Illustration by Tatsuro KiuchiOne hot day I was playing with the kids next door, and I found out that in other people’s houses older kids had later bedtimes. I was five years old, and my sister Lisa was two years younger.
I go to my mother with my newfound information, and I advocate for policy change. I am denied.
This big-sister thing is not what it’s cracked up to be. Every time we do something that we’re not supposed to do, I get in more trouble. Everybody’s always paying attention to her—she’s little, she’s cute. And we have to go to bed at the same time. I’ve had it!
So I go to my room, and I take my white vinyl Partridge Family sleepover suitcase, and I put it on the bed, and I start to pack. Into the suitcase goes Nancy Drew and Amelia Bedelia and some Barbies, and by the time I’m done, there is no room left for clothes.
But I’m leaving forever, so I know I’m gonna need a wardrobe. And I put on two pair of underwear first, because you gotta change, right? Pair of pants, pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a hoodie, a raincoat, and over it all a crocheted poncho with fringe. And I go downstairs. My mother is in the kitchen. She looks up and asks if I’m running away. I told her yes.
She’s not nearly as upset by this as I feel she should be.
She goes, “Are you going to Grandma Sylvia’s?” Which is the only other place I know. It’s not even a mile away. I can’t believe she can figure this out. She’s like some kind of witch!
I don’t answer her. I go out the front door and down the driveway. Now, remember, it’s the ’70s, and they have not yet invented suitcases with wheels, and mine’s full of books.
So with every step, I’m dragging my suitcase. I go down the driveway, left on Redwood, left on Red Oak. With every step, I’m sweating and dragging and sweating and dragging. I’m so intent on my mission that I don’t realize my mother is, like, 20 yards behind me, following and waving concerned citizens away.
Finally I get to number 73, Grandma’s apartment building. I go up the stairs, and before I even knock, the door opens.
My grandma tells me she’s very happy to see me, but I’m certainly not living there forever. And I realize my mother has called ahead and I have been betrayed.
My grandma says, “Do you want a drink as long as you’re here?”
She goes to get me some juice, and I’m taking off my layers, and my mother comes sweeping in. And she sits down in my grandfather’s wing-back chair, and she pats her lap. She goes, “Come here.” I don’t want to, because I am righteously pissed, but I’m hot and I’m five, and I get on my mother’s lap. She pushes my hair back behind my ear, and she says, “Sweetheart, what is it? Why have you left?”
Courtesy Terry Wolfisch coleAnd it all comes tumbling out: “It’s not fair and all the time with Lisa I get into trouble and she doesn’t … and we should not have the same bedtime!”
And my mother, who has always known me better than I’ve known myself, takes my hot, red little face in her hands, and she says to me, “Sweetheart, I don’t want you to be so miserable.” She says, “You came first. If it’s that hard for you living with Lisa, tomorrow morning I’ll call the orphanage and we’ll send her away.”
I can read. I know what an orphanage is. I start to cry, and I beg her, “Don’t send my sister to an orphanage!” My mother reluctantly agrees that we’ll all go home and give it another try.
That night my mother feeds us scrambled eggs and SpaghettiOs for dinner, and she gives us a bath and puts us to bed at the same time, as she will for many years to come.
And Lisa and I will grow to be two halves of the same whole, through adventures and concerts and boyfriends and divorces and death and everything. But every once in a while, we’ll have a fight. And to this day, if I turn over my shoulder and say, “Mom, Lisa’s being mean to me!” my mother always answers in the same way. She says, “You had your chance.”
Terry Wolfisch Cole, 52, is a writer and storyteller living in West Simsbury, Connecticut.
Told live at a Moth show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York, NY