A big sister is a boon and a blessing to a boy, especially a sickly, bedridden little boy such as I was once upon a time. Five years older than I, my sister Kathy entertained me through my rheumatic fever months, playing with me and my dinosaur and cowboy figurines, innumerable games of SKUNK and COOTIE which she ALWAYS managed to win and read to me from THE CHILD'S WORLD series of books that came with our Encyclopedia Britannica - stories of Johnny Appleseed, King Arthur, Confucious and so much more. 50 years later those books are still my prized possessions. Then Kathy did an amazing and wonderful thing- she taught a four year old how to READ! I don't know whether it was out of love or to get out of reading to me, but I will always be grateful. She opened up a whole world that has given me comfort and solace throughout my life. Later, when I was able to walk again and started school, Kath would take me with her to the Catholic movie night at Holy Ghost Church and explained to me all about First Communion and other esoteric matters.
One day whilst buying penny candy I was puzzled by the fact that I was only charged nine cents from my dime when I knew I had counted out ten penny pieces. Later that night I found the missing piece, a red licorice whip, in my pocket. I had put it there because my small hands were full and then forgotten about it. Of course, I realized in a flash of terror-ridden insight that I had inadvertantly stolen a piece of candy and was going straight to Hell. I couldn't tell my parents so I turned to Kathy.
"Am I going to Hell?"
"But it was an accident! God knows that!"
"What if I return it tomorrow?"
"Or...we could eat it..."
We stared at that red licorice whip for what seemed like hours, and finally, like a scene re-enacted from The Garden of Eden, Kath convinced me that the deed could not be undone and she solemnly divided it in half. Nothing had ever tasted sweeter.
Since we were both now condemned to a life of perdition, Kathy saw no reason not to explore its possibilities to the fullest and we made frequent trips to the store where she surreptitiously filled my pockets with stolen goodies. Sometimes we sold the take at double the price. Oh, we were going to Hell all right and my nights were filled with images of the fiery fate that awaited me thanks to the descriptive powers of the Blessed Nuns of Holy Ghost Academy.
"I've got to tell Mom," the burden of guilt was too heavy to bear.
"No you don't," said the wiley sister, she had been expecting this and was ready with a solution. She had it all figured out. "We just have to tell Father McIlhenny that we stold the candy at confession and he'll give us a hundred Hail Mary's and fifty Our Father's and tell us not to do it again and we're forgiven."
"Yep, completely erased - like chalk from the board. McIlhenny's God's emmissary here on earth and what he says, goes."
"But he'll tell our own Father!"
"Nope. Can't, its against the law. Its called confidentiality."
So we confessed and got the expected penance and, at least my own contrition was heartfelt.
I was seven and Kathy was twelve when our Mother divorced our Father and remarried. We got our first taste of hell then and Kathy didn't stick around for the full course. She ran off and got married at fourteen, and God Bless her stayed that way. I didn't blame her for finding the escape hatch but of a sudden she was no longer just my big sister but David's wife and then little Davy's mother and then Dawn, Donny and Dee...and then the grandma of 15, and then...gone.
There's an old black and white photograph of my sister and me, taken at Famous & Barr (the St. Louis "Macy's) during Christmastime. I'm on Santa's lap and she's standing right beside me as if to say "It's all right, he's not going to eat you..."
I'm sure that without her presence I'd have screamed bloody hell. But she was there, hand on my arm, always older and wiser, always braver, always...leading the way. And that's what big sisters are for.
I will miss her...oh, how I'll miss her.