(This is a short excerpt from my just-completed memoir The Queen of Everything. I loved writing it, but now the hard part – finding an agent and/or publisher!)
No one teaches you how to be a sister. There are entire shelves of books and magazines devoted to teaching you how to be a wife and mother. But being a sister is pretty much on-the-job training with no role models or how-to magazines. Just Mom saying, as she runs out the door to catch the bus to her waitress job, “I only ask one thing. Try not to kill each other.”
But, like every other time in my life when I’ve had no clue how to “be” (which has been a lot) I got much of my guidance from books.
I guess this could be seen as a sort of DIY approach to life, a life learned from books. Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder were my early mentors, with the sisters in Jane Austen’s novels nudging them aside later, until Seventeen and Tiger Beat took over my teenage brain and turned me into a narcissistic little bitch who would have traded all five sisters for the complete set of Bonne Bell Basics.
In the beginning, though, there were the Little House books, and the three pioneer sisters Laura, Mary, and Carrie. If I thought my family knew hardship (when I was nine years old I had actually made a Monopoly game from discarded paper and cardboard – also hundreds of paper dolls with elaborate wardrobes) the Ingalls family had us beat by a mile. They ate deer meat, they butchered their own pigs, and they lived in the midst of Indians. They made corncob dolls, played with a pig bladder balloon, loved head cheese (I didn’t even want to know what that was) and only bathed on Saturdays.
The three sisters never spent a moment apart until the big day when Laura and Mary went to town, leaving Carrie behind. In fact, they had never even seen a town, a store, or two houses standing together. As in all good sibling rivalries Mary had pretty golden curls, while Laura’s hair was “ugly and brown.” Laura gets whipped with the strap after she slaps her sister Mary.
It was all about the thrill of deprivation, and then the just rewards, a philosophy that has sustained me for more years than I care to admit.
Ma actually irons the girls’ dresses and Pa’s shirts right there on the prairie, and she always says to Pa, “Whatever you say, Charles.” (Pa always struck me as a bit of a bully.)
One remarkable Christmas the sisters each got a tin cup, a candy, a small cake, and a penny. “There had never been such a Christmas,” Laura enthused. (See aforementioned handmade Monopoly game.)
Mary was the oh-so-good older sister, Laura the willful one, Carrie the delicate and spoiled youngest. I tried to be perfect like Mary, but had too much Laura in me. However, like both sisters, I would be “perfect in my lessons and deportment” and “learn self-denial.” I would learn (or try to learn) the joy of sharing and giving to the poor.
But once I read Little Women, I knew I was most like Jo March. I loved that she was a raving optimist with a can-do spirit who always yearned to make her own money so that she could help her family. I might also fancy myself as Meg, who was “so fond of luxury,” and who pined for a benefactor (boyfriend/husband) to take care of her (me).
When Jo states to her sisters, “Hope and keep busy, that’s the motto for us,” she could have been speaking directly to me, across the pages and the years. I have often thought to myself, when one or another of my sisters were in trouble, What Would Jo Do?
But most of all it was Jo’s spirit that spoke to me. Her determination and ambition and her fiercely loving, conflicted heart. I loved her like a sister. And maybe, just maybe, she taught me a little bit about how to be one.