With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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We knew we had a sister who was dead. Her little footprints and handprints, in black ink on a stiff piece of ocher cardboard, were hidden in a deep box above our winter coats in the room off the kitchen. Her weight and length were scrawled in blue under the tiny footprints, in our mother’s handwriting. Sometimes we’d use the bathroom scale to weigh household items so we could see how our dead sister would have felt in our arms. We’d carry around a pillowcase with bars of soap in it, exactly five pounds, one ounce. Finally we took the arms off one of my sister Dina’s baby dolls to make it the right weight. We named her “B” because our dead sister’s name was Brenda, but we’d been forbidden to talk about her if our father was present. My youngest sibling, Dana, used a purple crayon to scrawl a capital B on the doll’s tummy, hidden under her polka-dot jumper.
Brenda had been born in 1960, when our parents were both only twenty. She’d lived for a week before she’d died of a malformed heart. I first heard about her when I was six: As my older brother Darren and I were trying to fall asleep during a huge snowstorm, he told me all about our sister in heaven. He told me that he often dreamed of her as if she were still alive, living just down the road in her own rental house on a small farm she tended with her husband, a veterinarian. “She’s tall, you know, and thin, like Aunt Linda. She was the high-school prom queen, and now she’s a mother, and we’re uncles. She has twin boys named Josh and Kendall.”
I started dreaming of our sister, too. Before long all five of us were comparing our dream images of her over breakfast in whispers, as if Brenda were contraband. Everyone agreed she had dark hair and pretty brown eyes, like our mother. There were no photographs of her — only those tiny black-ink prints to account for her one week on earth. But Dad’s inability to mention her name made her presence in our house real. We often believed that we’d lost the best part of our family, someone who would’ve made us all proud. If only she’d lived, we wouldn’t be renting a farm; we’d own one. She would have changed everything. But she was in heaven, and in our dreams of a different life.
One summer day, when my siblings and I were supposed to be organizing the overalls and rubber boots in the little room off the kitchen, we passed Brenda’s prints around. Each of us wanted a turn looking at them and telling his or her own story about our sister. Derrick, the oldest, was talking when our dad walked in behind him: “Brenda has a dirt bike, and she lets us ride it at her house. Her hair hangs way down her back even when she has the helmet on.” Derrick set the footprints aside as he pretended to ride a Kawasaki, revving the engine and steering around obstacles. The rest of us had frozen in place, staring at the doorway where our father stood, taking up the entire space, his flannel chest heaving.
Darren said, “Psst,” to Derrick and dipped his head toward our father. Derrick dropped his hands from the make-believe handlebars and turned toward the doorway.
“You kids get to it on this back porch,” our father said, “or I’ll find some real work to keep you busy.” Then he saw the images of Brenda’s feet and hands lying on a pile of worn belts and dusty jackets. He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. Outside the sun was beating down on the cornfield, the tassels swaying gently in a breeze. I didn’t want to look directly at our father. Part of me thought he might yell at us, and part of me was afraid we’d made him sad. Dana bit her chapped lips.
“Yes, sir,” Derrick said, and he corralled us into picking up coats and putting them on wire hangers. Dad stood in the doorway, not moving, his eyes on Brenda’s prints on the cardboard. I didn’t know if I should pick it up in front of him. He seemed stuck there, adjusting his cap and drawing a deep breath. Then he lit a cigarette and blew smoke, and something relaxed inside him. “Get everything picked up and put away right,” he said, and he turned to go, leaving a thick coil of smoke in his wake.
“Nice one,” Darren said to Derrick. “You almost got us in real trouble.” Derrick looked dejected. He picked up the prints and gently tucked them into the box. He was about to close the lid when he said, “You guys know there’s a picture of her grave in here, right?”
I’d never thought about Brenda being anyplace other than in heaven. To consider the earthly location where her remains resided was a shock.
Dana picked up the baby-doll Brenda and clutched it to her chest. “I don’t want to put her in a grave,” she said.
Derrick explained: “The real Brenda’s in Terre Haute, in the same cemetery as Grandma and Grandpa Ellis. Mom and Dad made her headstone themselves. Look,” he said, handing the picture to Darren.
The photograph — faded and curling at the edges — was passed from hand to hand. Dana sucked her thumb, happy now that no one was going to bury her baby doll. When the photo finally came to me, I saw a little headstone, no bigger than a bag of flour, leaning to one side on a grassy rise. I tilted the picture back and forth in the sunlight that heated the enclosed porch, trying to read the inscription.
“Come on now,” Derrick said. “Dad told us to get our butts in gear.” He took the photo from me, tucked it back inside the box with our dead sister’s prints, and returned it to the high shelf. While we finished straightening up the porch, all I could think of was my sister’s tiny body underneath that pathetic headstone. For the first time she wasn’t all grown up, perfect, and beautiful, like in our dreams. As we silently shook out the coats, dust floating in the warm air, I was reminded that our sister couldn’t have done all the things we’d imagined. She was an infant buried two hundred miles away.
Autumn came, and there were hours upon hours of field work to do, and a hard-won harvest that for once left our family with a little stash of money after the bills had been paid. There was talk of a trip to visit relatives.
Dad gathered us all in the living room. Outside the tall, drafty windows I could see the bare fields, lion-colored stubble stretching to the gray horizon. Swirling leaves seemed to float on a constant billow of air, never touching the earth, as if our little home were contained inside some sort of fall snow globe. It was an early-November weekend, and the television flickered with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom: a pair of cheetahs watching over a litter of young cubs. I tried to pay attention to my father, but I was distracted by the sight of the male cheetah carrying a dead cub in his mouth.
“Better shut that off, or we’ll never get his attention,” my father told Derrick. The television screen popped, then slowly faded to gray.
All five of us kids sat on the couch. Dana kicked her legs against the rickety coffee table until Dad scolded her for it. We sat up straighter on the sagging sofa.
“We’re going to take a trip to Terre Haute so your mother can see her sisters,” Dad said. “We’ll leave in the morning. You kids need to pack clean clothes for two days.” Then Dad lit a cigarette and sat down in his worn recliner, looking more relaxed than I could ever recall seeing him, while Mom instructed us to bring our toothbrushes and deodorant and one nice shirt or blouse for a dinner out.
“What about the livestock?” Derrick asked our father.
“Old Man Shimley’s sons will take care of them. His boys are looking to rebuild a Chevy and need some money.”
Derrick nodded, as if this required his approval.
Outside, the wind blew harder, and a swarm of blackbirds swooped onto the bare ground to pick at a paltry mound of corn spilled during the harvest. I wanted to turn the TV back on and see what the daddy cheetah had done with his cub.
“Get busy packing, kids,” our mother said.
We stood up reluctantly and were about to go upstairs when Dana spoke: “Are we gonna go see her?” she asked.
Dad was bent over in the chair, untying his work boots, the tips of his tube socks stained brown by the leather. He blew out smoke and squinted at her through it. “Who do you mean, Sis?” he asked. “Your aunt Jean? We’ll see them all.” A smile crossed his smooth-shaven face, his dark eyes shimmering in the yellow glow from the floor lamp.
Dana shook her head and grinned, as if our father were teasing her. “No, silly,” she said, twirling the tassel on a throw pillow clutched to her chest. “I mean Brenda. Are we gonna see her in the cemetery?”
Dad paused, the long laces of his boots splayed on the floor. He cut his eyes toward our mother, who just shook her head and stacked magazines in perfect rectangles on the coffee table. Dad said, “Get upstairs now like your mother said, and get packed.” Then he went to the television, clicked it on, and turned the dial until a basketball game came into focus. Mom patted Dana on the rear end as we made our way toward the stairs.
When we were halfway up, our youngest sister said, “Daddy don’t know where she’s at, does he?”
Upstairs no one spoke as we packed our cheap nylon satchels, gifts from the companies whose corn seed we bought. When we piled the bags at the head of the stairs, the Brenda baby doll stuck out of Dana’s. Derrick tried to tell her to leave the doll, but Dana wouldn’t have any of it. “She’s our sister. She should come on the trip too.”
Road trips in our family were rare, even more so ones we all took together. Usually our father had to stay home to work at the ceiling-tile factory or tend the farm. So it was a treat to have both our parents up front in the station wagon on the way to Terre Haute, Mom singing along to the radio in a low voice and Dad smoking and driving at high speed. We played “I see something you don’t see, and the color is . . .” Even our father joined in, stumping us by choosing the red lighter in his pocket. Darren protested that we all had to be able to see the object, but Dad just laughed.
At a roadside Stuckey’s we ate one small pecan log roll each and shared bottles of pop. Back inside the car, Dad burped loudly, and Mom swatted him. Then she leaned over and whispered something in his ear that made him tighten his grip on the steering wheel. He shook his head and opened the window a crack to blow out smoke. Mom scooted closer, put her arm around him, and whispered in his ear again. He shrugged his shoulders and seemed to relent, even taking his eyes off the road to smile at Mom, who caressed his neck. The drone of the station wagon’s engine lulled me as we turned onto I-70, but before I fell asleep, I thought for sure I’d heard Mom say Brenda’s name.
When Darren nudged me awake, the mood in the car had changed. Dad was steering slowly down a narrow, potholed drive, gravel crunching under the tires. Blackbirds fluttered all around the car, as if they wanted in. Dana had the baby doll in her arms, twirling its gnarly hair around her tiny index finger. Darren leaned over to me and whispered, “We’re going to see her grave.” I scooted to the edge of the seat, trying to see out the windshield. The November sky in Terre Haute was just as wide and slate gray as the one back home.
Dad parked the car, and we all got out. There were frozen puddles at our feet, leaves stuck beneath the ice. Dad flicked his cigarette to the gravel and toed it out, then hitched up his pants. Mom motioned for us to follow while our father trailed us like a guard dog. We passed enormous headstones, some brand-new, others crumbling. Dana sniffled as the rest of us tried to imitate our parents’ reverence, standing up straight, walking purposefully, the persistent wind slicing between us.
Finally we came to a stop. The grass was brittle and dead, the color of sand, and the earth was sunken near the small headstone. It was strange to see it in real life after having glimpsed it in the photo. The little grave marker was chalky-looking, the fragile angel on top broken, her one remaining wing cracked. Mom began to cry and took a crumpled tissue from her purse, but she was smiling too. She reached for our dad, who pulled her to him and kissed the top of her head. “This is your sister’s grave, kids,” Mom said.
We stood beside Brenda’s grave and told our sister goodbye, as if we’d known her all her life.
Thank you for publishing Doug Crandell’s essay about his sister who died shortly after birth [“The Sister in Our Dreams,” October 2009]. My mother lost a baby girl three years before I was born. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I understood her loss. But I never really thought about that baby girl being my sister until I read Crandell’s account of visiting his own sister’s grave. I cried then for the sister I never knew.