘He’s more asleep than awake, but will you get an extra binky just in case?’ Surely this was evidence of the insular-ity of our lives: that unless otherwise specified, wheneverJeremy or I said he, we meant our son, and whenever we Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 24 said she, we meant our daughter. On a regular basis, we sent each other texts consisting in their entirety of oneletter and one punctuation mark: R? for How’s Rosie doing?and O? for How’s Owen? And surely it was this insularitythat so irritated Vi, whereas to me, the fact that my lifewas suburban and conventional was a victory.
Jeremy returned from Owen’s room with a second pacifier, handed it to me, and lay down before turning offthe light on his nightstand. Then – I whispered, becausewhispering seemed more appropriate in the dark – I said,‘So if there are aftershocks, we just stay put?’ ‘And keep away from windows. That’s pretty much all I ‘Thanks for checking.’ Over Owen’s head, I reached out I felt them falling asleep one by one then, my son, my daughter, and my husband. Awake alone, I experienced agratitude for my life and our family, the four of ustogether, accounted for and okay. In contrast to the agitation I’d been gripped by before the earthquake, I wasfilled with calmness, a sense that we’d passed safelythrough a minor scare – like when you speed up too fastin slow highway traffic and almost hit the car in front ofyou but then you don’t. The argument with Vi, inflatedprior to the quake, shrank to its true size; it was in significant. My sister and I had spent three decadesbickering and making up.
But now that several years have passed, it pains me to remember this night because I was wrong. Although wewere safe in that moment, we hadn’t passed through any-thing. Nothing was concluding, nothing was everything was just beginning. And though my powers Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 25 weren’t what they once had been, though I no longerconsidered myself truly psychic, I still should have beenable to anticipate what would happen next.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 26 Our routine in the morning was that we’d awakenaround six-fifteen either to Owen’s squeaks on the monitor on my nightstand or to Rosie chatting with her-self on the monitor on Jeremy’s nightstand. I’d go nurseOwen while Jeremy showered, then he’d take both children downstairs to eat while I showered. When Ijoined them, they’d have moved into the living room,which was also our playroom, and I’d be only halfwaydown the steps before Rosie began making excitedannouncements about my appearance – ‘Mama has ablue shirt!’ – or describing her own activities. As Ireached the bottom step, she’d fling herself into my arms,as if we were reuniting after many years apart. (How flattering motherhood was, when they weren’t smearingfood on my clothes or sneezing into my mouth.) On this morning, Rosie squatted by the bookshelf and shouted, ‘Rosie’s driving a school bus!’ Jeremy, who was holding his phone and Owen, said, ‘The earthquake had a magnitude of 4.9, and the epicenter was in Terre Haute, Indiana.’ ‘Have you talked to Courtney yet?’ I asked.
He shook his head. ‘I’ll wait until I see her at school.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 27 I’m guessing she’s already fielding calls from the media.’ As soon as I sat on the couch, Owen began kicking his legs and reaching for me. I lifted my arms, and as Jeremypassed him over, he said, ‘By the way, your dad justcalled. He wants to know if you can take him groceryshopping tomorrow instead of today.’ ‘Is everything all right?’‘Well, he said he felt the earthquake, but he didn’t ‘Since when does my dad call at seven A.M.?’‘Go call him now if you’re worried.’I held Owen back toward Jeremy. He began to cry, and as I walked to the kitchen, I heard Jeremy say, ‘Really,Owen? Am I really that bad?’ From our cordless phone, I called my father’s apart- ment. After he answered, I said, ‘So you felt theearthquake, too?’ ‘Just enough to know what it was,’ my father said. ‘I’m afraid I have to postpone our trip to the store this after-noon. Will tomorrow work for you?’ ‘Tomorrow’s your birthday dinner, Dad.’ My father still drove – he wasn’t supposed to at night but was fine during the day – but even so, since my mother’s death tenyears before, I’d taken him grocery shopping once a week.
We’d get deli meat and sliced cheese for his lunches andplan out his dinners, for which he’d buy himself only thecheapest cuts of beef and pork.
‘I hope you’re not planning anything fancy,’ my father ‘I promise it’ll be very low-key. What do you have to do ‘I’ll be giving a lift to your sister. I’m sure you know she Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 28 has a date.’ Though my father didn’t sound like he wascomplaining, irritation gathered in me. About a yearbefore, around the time my father’s doctor had told himhe could no longer drive at night, Vi had stopped drivingperiod. She said she’d had enough of all the jackasses jabbering on their cellphones while going eighty miles anhour; also, not driving was greener. But Vi rarely recycledan aluminum can of Diet Coke, even when a bin was twofeet away, and it was obvious that the real explanationwas that she’d developed a phobia. I’d meant to getonline and do some research, but many months hadpassed without my doing so. I did get online on a dailybasis, usually in the afternoon when Rosie and Owenwere both asleep, but once in front of the computer, I’dforget everything I’d meant to do and end up either onFacebook or reading about pregnant celebrities.
Meanwhile, Vi showed no inclination to start drivingagain, and socializing with her and my father, especiallyduring the evening, continued to require elaborate planning.
‘Dad, she can take a taxi to her date,’ I said. ‘She’s not destitute.’ Vi was always thousands of dollars in creditcard debt, as I had once been, too, but surely she couldscrape together cab fare.
‘I don’t mind,’ my father said. ‘She doesn’t think they’ll ‘They’re meeting in the afternoon, not at night?’‘At three o’clock, at a Starbucks in Creve Coeur. Not too far off 270, I believe. Vi said I’m welcome to come in andsit at another table, but I’ll just bring the paper and makemyself comfortable in the car.’ ‘That doesn’t sound like much fun for you.’ My father Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 29 had also said nothing to suggest that Vi had revealed thegender of her date to him. It was so like my sister to haveour almost-seventy-four-year-old father drive her, even tobe okay with him following her inside, yet not to botherexplaining to him either online dating or her nascent lesbianism. (The first I’d ever heard of Vi being involvedwith a woman was two summers before, when she’d metsomeone named Cindy at a spirituality conference inIllinois. Cindy was our age but wore a long gray-and-green batik skirt with a matching flowing shirt and thekind of sandals you’d go river rafting in, and thirty seconds after meeting me, she said in a faux-sympathetictone, ‘You give off a very, very tired energy, and you needto make more time for yourself.’ When of course I wastired – I had a six-month-old baby! Vi hadn’t introducedCindy to our father, and a few weeks later, Vi had told meshe and Cindy were no longer on speaking terms. Sincethen, Vi hadn’t, to my knowledge, dated anyone.) I said to my father, ‘I have a question for you about tomorrow. It’s just as easy for Jeremy to grill salmon orsteak, and since it’s your birthday, you should decide.’ ‘Oh, heavens, I’m not picky.’ He was quiet before adding, ‘Vi seems well these days, doesn’t she? She’scome into her own.’ My father tended to speak in code, which had to do, I believed, with his midwestern decorum, a discretion soextreme that it precluded direct mention of a wide rangeof topics. Perhaps the worst thing Jeremy had ever said tome, when we’d been together about six months, was thatmy father was cold. Jeremy had made this remark afterwe’d invited my father to hear the symphony and he’ddeclined without giving any reason, and the way Jeremy Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 30 had said it had been as if this view was a shared under-standing we had instead of a scathing observation on hispart. ‘Well, I’ve never heard him say “I love you,” ’ Jeremyhad added. ‘I’ve never heard him give you a compliment.’When I began to cry, I think Jeremy was shocked. But tome, my father had always been the kind, warm parent. Hewas reticent, yes, but he wasn’t cold.
In this moment, however, I truly had no idea what my father was talking about when he said Vi was doing well:Her job, which I had long assumed was as much a sourceof discomfort for him as it was for me? The fact that shehad a date? I said, ‘I guess she does seem good.’ That she and I had had a fight wasn’t worth burdening my father with. ‘Allright,’ I added. ‘So Jeremy will get you tomorrow at fiveo’clock.’ Back in the living room, I said, ‘My dad is driving Vi to her date, but I don’t even think Vi’s told him it’s awoman.’ The night before, I had recounted to Jeremy mydisagreement with Vi at Hacienda, including the partwhere she’d declared that children were a problem people created then congratulated themselves for solving,at which point Jeremy had laughed and said, ‘She’s right.’ I said, ‘I assumed the woman was picking her up, but they’re meeting this afternoon at a Starbucks in CreveCoeur.’ ‘How romantic,’ Jeremy said.
‘I know, right?’ Even though I wasn’t exactly rooting for a thriving lesbian romance for my sister, she’d be betteroff meeting the IT consultant at night for a drink. Howcould you possibly fall in love off Interstate 270, on aThursday afternoon? As I dropped to my knees and began Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 31 picking up blocks that were strewn across the rug, I said,‘So I think for his birthday dinner, my dad wants steak.’ A few minutes after twelve, Rosie pounded on theWheelings’ door while I unfastened the various harnesseskeeping Owen strapped into his half of the doublestroller. From the porch, I could hear the television intheir living room, which was never on in the middle ofthe day. Hank had an odd expression – both perplexedand amused – as he held open the door. ‘So do you know or do you not know that your sister was just onChannel 5?’ ‘What are you talking about?’‘Do you ever feel like there are only six people in St.
Louis?’ Hank said. ‘And we’re either married or related tohalf of them?’ ‘If you think that, try having grown up here. Why was Vi on TV?’ Although Hank didn’t seem perturbed, my pulsehad quickened. Please let it just be a man-on-the-street interview, I thought. Something about the Cardinals or theHighway 40 construction. I followed Rosie inside withOwen in my arms.
‘Hey, Rosie the Riveter,’ Hank said, and Amelia, who was Hank and Courtney’s three-year-old daughter andwho was standing on the couch, called out, ‘My mom ison TV!’ I turned back to Hank. ‘What’s going on?’‘Courtney and Vi were in the same news segment ‘Why would Vi be—’ I started to ask, and Hank said, ‘I think it’s better if you just watch. I DVR’d it for Courtney.’ Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 32 On the wall in one corner of their living room was a large flat-screen TV, and Hank held the remote controltoward it. ‘It’s not that it’s bad,’ he said. ‘But you’ll thinkit is.’ I tried not to grip Owen too tightly as I faced the screen. The segment began with a young brunettereporter describing the earthquake that had occurred during the night and providing an overview of theregion’s geology. ‘San Francisco gets more attention,’ shesaid, ‘but heartland dwellers know that one of the strongest continental earthquakes ever recorded in the U.S. had its epicenter in the Missouri Bootheel, justa few hours south of St. Louis.’ Courtney then appearedon-screen, Courtney as in Hank’s wife and Jeremy’s col-league, sitting behind the desk in her office. ‘In fact, it wasa series of between three and five seismic events, the firstof which was in December 1811 and the last in February1812,’ she said, and she sounded calm and authoritative.
COURTNEY WHEELING, WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF GEOPHYSICS, it said in black letters at the bottom of thescreen. ‘At this point, we don’t know if the second andthird events on December 16, 1811, were quakes or after-shocks. As for the question of whether we’re living in anactive seismic zone right now—’ Before Courtney could finish, the reporter said, ‘According to one area woman, the answer is very muchso.’ Hank laughed, presumably because it seemed obvious that Courtney had been about to say the opposite, and then Vi filled the screen. Seeing her, Iflinched. The big, loose purple tunic she wore hadseemed unnoteworthy at Hacienda but now appearedgarish, and even if she hadn’t been in the same clothes, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 33 I’d have guessed she hadn’t slept the night before: Therewere shadows under her eyes, her face was puffy, and shedidn’t have on makeup. I had never been on tele visionmyself, but I knew you at least needed foundation.
‘Another earthquake is coming soon. A powerful, powerful earthquake.’ In voice-over, as footage showed Vigiving a tour of her living room – the iron candelabra seton the windowsill and the Tibetan prayer flags strungacross one wall and the little fountain in the corner, withwater bubbling over a pile of stones – the reporter said,‘Violet Shramm, a self-described psychic medium livingin Rock Hill, claims that the tremors St. Louis residentsfelt earlier today were a prelude to a much bigger earth-quake. No, she doesn’t have proof, but in 2004 shehelped Florissant police find nine-year-old kidnappingvictim Brady Ogden, she publicly predicted MichaelJackson’s death in June – and she says she had a hunchabout the quake that happened early this morning.’ ‘I did a reading for a group last night,’ Vi told the camera, ‘and the last thing I said to them was, “Be care-ful, because Mother Earth is very restless right now.” ’ I glanced at Hank. ‘I thought you said it wasn’t that ‘Well, I wish they weren’t pitted against each other. I’m ‘She looks deranged,’ I said, and added, as if it were ‘Shramm knows she’ll have her skeptics,’ the reporter was saying, ‘but she believes that staying quiet could domore harm than good.’ ‘If I can save just one life,’ Vi said, ‘that’s what’s Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 34 The shot shifted to an image of a map with a pulsing red circle over the border between Missouri and Arkansason one side and Kentucky and Tennessee on the other.
‘No doubt about it, we’re in a hot zone,’ the reporter said.
‘But according to Washington University’s Wheeling, theBig One could come tomorrow – or never.’ ‘It’s no likelier to happen next week than fifty years from now,’ Courtney explained, and she looked, I noticedthis time around, impeccably tasteful in a gray blouse, ablack suit jacket, small silver earrings, and well-appliedfoundation; her short blond hair was neatly brushed.
‘Does it hurt to keep emergency supplies in the base-ment? Not at all. But in terms of daily threats for St.
Louisans, I’d say something like obesity far outranksearthquakes.’ ‘Oh, God,’ I said, and Hank said, ‘Yeah, she could have ‘Every year, GPS instruments record hundreds of instances of seismic activity on and around the NewMadrid fault line, yet we feel virtually none of it becauseit’s not that strong,’ Courtney was saying on-screen, andshe sounded serene and wise and not sleep-deprived.
‘The reality is that if you’re using seismometers, you’ll seeearthquakes occurring.’ She smiled. ‘The earth is alwaysbusy.’ The brunette reporter reappeared in front of Vi’s house, though blessedly without Vi herself anywhere in view.
‘For St. Louisans rattled first by recent events and now byfuture predictions, let’s hope not too busy,’ the reportersaid. ‘Back to you, Denise.’ Hank paused the screen, and I turned to him and said, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 35 ‘So Vi’s eccentric,’ Hank said. ‘It’s not illegal.’‘Kate, Owen spit out his binky.’ Amelia was pulling on my hand. ‘He spit it on the floor.’ She held the pacifier uptoward me, and I rubbed it against my shirt and stuck itback in Owen’s mouth. I glanced at Rosie, who was setting a blanket over a row of Amelia’s stuffed animals,and I wondered if she realized her aunt had just been ontelevision.
‘Vi must have called the station herself, right?’ I said. ‘I mean, how else would they have found her? It’s not likeshe’s an expert on earthquakes.’ No, the earthquakeexpert – that was Courtney. The feeling that gripped mein this moment was similar to what I imagined the relatives of an alcoholic must experience when they learnthat their parent or child or sibling has gone on anotherbender: that mix of anger and disappointment and lackof surprise, a blend so exquisite, so familiar, it’s almostlike satisfaction. Of course. Of course Vi had had a premonition about something big, and of course, insteadof taking the time to think it through, she’d called a television station, and of course she’d let herself be inter-viewed while wearing no makeup. Why did she alwaysget in her own way? I was embarrassed, yes, but myembarrassment was mostly for her, not me. After all, weno longer had the same last name, no longer lookedidentical. People I was close to knew I had a twin sister,but acquaintances – my former co-workers, or our neigh-bors other than the Wheelings – wouldn’t connect me tothis strange woman in her purple shirt, with her weirdprediction. I said, ‘I’ll never understand why she likesdrawing attention to herself.’ After a beat, I added, ‘Andthe reason you think Vi is delightfully eccentric is that Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 36 you’re not from here.’ Hank, Courtney, and my husbandhad all grown up on the East Coast: Courtney outsidePhiladelphia, Hank in Boston, and Jeremy in northernVirginia.
‘Oh, I’m not arguing that there aren’t some small- minded yokels in the Lou,’ Hank said, and I realized withself-consciousness that a black man married to a whitewoman probably didn’t need to be reminded by me ofhow conservative a place St. Louis could be. ‘But—’ Hankpaused and mouthed, Fuck ’em. ‘Seriously,’ he said aloud.
‘What about Courtney, though?’ I said. ‘She must have ‘She hasn’t seen it yet.’ Hank checked his watch. ‘She teaches until one-fifteen. But I’m sure she’ll be okaybeing the yin to Vi’s yang.’ You mean the rational to Vi’s crazy, I thought, but even in my head it sounded too mean to say. Besides, I didn’t believe Vi was crazy. I believed she sometimesseemed crazy, and that on a regular basis she exercisedbad judgment, but I didn’t believe she was crazy; I neverhad. ‘Should we get going?’ I said.
Amelia attended preschool in the morning three days a week, at a place where I was planning to put in an appli-cation for Rosie for the following fall, so on those days,we met up post-lunch and pre-nap. Our default plan wasto walk first to Kaldi’s, where Hank and I would get coffee and the girls would split a scone, and then to back-track to the park – officially known as DeMun Park,though Hank had been greatly amused when Vi told usthat everyone who’d ever worked in the row of restaurants along DeMun Avenue referred to it as MILFPark.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 37 As we left the Wheelings’ house, it occurred to me that I should call my father, to check if he’d watched the news,but after his comment that morning about Vi cominginto her own, I couldn’t bring myself to do it; in case hehadn’t seen her, I wanted to give him a few more hoursof not knowing.
Outside, Amelia and Rosie skipped in front of us, and Hank walked beside me as I pushed Owen in the stroller.
Amelia slapped her palm against a lamppost, and whenRosie mimicked the gesture exactly, I thought, as I oftendid, that Amelia and Hank were like mentors to Rosieand me: Amelia was always beckoning Rosie toward thenext developmental stage, while Hank was the personwho’d most influenced me as a parent. It was from Hankthat I’d learned to give Rosie her own spoon when I’d fedher jar food, so that she wasn’t constantly grabbing theone I was using. Hank had told me to put Triple Paste onher when her diaper rash got bad (’Way more than youthink you need, like you’re spreading cream cheese on abagel,’ he’d said), and to buy a Britax car seat after sheoutgrew her infant seat, and to go to the Buder library forthe best story hour. The way Hank was with Amelia –affectionate and relaxed, unconcerned with getting mudor food on his clothes – was the way I aspired to be withRosie, and the way Hank answered the questions Ameliaasked, which was definitely not cutely, not in a winking manner for thebenefit of another adult), was the way I tried to answerRosie’s when she began asking them.
As we turned onto DeMun Avenue, I said, ‘Courtney looked good on TV. How’s she feeling?’ ‘Not too bad. She wants to get the results of her CVS, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 38 just for peace of mind, but she hasn’t been nauseous fora while.’ Courtney was eleven weeks pregnant, expecting in April. When we’d gotten to know the Wheelings, they’dbeen in agreement that they were having only one child,and in fact, Rosie had been the beneficiary of Amelia’spricey hand-me-downs, which Courtney had told mewith such certainty they’d never want back that I hadn’tworried when Rosie ripped or stained them. And then,the summer after she got tenure, Courtney decided shewanted another child. Not only wasn’t it difficult for herto persuade Hank, it was so easy that I suspected he’dhave preferred two kids all along. Courtney was thenthirty-seven, and when they hadn’t conceived within sixmonths, she began taking Clomid; after another sixmonths, she decided to have IVF but hadn’t yet startedthe first cycle when she discovered she was pregnant.
I’d had Owen during the time Courtney and Hank had been trying for a second baby, and I had never spoken toCourtney about their fertility troubles; Courtney herselfstill hadn’t told me she was pregnant, and everything Iknew had made its way to me via Hank. Courtney alsohadn’t broached the subject with Jeremy, though theywere closer than Courtney and I were. Once it hadseemed slightly strange to me that our friendships with the Wheelings broke down not along gender lines but along professional ones – like me, Hank was the stay-at-home parent – but these days I rarely thoughtabout it.
‘So this morning Amelia wakes up at five-fifteen,’ Hank said. ‘Not like wakes up crying in the night, but wakes upwakes up, in a great mood, wanting to eat breakfast. And Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 39 she’d slept through the earthquake, but Courtney and Ihad been up then, too, so I was so tired I felt hungover. Itwas like all the downside of a hangover without any ofthe fun. I started thinking about getting up in the nightwith a newborn, and I seriously don’t know if I have it inme again.’ I laughed. ‘I think that train has left the station.’‘It’s been a while for us,’ Hank said. ‘And we aren’t ‘Oh, please.’ Hank and Courtney were only four years older than I was, and they were in great shape. EveryWednesday afternoon and Saturday morning, they saw atrainer together, and they had met because they’d bothplayed varsity squash as Harvard undergrads, a fact I wasglad I hadn’t known until my friendship with Hank was established – not the squash part, though it was asport with which I was totally un Harvard part, which made Hank not quite the samebreed of stay-at-home parent I was.
‘Call me when you turn thirty-five,’ Hank said. ‘I swear ‘All right, geezer.’‘I will say this: Your son is an excellent advertisement for babykind.’ Hank stepped around the stroller, so hewas facing Owen, and started walking backward. ‘Wewant to order one just as easygoing as you, O,’ he said.
‘Not to confirm your fears, but you know he’s not sleeping through the night yet, right?’ I said. ‘He stillnurses every three or four hours.’ ‘For real?’ Hank looked incredulous. ‘You’ve got to let him cry it out.’ Hank was still walking backward in frontof the stroller, and he said to Owen, ‘You don’t want your Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 40 mom to get a good night’s sleep, huh? Kate, you shouldsee the shit-eating grin your son has on his face rightnow.’ I laughed, though beneath the levity of the moment, I felt a sudden uneasiness that wasn’t related to our con-versation. It was the realization I hadn’t allowed myselfto have earlier, choosing instead to be distracted by howdisheveled Vi had looked on the local news: My sisterhad received a warning that something bad was going tohappen. I wasn’t yet entirely convinced that there wouldbe another earthquake, though I wasn’t convinced therewouldn’t. Either way, she’d sensed something.
I said to Hank, ‘Do you and Courtney keep emergency ‘Not a one. Do you guys?’I shook my head.
‘You planning to go buy a generator now?’A generator, no, but maybe a crank radio, and definitely water and canned food. Aloud, as if the possibility amused me, I said, ‘I might.’ ‘I have a confession,’ Hank said, and I felt a kind of tingle, a nervous anticipation. I was both surprised andunsurprised when he said, ‘I know how you feel aboutVi’s whole gig, but there’s a part of me that believes inthat stuff. ESP, psychic predictions – the world’s a prettyweird and cool place, so why is it impossible?’ Again trying to sound lighthearted, I said, ‘Don’t let ‘Ehh—’ He shrugged. ‘She cuts me slack for being artsy.’ Before Amelia’s birth, Hank had worked as an art teacherat a private high school, and he made oil paintings, or atleast he intended to even if he didn’t have much time Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 41 these days. The attic of their house, where I’d never been,was his studio. He added, ‘My only point is that it’shubris to claim there aren’t unexplained phenomena outthere.’ Hank and I had been friends for just over two years, which wasn’t that long, but we’d seen each other almostevery day during this time, and there were ways in whichhe knew more about my daily life than Jeremy did. Yetevery time Hank and I had headed in a direction thatcould have opened onto the topic of psychicness, of mypsychicness – conversations about our families or ourchildhoods or about secrets, even conversations once ortwice about the paranormal – I’d always let the oppor -tunity to tell him pass. I’d imagined that I’d immediatelywish I could take the admission back. The last person I’drevealed the truth to was Jeremy, because I’d thought Iowed it to him. But if I wasn’t marrying Hank, was itunreasonable that I wanted to seem to him like a regularperson? Growing up, from adolescence on, I hadassumed that I couldn’t live in St. Louis as an adultbecause my past would always follow and define me. I’dbeen pleasantly surprised to discover that I might bewrong. To have settled in my hometown with a husbandfrom elsewhere, to have friends from elsewhere – this wasa version of life I hadn’t been able to envision as ateenager. Why would I disrupt this fragile balance just forthe sake of self-disclosure? Hank and I knew each otherwell; we didn’t need to know each other completely.
And yet my withholding of information, which had previously felt only like discretion, abruptly seemed to beverging on dishonesty. We’d arrived at Kaldi’s, and Ipulled the brake on the stroller. Amelia, who was Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 42 standing with Rosie by the café’s front door, called,‘Daddy, can we have a raspberry scone?’ ‘Hang on, sweetheart,’ Hank said.
‘I’m sure Vi will be glad to have you in her corner,’ I ‘But does she have you?’ Though Hank’s tone was casual, he was looking at me so intently that I wonderedwhat he suspected. Surely this was the moment to say, Ofcourse she does, because we’re exactly the same. Or we hadbeen, until I’d deliberately destroyed my abilities.
Instead, like a coward, I said, ‘Of course she does. She’s Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 43 Vi and I were born in August 1975, less than a monthbefore our parents’ first wedding anniversary. At thirty-seven weeks, we were considered full-term, which wasand still is unusual for twins, but the truly notable fact ofour arrival was that our mother didn’t know until the dayof her delivery that there were two of us. Twenty-threeyears old and slim, she had gained seventy pounds during her pregnancy; by her second trimester, her handsand feet were so swollen every morning that the doctortold her to remove her wedding ring or risk needing tohave it cut off.
Apart from her dramatic weight gain, our mother had experienced what she understood to be a normal pregnancy. It was at a routine appointment on a hotmorning in mid-August that our mother’s obstetricianordered an X ray because he was considering revising herdue date based on her size. (Sonograms existed then, butthey were still uncommon.) During the X ray, the tech -nician saw right away that there were two babies,announced the news to our mother, then pleaded withher to act surprised when the obstetrician told her. Butshe didn’t have to act – she was stunned. How would she Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 44 take care of twins? She had moved to St. Louis a year anda half earlier from the tiny town of Risco, Missouri, andshe knew no one who could help her. She’d grown apartfrom the girl she’d lived with before marrying our father,she was estranged from her family in Risco, and she nolonger had co-workers.
The doctor, who didn’t want our mother carrying twins beyond thirty-seven weeks, told her to call our father andhave him pack a bag and meet them at the hospital. Oncethere, the doctor broke our mother’s water – she said heused a hook that resembled a crochet needle, a detail thatas children, Vi found fascinating and I was disturbed by.
After several hours, the doctor decided that our mother’slabor had progressed enough, and he had an anesthetistadminister an epidural. As soon as it took effect, ourmother realized only half her body was numb. She needed another dose, she told the nurse, but the nurseexplained that the anesthesia just hadn’t kicked in yetand our mother should wait. An hour passed, and ourmother, with increasing desperation, told the nurse shestill was numb on only one side of her body. After thedoctor examined her, he said she was too close to delivering to receive additional medication. This meantthat while the left side of her body remained de sensitizedand immobile, the right side was wild with pain; one arm and leg writhed as the other lay inert. She wastrapped, and she also was alone; our father sat in thewaiting room.
When Vi emerged, our mother felt as if she’d been turned inside out. A nurse whisked the baby away, and asthe contractions continued, another nurse told ourmother to keep pushing, which our mother thought she Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 45 already was doing. I emerged eight minutes later and wassimilarly whisked away. Our mother had neither held noreven really seen us; she was hyperventilating, and thoughshe soon stopped, she felt flattened, overwhelmed bywhat she had just been through. She lay motionless inthe hospital bed and swore that she would never haveanother baby.
As for Vi and me, after our Apgar scores confirmed that we were healthy, we were weighed (Vi was six pounds,nine ounces, and I was five pounds, eleven ounces), thencleaned, wrapped in blankets, deposited in bassinets, andtaken to the nursery, where we were introduced to ourfather. Vi was asleep, he said, and I was awake, and hewent about memorizing our faces. Vi had been named,but I hadn’t. For the next five days, though the nurses andour father repeatedly inquired about our mother’s prefer-ences, she declined to answer. Having expected only onebaby, she had planned on Violet for a girl and Victor fora boy. What about Violet and Victoria, our father sug-gested, but our mother shook her head. She had spokenvery little since our birth; she did not breast-feed us.
Violet and Margaret? (Margaret was the name of ourfather’s mother.) Our mother shook her head again.
Violet and Daisy? our father asked, and our mothershrugged. He took this as assent, and we became VioletKimberly and Daisy Kathleen. Our mother later claimedthat Kimberly and Kathleen had been maternity wardnurses, but our father denied it, saying the nurses hadmerely helped him select our middle names.
As little girls, Vi and I loved hearing about our arrival in spite of the fact that we didn’t have a mother who con-cluded this narrative with lavish expressions of affection.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 46 In retrospect, I’m not sure why we were so enthralled bythis story, aside from the fact that we possessed the guile-less self-absorption of most children. But it took havingbabies myself for me to understand just how lacking,how depressing even, the story of our births was, with itsabsence of any hint of joy on our mother’s part. She hadlooked forward to having one child, was my inter pretation of events when I became an adult, but havingtwo did not double her excitement; rather, it extinguished it. Our mother was neither a happy mothernor a happy person. It’s impossible for me to know if shewas unhappy before she had us, but I suspect she previ-ously must have been able to enjoy herself at least a littleor I doubt that my father would have married her. Andnot only married her but been so smitten that, as a thirty-nine-year-old bachelor, he’d proposed to her within threemonths of their meeting and left behind a life inNebraska to move to St. Louis for this beautiful womanseventeen years his junior.
It also took having babies of my own for me to truly imagine what that experience in the hospital must havebeen like for my mother, how difficult: At twenty-three,she was almost a decade younger than I was when I delivered my first child; her husband wasn’t in the delivery room to support her; and the combination of the ineffective epidural and the still surprising fact ofthere being two babies to push out must have been, inthe clinical sense, traumatizing. And things did not improve much, particularly with regard to her isolation,when the hospital discharged the three of us.
That morning, our mother had changed, for the first time since our arrival five days earlier, from a hospital Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 47 gown to a dress, and she was shocked when she lookedin the mirror. Between giving birth and shedding thewater weight that had made her swollen, she had lost atleast thirty pounds; her legs were so skinny that shereminded herself of Minnie Mouse. And this, in a way,was the happy ending of our birth story, a happiness Viand I surely intuited, and celebrated, even if it had littleto do with either of us – that in spite of everything she’dbeen through, on the day she left the hospital, ourmother once again looked pretty.
We lived in Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb twelve milessouthwest of the St. Louis Arch. The blue shingled houseon Gilbert Street that my parents had bought when theymarried was the one they stayed in until after I’d gradu-ated from college, and for all that time my mothercomplained about it. She said that the house was draftyin the winter, that the street smelled of exhaust fromtrains on the nearby tracks, and that the neighbors werenosy and low-class. The real problem, however, wasn’tthe house; it was a simple and terrible fact that none ofus ever discussed because we didn’t need to, which wasthat our mother didn’t like our father. In her crossedarms, the exhalations of her nostrils, the pinch of her lips,she showed us every day that she didn’t enjoy his company, didn’t find him interesting, and didn’t respecthim. Part of it seemed to be that she held him account-able for the disappointments life had dealt her, though itwas always easier to see that she was disappointed than tounderstand exactly why. (Not that my father was alone inhaving let her down. Almost everyone my motherencountered fell into one of two categories: low-class or Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 48 snobby. Only very occasionally would she bestow hermost prized compliment, reserved for a rich person whohad pleasantly surprised her: He didn’t put on airs, she’dsay. He acted the same as you and me.) Our parents had met when our father, who lived in Omaha, traveled to St. Louis on business – he was then asalesman for a commercial carpet manufacturer – and mymother was working at the front desk of the Claytonhotel where his employer put him up. He stayed in thehotel for two nights, and on the second, he invited her togo with him to a French restaurant. Our mother neversuggested that he outright lied during these initial inter-actions, but she conveyed that he’d led her to believe heoccupied a more senior position in the company than he did, and that he was more worldly than he turned outto be. (Of course, I thought later; he was trying to impressher.) Once a month for the next three months, my fatherreturned to St. Louis to woo my mother – she was livingwith a roommate on Wydown Boulevard, and he stayedat the hotel – and on these trips they attended aCardinals game, strolled in the Missouri BotanicalGarden, and toured the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, wheremy mother purchased a tiny beer stein for her charmbracelet, an accessory that in elementary school Vi and Iwould fight to try on. On his third visit, my fatherarranged a ride in a hot-air balloon, an outing that sofrightened my mother that they asked the pilot to landafter just a few minutes. Back on earth, my father proposed, and my mother accepted. In Omaha, myfather gave notice to his boss, moved to St. Louis, founda job as a salesman for a lighting fixture company, andmarried my mother in the late morning of September 5, Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 49 1974, at the St. Louis County Courts Building onCarondelet Avenue in Clayton. She wore a sleeveless twilldress with a pattern of interlocking green and black hexagons, and he wore a carnation went out for a steak lunch afterward, and then they bothreturned to work.
Why did my mother make things unnecessarily hard? That’s the main question I ask myself in retrospect. Ourlives weren’t glamorous, but they weren’t so bad; theywere ordinary, and there are many worse ways to be.
Though looking back, I see my father’s complicity, too. IfI were to fault him for falling for my mother, I’d be wish-ing away my own existence. But I was fairly sure heproposed to my mother, perhaps without really knowingher, for a foolish if time-honored reason, which was thatshe was beautiful. In photographs from around the timethey married, her straight blond hair is parted in the center and falls past her shoulders; her lips are thin butflirtatiously upturned; her cheekbones are high, her eyesbig and blue, her lashes accentuated with mascara. Shewas five-five, the same height Vi and I eventually grew to,but outside of pregnancy, I don’t think she ever weighedmore than a hundred and ten pounds. She favored snugblouses, dresses that cinched her small waist, jumpsuitswith flared pants. In a photo Vi and I especially liked, ourmother stands in front of the Arch holding our father’shand. She wears a belted orange wool jacket with anoversized collar and a matching orange beret; he has darksideburns. Both of our parents are beaming.
That my mother turned out to be difficult as well as beautiful was likely a result of her upbringing. In Risco,she had grown up poor on a small farm, the third Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 50 daughter in an extremely religious Baptist family, andafter graduating from high school, she’d remained athome and gotten a job at a newly opened rice- processingfacility twenty minutes away. For three years, she secretlysaved money, and as soon as she could afford to, she andher friend Jeanine bought bus tickets to St. Louis; mymother carried with her a single suitcase containing herclothes, toothbrush, and Christmas records. Although St.
Louis was just three hours north of Risco, neither of themhad ever been, and most of what they knew, or thoughtthey knew, about the city was that they shouldn’t gonorth of the Delmar Loop because that was where theblack people lived.
Given that both the civil rights and the women’s rights movements seemed to have entirely bypassed my parents, I never understood why it was my father whojoined my mother in St. Louis rather than my mothermoving to Omaha; perhaps this decision reflected themore invested party in the relationship. My mother quither job the day after they married, and they soon boughtthe house that would evolve from a source of pride toone of disappointment.
I was four years old the night I woke up screaming. Vi and I shared a room, and by the time our mother cameto me, Vi was sitting up in her bed. In a dream, I had seena house on fire, flames soaring and billowing from all thewindows; the house was orange with light and terrify-ingly alive.
Even after our mother’s arrival, I remained in consolable. There was an impatience to the way ourmother dealt with Vi and me that was surprisingly effective, implying as it did that whatever had upset us Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 51 wasn’t important. But in this case, anything she couldhave said, any tone she used – it wouldn’t have mattered,because the house would still have been consumed byfire. I am sorry to say I remember this feeling well notonly because the image of the house was so vivid but alsobecause that dread has returned regularly throughout mylife, almost always when I awaken during the night: ananxious kind of certainty, an awareness of the world’smenaces that feels like a recognition of the truth, and anawareness of my own vulnerability – of everyone’s vulnerability.
As I continued shrieking, my father joined us, and I heard my mother tell him I’d had a nightmare. He sat onVi’s bed; light from the hallway cut into our room. Mymother, who had taken several minutes to decipher whatI was trying to tell her, kept saying, ‘But if there was a fire,we’d smell smoke.’ ‘Should we sing a song?’ my father asked. He began to hum, then to sing the words to ‘I See the Moon,’ and Vijoined him. Our vulnerability continued to clutch at me;hearing their voices, it clutched at me in a different way.
How could our parents protect Vi and me from anything?For the first time, I realized that there was no guaranteethat they could protect themselves. But then, as my fatherand Vi sang, the familiarity of the lyrics was comforting.
My mother pulled my covers up before she left, and myfather stayed in the room; he continued singing until Viand I were both asleep.
The next night, a house halfway down our block burned to the ground. My parents, Vi, and I were awakened by the sirens, and the flashing lights from thefire trucks and the police cars reflected on our walls.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 52 Though our parents didn’t let us go outside, our fatherwent to confer with neighbors. Vi and I couldn’t see thefire because the house was on the same side of the streetas ours, but I already knew what it looked like. The people who lived in the house were an older couple.
A few months later, we were eating a family dinner when Vi said, ‘Why does Aunt Erma’s heart hurt?’ Sheasked this in a neutral tone rather than a distressed one,but our parents exchanged an alarmed look. Aunt Ermawas actually our great-aunt, our paternal grandmother’ssister, and lived in Grand Island, Nebraska; we had mether perhaps three times in our lives.
‘What do you mean, Vi?’ my father asked.
‘She fell down,’ Vi said without emotion, and took That time, more than a week passed before my father’s mother called on a Sunday morning to say that her sisterhad died of a heart attack. I didn’t overhear my father onthe phone, but he repeated the information to ourmother when he came into the kitchen. Vi and I wereplaying Candy Land at the table while our motherwashed the breakfast dishes.
It was Vi’s turn, and I was watching our father as he said, ‘It’s not just Daisy, then. It’s Violet who has thesenses, too.’ Our mother’s expression when she turned to look at our father was sour. She was wearing yellow rubbergloves, cleaning a pan in which she’d cooked bacon, andshe didn’t turn off the faucet. She said, ‘What do you suggest I do about it?’ Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 53 Owen woke up from his afternoon nap before Rosie, andI nursed him sitting on our living room couch. As Iburped him afterward, the phone rang, and I knew with-out seeing the caller ID panel that it was Vi.
I set Owen on the floor with a little wooden car – he was just beginning to sit on his own – and when Ianswered, Vi said, ‘Courtney Wheeling is finally preggers,isn’t she? Which is a miracle because she’s so fuckingskinny I can’t even believe she was getting her period.’This was generally the way it went when my sister and Ifought. After a day or two, I’d call her and say, ‘I neverrealized until right now that coriander and cilantro arethe same thing. Did you?’ or she’d call me and say, ‘I’mlooking out my window and there’s a totally perfect cob-web in the railing on my front steps. It’s like the platonicideal of a cobweb.’ Neither of us would formally apologize.
‘Hank and Courtney haven’t told people yet, so don’t bring it up with them. She’s only eleven weeks along.’ Ihesitated before adding, ‘Do you really think there’ll be ahuge earthquake?’ ‘No, but you know how I love attention. Yes, Daze, I Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 54 do. I mean, sorry.’ She sounded more serious. ‘But that’swhat came through, loud and clear.’ ‘And how soon is soon? Tomorrow? Six months from She exhaled. ‘That part I’m not sure of.’‘But you’re confident it’s an earthquake and not some- thing else, like a tornado? Or, I don’t know, a buildingbeing imploded?’ ‘No, it’s an earthquake. Especially after the one last night – it all feels connected. Anyway, I didn’t have a visu-alization. I just got the message.’ I could tell that we were perilously close to her mentioning the spiritual guide she believed was thesource of such messages, whom she called Guardian. Viusually didn’t bring up Guardian around me because sheknew the topic made me uncomfortable, but surely if Iwas the one peppering Vi with questions, he was fairgame.
I said, ‘If you get a sense about a specific date, will you tell me? Just with the kids, you know, I’d rather be prepared—’ ‘Of course.’ Not only did Vi not gloat over her power, but she sounded kind, protective even, as if she’d neverhave considered anything else. Then she said, ‘Was it justme or did Courtney come off as completely uptight?’Adopting a British accent that sounded like neitherCourtney nor an actual British person, Vi said, ‘ “Let metell you about the statistics that my extensive research hasuncovered. Did I mention I have two degrees fromHaaarvard? And that I hate fat people?” ’ ‘How did you end up getting interviewed?’ I asked.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 55 ‘I thought they’d blow me off, but I was put right through to a producer. I probably should have brushedmy hair this morning, huh?’ Vi laughed. ‘But it all happened so quickly. One minute I was on the phonewith the producer, and the next they had that girl stand-ing in front of my house with a microphone. Did younotice her double D’s, by the way? I’m surprised thosethings fit inside the newsmobile.’ ‘Have you talked to Dad?’‘Not yet, so I assume he didn’t see it. Although doesn’t That she hadn’t heard from him didn’t, in my opinion, mean he hadn’t seen it. ‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Shouldn’t Dad bethere to take you on your date?’ ‘Not till three.’‘Vi, what time do you think it is now?’ My own watch said two fifty-two. ‘Have you taken a shower?’ ‘Shit, I didn’t realize how late it’d gotten.’‘Hold on,’ I said quickly, and I heard Vi on the other end of the phone, pausing. ‘Wear your dark jeans andyour black beaded V-neck shirt,’ I said. ‘And those patentleather flats. Don’t wear Birkenstocks.’ After we’d gotten Owen and Rosie down to sleep, Jeremyand I made a stir-fry for dinner; because we’d becomeaccustomed to eating at five forty-five, dinner at eighto’clock felt almost European.
I poured sesame oil into a pan and used a knife to sweep onion pieces from the cutting board into the oil asJeremy removed two beers from the refrigerator. Heopened them both and passed a bottle to me – whilenursing, I allowed myself one cup of coffee during the Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 56 day and one beer per night – and he tapped his bottleagainst mine. ‘Cheers,’ he said. ‘We survived another day.’ Thinking of Vi on television, I said, ‘Barely.’ But it was nice to be in our bright kitchen together, nice to haveJeremy home from work and Rosie and Owen asleep, andI added, ‘No, you’re right.’ I knew he’d watched theChannel 5 news segment online at his office, and I said,‘So what’d you think of Vi and Courtney?’ ‘Your description was accurate. Probably not the finest ‘Are you embarrassed to be married to me?’ I’d thought I was making a joke, but aloud it didn’t sound like one.
‘Of course not.’ Jeremy leaned in and kissed my fore- head. ‘I know you think Courtney came off well, but shewas fuming because they edited her to look like shebelieves the New Madrid Seismic Zone is an active threat,and she doesn’t. She thinks it’s basically dead. Besides thefact that the New Madrid isn’t even where last night’searthquake was – it was in the Wabash Valley.’ ‘Do you think Courtney will tell other people in your department that the psychic weirdo is your sister-in-law?’ ‘No, but who cares if she does? It was a three-minute piece in the middle of the day on the local news, and nooffense to Vi or Courtney, but who even watches that?’He reached out and took a slice of bell pepper. Then,because for him the topic was finished, he said, ‘How wasVi’s date?’ I rolled my eyes. ‘I haven’t heard yet.’‘Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re right.
She’s in no way attracted to women and is just datingthem because it’s easier for her to find a girlfriend than aboyfriend. Here’s my question for you: So what?’ Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 57 I was quiet for a few seconds – Jeremy had a point – then, rather lamely, I said, ‘I just think it’d be confusingto our dad. For someone from his generation, if she says,“I’m dating a woman. Oh, no, I’m not” – that’s a big deal.
It’s kind of unfair to make him accept that and then tochange her mind again.’ Jeremy took a sip of beer, watching me, and said, ‘Unfair to him or to you?’ I didn’t answer, and he said,‘Even if your identical twin turns out to be a lesbian, itdoesn’t mean you’re secretly one, too.’ He smiled. ‘Let’shope. So I got asked to give a talk at Cornell.’ ‘When?’ Quickly, I added, ‘That’s great.’ It wasn’t at all great logistically – Jeremy hadn’t been out of town sinceOwen’s birth, and the idea of it didn’t thrill me – butbecause Cornell was where Jeremy had earned his PhD, Iknew he’d be pleased by the invitation.
‘Lukovich said this semester, and I might as well go sooner rather than later and avoid getting stuck in asnowstorm.’ George Lukovich, head of Cornell’sDepartment of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, hadbeen Jeremy’s adviser, and he and his wife had attendedour wedding.
I added the pepper to the pan of onions, along with broccoli Jeremy had already chopped, then wiped myhands on a paper towel. ‘You couldn’t do it in the spring?Or at least wait until November?’ ‘You don’t mean because of Vi’s prediction, do you?’ ‘She did say the earthquake would be soon.’We looked at each other, and neither of us spoke. Then Jeremy said, ‘You remember that my AEPS conference isin October, right?’ It wasn’t just that I hadn’t remembered that the Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 58 con ference was in October; after five years of being married to Jeremy, I still couldn’t even remember whatAEPS stood for. ‘When is it again?’ I asked.
Jeremy walked to the calendar on the wall and lifted the month of September; in the grid for October, he hadindeed made note of his conference. I squinted to seethat it was in Denver and would run from Thursday,October 15, to Sunday, October 18.
‘And you’re presenting?’ I said.
‘On Sunday morning, when everyone is hungover, probably to a crowd in the single digits.’ ‘So it’s a really worthwhile use of your time, and I’m sure it’ll be a piece of cake to take care of Owen and Rosieby myself. It’s a win-win.’ ‘Sweetheart . . .’ Jeremy paused, and I could tell that he was proceeding carefully. ‘The fact that Vi predicted anotherearthquake – it could happen. Of course it could. And Icould be run over in the Schnucks parking lot this weekend.’ ‘That’s reassuring. Thanks.’‘Or I could buy a lottery ticket and win a million dollars. But we have to live our lives with the informationavailable to us. We can’t make decisions based on remotepossibilities.’ ‘What makes you so sure Vi’s prediction is remote?’ I Jeremy swallowed, and I knew he was trying to seem respectful, not sarcastic, as he said, ‘Is it her spirit guidewho told her there’d be an earthquake?’ ‘I didn’t get into that with her, but I assume so.’‘And you believe her? You believe that this ghost or whatever told Vi about an upcoming geological event,and therefore it’s true?’ Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 59 To be asked to defend a situation that I more than any- one wished weren’t part of my life – it felt not quite fair.
Furthermore, in acting as if Vi’s psychicness was un connected to me, weren’t we failing to acknowledgecertain facts? I said, ‘So you feel like you can completelydismiss her premonition?’ Jeremy was still standing by the calendar and I was at the stove and because he was short for a man, just twoinches taller than I was, and I had on clogs, we were thesame height as we faced each other. While the silencebetween us grew, I had the troubling thought that maybeI’d married him because he didn’t entirely believe in some -thing about myself that I hated; that maybe he’d marriedme because he wasn’t worried about, wasn’t deterred by,what he didn’t entirely believe in; and that both of us hadmistaken our marriage for consensus. But compatibilityand agreement, it struck me suddenly, were not the same.
I said, ‘I’m not claiming that she’s definitely right. But if the weatherman says there’ll be rain, why not take anumbrella? And if he’s wrong, better safe than sorry.’ ‘But what’s the umbrella in this scenario? Saying no to Cornell? Canceling my plans for AEPS?’ Jeremy was stillcalm, as if the idea that we were having a disagreementhadn’t occurred to him.
‘What if you go to the conference but postpone Cornell?’ I forced a smile. ‘And then neither of us gets ourway and we can both feel resentful.’ He smiled, too. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re ‘Lukovich isn’t trying to recruit you, is he?’ I said. It was well-established between us that I didn’t want to leave St.
Louis as long as my father was alive.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 60 ‘They do have a job opening this year, but Lukovich knows where we stand on moving. This would just be acolloquium, not a job talk.’ ‘Will they pay you?’‘Let me put it this way: Yes, but it probably won’t be After a minute, I said, ‘If Vi’s right, then I guess her pre- diction’s not embarrassing, but I’d rather be embarrassedand safe.’ ‘I know you would,’ Jeremy said.
As we were cleaning up after dinner, there was a knock onthe back door – this wasn’t the one we, or anyone else,usually used – and when I looked over, CourtneyWheeling was making a blowfish face against the windowpane. I opened the door, and she said, ‘I sawthe light on back here. Late-night dining, huh?’ ‘Come on in,’ I said, though I wasn’t entirely sure why she was at our house. We hung out with the Wheelings allthe time, but we generally called or texted each other first.
In spite of the fact that Courtney was wearing shorts, running shoes, a T-shirt, and an unzipped hooded sweat-shirt, the force of her personality – her intelligence andconfidence and will – emanated from her. AlthoughCourtney was pretty, her prettiness was never the mainthing I noticed about her. Her hair was blond, like mine,but very short – she’d once told me she got it cut everythree weeks – and even in her haircut her confidence wasobvious; the same was true of her glasses, which hadaggressively nerdy thick black frames. I liked Courtney,and I was impressed by her, but I didn’t always findmyself able to relax in her presence.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 61 ‘I’m sure you’re feeling weird about the Channel 5 thing today, but you shouldn’t,’ she said. ‘That’s what Icame over to say. It’s not your fault if you have a wackadoodle sister.’ Was I supposed to thank her? I glanced at Jeremy, who was wringing out the sponge, and his expression was impassive. I said, ‘What a weird coincidence, huh?’ ‘That poor newscaster wouldn’t know seismic energy if it bit her in the ass,’ Courtney said. ‘Which tends to be thenorm with the media. Did Jeremy tell you he got invitedto give a talk at Cornell?’ ‘I did indeed,’ Jeremy said.
Courtney took a seat at our kitchen table. ‘Cool, right?’ she said to me. Then, to Jeremy: ‘Did you read Leland’semail yet?’ ‘I skimmed it,’ Jeremy said. We made eye contact, and he said, ‘Nothing interesting. Department politics.’ ‘So Amelia is agitating to eat meat,’ Courtney said.
‘Which I knew would happen eventually, but I didn’tthink it’d be this soon.’ Both Courtney and Hank werevegetarians.
‘I was wondering about that,’ I said. ‘At the park today, Courtney wrinkled her nose. ‘Gross.’ As if I were a pig ‘None taken,’ I said.
She said, ‘There’s just something extra-revolting about ham. It’s so fleshy. But we’ve always said if Amelia wantedto try meat, we’d let her, so I’m thinking we should all goout for dinner and you carnivores can show her how it’sdone.’ Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 62 Jeremy looked amused. ‘I’m guessing if she’s got ‘Okay, then you can provide moral support to her par- ‘You mean molar support?’ Jeremy said, and Courtney and I rolled our eyes at each other.
Courtney said, ‘Kate, did you hear that Justin Timberlake and Rihanna are hooking up?’ ‘I saw that online, but I’m not sure I believe it.’‘I want it to be true. They’d make beautiful babies.’ Early in our friendship, I had wondered if I should feelpatronized by Courtney’s tendency to bring up celebritygossip with me, but I had soon realized that her interestin the topic was unabashedly sincere; in fact, her know -ledge far eclipsed mine, though I still wasn’t sure whenshe had time to study up. Courtney stood then. ‘I’mthinking Saturday for meat night. You guys free then?’ Jeremy and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘I’m ‘You can tell Hank tomorrow,’ Courtney said to me.
‘And we’re cool on the whole TV news showdown? Nohard feelings?’ When I nodded, she said, ‘Tell your sisternice prayer flags.’ When Courtney had left, I let a minute pass, which probably was long enough for her to be halfway home,before saying, ‘I kind of feel like she was trying to trickme into being on her side.’ Jeremy shook his head. ‘Courtney’s just being We both were quiet, and I said, ‘I can understand her being bummed out about Amelia wanting to try meat.’ ‘Why? Meat’s delicious.’ Jeremy was grinning.
Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 63 ‘But doesn’t it make it seem like all our children are ‘Am I allowed to remind you of that when Owen wakes up at two in the morning?’ Then he said, ‘What if you godo your thing in the living room and I bring out some icecream for us? Will that make you feel better?’ What Jeremy meant by doing my thing was that every night after the children were asleep, I took a few minutesto set the diaper bag by the front door, checking thatinside it were not only diapers and extra clothes but mywallet with my health insurance card; I also charged my cellphone in the closest outlet.
‘I’m leaning toward a chocolate-pistachio blend tonight,’ Jeremy said, and I thought, as I did at least oncea day, how lucky I was that he was my husband; it hadn’tbeen a foregone conclusion that I’d marry someone kind,because I hadn’t understood how much it mattered.
I said, ‘You really think I’m a person of simple wants, Jeremy grinned again. ‘Isn’t that why you settled for Sisterland:Sisterland 7/10/13 12:08 Page 64 In April 1989, the spring Vi and I were in eighth grade, Igot invited to a slumber party at Marisa Mazarelli’s houseand Vi didn’t. While I wish I could say that I considereddeclining out of sisterly loyalty, the truth is that whenMarisa called our house, I raced to ask my mother, andwhen she granted permission, I accepted with an excite-ment that I tried to conceal more from Marisa than fromVi. I was surprised and flattered to have made it ontoMarisa’s guest list – Marisa of the long, dark, curly hair,Marisa of the large, newly constructed house with a hottub, Marisa of the scary power over most of the girls atNipher Middle School. Marisa was the daughter of theowner of an eponymous pizza chain in eastern Missouriand western Illinois. She had started wearing lip gloss infifth grade. And at a dance the previous fall, she had, dur-ing the last song of the night – Poison’s ‘Every Rose HasIts Thorn’ – brazenly made out on the dance floor with aboy named Chip Simmons. I’d already heard about theMazarellis’ hot tub, even though I’d never been toMarisa’s house, and when she told me over the phone to bring a bathing suit to the party, I felt the thrill of confirmation.

Source: http://www.transworldbooks.co.uk/docs/halo-asset-manager/files/Sisterland-Curtis-Sittenfeld.pdf

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