I grew up not having all the things I wanted and often spent afternoons imagining I lived a different life, a shiny new store-bought life that was my exact size, that wasn’t on sale and hadn’t been worn by somebody else first. Nearly everything was given to me as a generous hand-me-down, either from my incredibly beautiful cousin in Connecticut, who presumably lived in a mansion, drove a life-sized Barbie convertible and had perfectly feathered bangs at all times or was a great bargain found by my mother in St. Mary’s basement thrift shop or in rarer occasions, in the clearance bin at Zayre’s.
I would hole myself up in the bedroom my little sister and I shared, lying on my bed staring up at the bottom of her bunk, half wishing I could find a more legit way to make out with Kirk Cameron other than slobbering all over the glossy poster taped underneath her bed and wondering what was for supper. I always took the bottom bunk because I wanted my Tiger Beat posters to be the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes each morning. Ralph Macchio’s smoldering gaze piercing right through the sticky layer of hairspray I applied to my mullet the night before, as he made me feel beautiful and never judged the crooked teeth my parents couldn’t afford to straighten. My little sister never argued when I demanded the bottom bunk and she never cared when I kicked her out of the top bed because I wanted to dangle my foot over the side so she could rub it. And she would, for hours. We’d lie in our bunks, rubbing feet and arms, quieting the giggles into our pillows or pressing our ears to the Panasonic cassette player as Rick Dees counted down the hits on WDHP way past our bed time.
I often fumed at my parents for not buying me everything everybody else had, or what I thought they had, as if they were trying to ruin my life on purpose and they didn’t even care. It’s almost like they didn’t even understand that my ability to grope up the glassy walls of an adolescent social structure depended on me having new, not hand-me-down Guess jeans and a real salon perm, not the home perm given to me by my Mémère who insisted on using the smallest curlers possible and always left it in an extra half hour so it “would take.” The only person who didn’t point and scream or try to set my head on fire was my little sister, going so far as to ask Mémère for the exact same perm. And as she proudly paraded her own magnificent display of knotty curls that smelled of Ogilvie and Finesse conditioner, I remember feeling both mortified there were now two of us with poodle hair and relieved I didn’t have to walk through this alone. And in my little sister’s eyes, our hair was pure perfection.
I spent so much time feeling like I was missing out on things, new things, fancy things that weren’t homemade. Like shirts and haircuts. And my very own Cabbage Patch Doll, which was all I could think about in grade school, a sweet chubby Cabbage Patch Doll named Fiona Denise all my own. My sister and I waited for what felt like an eternity for our very own dolls, begging our mother for one each time we walked past the toy aisle in Ames. The Christmas Eve I’ll always remember, my sister and I ripping open those boxes (which were sent from our family in Connecticut, again who I presumed lived in castles built from glass coffee tables and were filled with fancy plastic fruit and ruffley pastel colored bed skirts) as we pulled down the dolls’ pants and squealed with happiness to see Xavier Roberts’ signature on their squishy butt cheeks. They were real Cabbage Patch dolls! That moment of sitting next to my little sister, holding our new babies, has firmly imprinted itself on my heart, either making it all the more special or reaffirming that new, expensive things wouldn’t happen to me very often.
Closing my eyes and allowing the memory to continue, my sister and I spent Christmas Eve snuggled in one twin sized bed, too excited to be far away from each other and our new babies, reveling in the glorious disbelief that this was actually happening.
The older we got, the more expensive the trends became, some of which our wonderful parents could afford, many they couldn’t. And although we were never without what we needed, my sister and I had to work towards many of the things we wanted. Whether it was earning money by picking potatoes together (a long-standing Aroostook County tradition now faded in our memories of cool September mornings, barrel tickets and lunch boxes full of Vienna sausages and orange soda) or sharing babysitting jobs, between the two of us earning enough for a combined closet full of jeans sized so that I could wear them a little small by stretching them and she could wear them a little big with a belt to keep them up. And as the age of 90’s grunge came upon us, we found flannel and ripped corduroy was thankfully one size fits all.
My sister and I shared so much, often because there was only one of something and mostly because that’s just what sisters do. We shared. We shared the experience of growing up without the luxury of many things, secretly sharing the desire for things and staying awake into the night dreaming aloud of what it could possibly feel like to have them. We knew our lives would be better if only we had everything our friends had, twisting our fingers around the dry kinks of permed hair, imagining how glorious we would look if only we had a crimper and hot rollers.
For my next birthday I was given a lavender colored crimper and my sister soon landed a set of hot rollers. (I could tell you we stopped abusing our hair after the Unfortunate Crimping Incident of 1990 or two months later when we had no choice but to cut three hot rollers out of my hair, but the age of peroxide and Sun-In was fast approaching and I spent the later part of my teen years with orange hair, much to my little sister’s absolute delight.)
And so it went. Our firsthand experiences often accompanied by secondhand things. And for those few short years of my childhood and adolescence I put so much energy into wishing I had more, pleading with my devoted, hard working parents to give me more, not always seeing the abundance they tried so tirelessly to wrap me in. We were a family of five living on a public school teacher’s income, in a house built off the land and the things I thought I wanted didn’t come from the woods. They came in brightly colored packages, from store shelves, in plastic neon boxes and also smelled like Strawberry Shortcake and Blueberry Muffin.
I spent so much time wanting, not realizing the fleeting moments of my childhood would soon be followed by a lifetime of adulthood, adult-sized things, responsibilities and relationships, relationships that continue from the few short years of my youth into the longer, more appreciative years of my adulthood. The most important relationship being the one I share with my little sister.
For every memory I delve into, she is there looking up at me, mostly because she was shorter than me but also because she adored me, worshipped me and wanted to be with me, to be just like me. Whether I was holding what I’d always wanted in my hand or wishfully circling it in a magazine, she was there, ready to take my hand and play, with or without things.
I didn’t need a nightlight because she was there to walk me to the bathroom when I was too scared to walk in the dark. I didn’t need a full length mirror because she would take one look at me and absolutely gush over how fabulous those second-hand acid washed jeans made my hips look. And then she would patiently wait for her turn to wear them, even if they were a little stretched. She would also wait patiently for the bathroom, as I finished my hair, and never missed a chance to remind me how good my bangs looked when I teased them straight up like that, no really, they frame your face perfectly. Who needs a talking Alf doll when you have a talking little sister.
I remember a handful of the things in my childhood, some special toys, gadgets, fads and possessions of those few years. Maybe they were very important to me at the time, I’m sure they were. Some more than others (like the sterling silver “Renée Loves Joe” necklace I wore around my neck for three years) which, by the way, was an undying testament of my true love for Joey McIntyre and if only I could have afforded NKOTB concert tickets I would have surely told him how I felt and things would be much different for me today. My sister knows. She laid in bed so many nights listening to me sob away the pain of my unrequited love. She didn’t have much advice but usually gave me a gentle arm rub and never complained that I played Please Don’t Go Girl on replay for three hours straight while sobbing about how perfect Joey and I would be together.
I never did get a chance to meet him and I think the more time that passes the better. I only cry myself to sleep over NKOTB once, sometimes twice a week these days.
It’s not the things I remember about my childhood. It’s her.
And here I am 20 years later with children of my own, things of my own and my little sister is still in every one of the memories I’ve made since then. She doesn’t rub my arm as much as I’d like her to but she is always with me, sometimes she was with me in hand-written letters to college when I was scared and lonely, sometimes it’s her voice on the phone making me laugh, listening to me cry, reminding me that the 80’s never actually went out of style and to go for it, and most days she’s with me through misspelled text messages about how she wishes for a maid, that she has a fresh pan of brownies which needs taste-testing and that we shouldn’t worry that our boobs aren’t so perky anymore because our hair is still fabulous and also can she borrow my crimper? With her arms around my waist on girls night out, her kisses on my cheeks on coffee dates and even though she’s now the same height as me, I can still feel her looking up at me. I can hear the sounds of her 1994 cheerleading pom-poms rustling as she makes up a routine just for me, using all the letters in my name to spell something dirty and wildly inappropriate, I know she’s there. Also, she really does make up cheerleading routines in my living room, my children looking on with expressions of both admiration and alarm that their Auntie can still jump so high and yell so loud while smiling. It usually ends with my 15 year old daughter begging her to never wear a skirt that short in public again.
No, my parents didn’t give me everything I wanted as a child, but they gave me the one thing I needed: a best friend for life. The kind of best friend who actually makes all my decisions for me, both good and bad (and despite what she says, she’s responsible for 75% of my bad decisions). The kind of best friend I tell everything, even if I tell you I won’t tell anybody your secret, my sister doesn’t count because the second I hang up with you I’m calling her. It’s what best friends do. And now well into our 30’s, each of us slightly wiser and with a few more wrinkles, (but sadly without permed hair…for now…) our favorite thing to do is still rummaging through a bag of second-hand jeans, picking out the pair most likely sized in between me stretching them out and her needing a belt.