It was over dinner, thirty years ago, that Dad first told me I had a younger sister. I was twelve. I thought he was joking until I looked across the table at Mother. Her face was rigid, her gray eyes unfocused, and I could sense the magnitude of what she was holding back.
Stunned, I nodded silently while Dad told me about Annie. He kept his voice calm as if to reassure me that my world was still intact. He said that she lives in a good hospital with other mentally handicapped children, but I imagine her tucked away in a shoe box in some dark corner of a closet. I thought our parents had filed her away in their minds and expected me to do the same. “That’s how it’s done,” they seemed to say.
Though I never saw my sister while I was growing up, I sometimes wondered about her. Was she as thin as I, Did she braid her hair, too? I remembered Mother had said something about water on the brain. Years later, Dad told me that the doctors believed Annie would die shortly after birth. He and Mother debated whether to bring her home. Finally, they decided she’d be better off living “with her own kind.”
Perhaps they were right. Ours was a polished world, rooted in self-restraint. Our house felt like a museum. The furniture was dark with age and laden with family history. Flower arrangements came from the florist, and a stiffness in the air discouraged easy conversation. Outside, the elegant garden was immaculate. Tidy clusters of iris stood in a sea of yellow daylilies. Peony blossoms were held aloft on stakes, and vines of flowering clematis clung neatly to a pair of arched trellises. Unblemished by weeds or fallen leaves, it was a model garden.
There was no niche for Annie at home. She’s have stood out like a weed in a proper English garden.
In 1993, I finally went to meet her. I was thirty-six. I went knowing little about her likes and dislikes, except for tidbits I had gleaned over the phone from a social worker: her favorite color, red; her dress size, ten.
I found her home in a line of brick row houses not far from where I’d grown up. The curtains in the windows were closed. The tiny porch was shedding its paint; the child-size garden bed out front was a barren patch soil.
I sat in the car for a moment, feeling uncertain. Then I started across the road carrying a shopping bag full of presents. Earrings, chocolates, a red pocketbook, sweat-pants, red tennis shoes. My heels tapped along the pavement, then up the three front steps to her house. Lanky men smoking cigarettes on a porch next door followed my movements with dull eyes.
The social worker ushered me into a dimly lit room. A TV blared from the corner. Several young women approached me at the same time. There were four of them. They peered up at me, jostling each other for a better view. I scanned each face, confused. “Annie?” I said to them all.
The women became silent. Then one of them grabbed my hand, and there she was, looking as startled as I felt. There was something familiar about her face. We had the same brown hair and green eyes, though her complexion was pasty and she was shorter than me. I handed her the bag of presents.
Annie looked right into my eyes. “I’ve missed you,” she said loudly, her voice husky as a schoolboy’s.
“Annie, open your presents,” the social worker said. “See what your sister has brought you.”
Annie tore the wrapping paper off each present eagerly. She hugged the pocketbook to her chest. She asked me to put the earrings on her and then admired herself in the mirror. She pulled the sweatpants on under her skirt and danced around the room. When we went upstairs to her room. She chattered to me as if she’d stored up words for years. She gave me a pad of paper and asked me over and over to write down my name, the date and the exact time I would call her the following week.
Five years have passed. Seeing her often, I’ve become used to Annie. I’ve learned to hear her say “I’ve missed you” without cringing at the emotion in her voice. I’ve been delighted when she announces, “I’ll see you next month, don’t you worry.” And when she leans over and sniffs me, announcing loudly, “You smell good today,” I no longer stiffen with embarrassment.
Today, as I drove her to my house, I said we’d plant some flowers. She said, “I’ll watch you.” But when we arrived, she said, “Okay, buddy, I’ll help you out. Yes, I will.” She’d already spotted the marigolds waiting beside my bedraggled garden.
When she moved the little plants into the holes I had dug, I flinched. She gripped the stems with her fist and ground the roots into the dirt until I put my hand over hers. She relaxed her fist, looked straight into my face and said, “Am I doing good?”
“You’re doing great!” I said quickly, padding dirt around the flower. My words sounded shrill to me. I was afraid I’d offended her. But she had already grabbed another plant.
She cupped the flowers in her hands and thrust her nose into the tiny polished petals and wisps of green. She breathed them in as if she were breathing in the fragrance of the world. “This flower smells good,” she said. Her face lit with pleasure. Then, stepping closer and holding the plant out like a gift, she pressed it against my nose and lips. I sniffed the flower in her hand. Breathing in the marigold scent, I could almost taste its briny bitterness sliding down my throat. But the delight Annie took in presenting it to me was disarming. Something seemed to lift, softening the barriers raised by years of separation. For a moment, the flower resting in the cup of her hands was all that mattered.
Now, after taking Annie home, I pause to admire our marigolds. Only a few of the tufted yellow heads hang from their stems. I hardly notice that some of the tiny blossoms are crushed. Most of the flowers will surely survive. For there is a whiff of Annie’s presence all around, a vitality and a bittersweet bite to the air. No doubt our parents would think this bed of marigolds an eyesore. But to me, it’s perfect.
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