My Sister on the River
by Mary Jo Pehl

The moment is this:

My sister asked, “Do you think my life was ruined?”

She pauses, barely.

“I’ve been happy since then.”

We were in inner tubes floating somewhere on a modest river, a somewhere that seemed far away from anything. It was summer in Minnesota. Nearby were her three boys, clattering and rambunctious, each seeming to have seven legs and twelve arms, and letting no thought go un-uttered, no thought un-hollered. We floated. I rarely allowed myself to float. I always had to be doing something, always to be busy, something, anything, this, that, my life one giant to-do list. But I was home from New York for one week that summer, the momentary gloriousness that is a Minnesota summer, and I had decided fiercely and steadfastly to be in.the.moment.

Michelle is lean and dark-haired and brown-eyed, the physical polemic of me. She will tan effortlessly that afternoon on the water, the way she manages to do most everything. I, on the other hand, have slathered myself in 50 SPF. You can’t find any higher SPF anymore. Someone – they – decided that anything over 30 SPF was pointless, so it was discontinued. I bought all the 100, 80, 70, 60 SPF I could because you can’t put a price on peace of mind. I am so fearful of the sun, I would have worn a snowmobile suit for floating on the river that afternoon if at all possible. But here I am.

Moments are not really sequential. They flare out like sparklers and other moments scatter from the flash and leave an entire incident in their wake. My sister’s question drifted toward me. That morning I’d learned that one of my aunts had had a child when she was a teenager. She was the only girl in a family of 10 boys, living on a farm deep in the Midwest in 1940s, and she’d been sent away and it was never discussed. We’d been looking at photographs of her from those days as we prepared a slide show for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My aunt fairly popped out of the pictures. Her posture was regal, and she was stunning: high cheekbones, a full mouth, glossy, looping hair, sitting in the middle of a herd of brothers. You can’t tell if this is before or after she had her child; nobody knows. Bits and pieces of the story have leaked out, drop by drop, over the years. Everyone says it’s none of their business, the story is not theirs to tell, it belongs to my aunt to do with what she will. We seem to have decided not to know anything for sure.

My sister told me this latest revelation as we as we packed our sunscreen and snacks and towels in her minivan. She told me in a tone that suggested she was carefully doling out the information. I tried not to cry, I fought to not show any emotion because I was going to be in the moment goddamn it, not lingering in any past, not fretting for the future, and my sister asked me, “Why? Why are you taking it so hard?” Surely at this point, it could not have come as any surprise, given all our suspicions. In a moment proceeding the moment, I tried to respond just as carefully but snapped through tears, “Because Aunt Maggie has had such a life of pain, and I wonder if she’s ever had any happiness.”

When I was younger and knew everything, actual life experience and facts be damned, I voiced my annoyance with my aunt. Why can’t she keep a job? Why does she make such poor choices in relationships? She really needs to get her life together. My mother, sick of my opinions, once snapped tersely as she ferociously vacuumed her beige carpet, you don’t know the whole story. Well, what’s to know, I demanded? A person should be able to figure it out! Figure it all out, for heavens’ sake! I was young, and I would offer this counsel having no idea that people’s lives could be crippling and beyond their ken.

And in a flaring, sparkler-like moment my sister asks again, “Do you think my life was ruined? When Jimmy died?”

“I’ve been happy since then.”

Jimmy was her youngest child. He was not quite a year old when he drowned in the kind of accidental drowning that might warrant a Dear Abby cautionary tale, please, Abby, tell your readers.

She and her family lived out of state at the time and when I, my parents and other sister arrived from Minnesota late that night, she curled up in my parents’ laps and cried violently. She kept choking out, “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. I’ve ruined everything. I’m sorry.”

I idolized her when we were growing up. Everything about Michelle was dazzling: she was smart and popular and lanky and looked like Ali McGraw and that was really something in the mid-seventies. She had an amazing fashion sense, proved by the halter-tops and bellbottoms and macrame belts she had made herself – and that too was really something in the mid-seventies. Our house was on a lake and we spent summers in the water. I had to wear the only swimsuits that came in my size, which seemed to be designed by modest grandmothers from the 1800s. Someone – they – had decided that overweight adolescent girls didn’t swim. And there was Michelle, having sewn her own bikinis, and the kind of girl who could climb atop the boys shoulders and play chicken in the water. I was was fascinated by this: the only time boys ever talked to me was to ask me about my sister Michelle.

And there we floated on that dawdling little river whose name I cannot remember. My sister hooked her foot on my inner tube so we would not float away from each other. A few yards away from us, my nephews splashed and crashed and yelled insults and rules for their games. My whole child’s life I practically lived in the water, but I rarely got in the water anymore, self-conscious about being in a swimsuit and fretting about the sun, that dreadful sun. I kept telling myself just be in the moment, just be in the moment, the moment of floating down this silly river on inner tubes with my beloved nephews and my beloved sister who I never just take time to hang out with because I always ought to be doing something, in a constant state of getting my life fixed and ordered and salvaged. I worked so fiercely at being in the goddamn moment that it felt like clenching a fistful of water.

Over the years, bits and pieces of the story come out. One day I am at her house for lunch, and she slices cantaloupe. Looking at the cantaloupe, she mentions that shortly after Jimmy died, child protective services came to investigate the matter. I inhaled sharply but before I can say anything she shushed me. “It was routine.”

I said, “I wish I could take that from you.”

Chop chop chop, and she says, “If you took that from me, what would I have?” She says it to the cantaloupe.

“Well?” she asked as her inner tube twisted away from me in the current. I could see only the back of her dark head and her freckled shoulders. I didn’t know how to answer her. I wanted to say, yes, your life was ruined, you’ll never be the same, though who can ever say what the same might have been? I think I hardly knew her then, I was so much younger and solipsistic, and how could I possibly know her now? Now, these days, Michelle makes sure she never has any needs and she does her best to be everything to everyone at all times. She will not make that mistake again, the mistake of having made a mistake. So she makes herself capable and knowing about all things; nothing rattles her, she’s good in the trenches, she always knows exactly what to do, her life an ongoing to-do list that keeps her in motion. She has sought to know more than any of us, do more than any of us, be more capable than any of us at any time, so that somehow someway she can un-ruin everything.

The water was grayish brown, that color of lakes and rivers in late summer in Minnesota. The air was delicious and cool and in that tenth of a second when I can actually be in the moment, I love being in the water. But whenever I’m in water, a bathtub, a pool, a lake, a river, I think about my nephew. After the funeral, I called my sister once a week – I and my siblings took turns keeping tabs on her. We never really ever talked – we just cried. She’d pick up the phone, knowing it was me, and we’d just cry. Twenty minutes or so later, we’d say goodbye.

“You’ve been happy since then, haven’t you?”

The water swirls.

“Please tell me you have, because I couldn’t live with that.”

I didn’t want to admit that I’d been happy since then, because I was afraid she’d be furious, as if I’d forgotten or that I dare carry on. She’s my older sister, I’m not so sure she wouldn’t or couldn’t still hit me.

We pushed ourselves away from the banks when the current took us too close, pulling on the branches of the bowing trees. Sometimes I imagine diving way down, so deep in the water that somehow I come to the place where I find him, as if that’s where he is, as if that’s where he has hidden from us, as if I can pull him away and bring him back to his mother. Aha! I found him! It’s all been a big mistake! Carry on, all!

It has been going on twenty years, and in those two decades, it feels as though our family has held its collective breath, wondering if Jimmy’s death was a talisman against anything bad ever happening to us again, or merely the beginning of a slippery slope.

The day was dwindling, the sun low behind the trees, and here and there our asses scraped the rocks on the bottom of the shallow river and we laughed about our family legacy of big butts. What is this thing we are doing? What kind of activity is this exactly? Sitting on inner tubes floating in water for a few hours in space and time, paying five dollars for said inner tube and a ride upstream to where we put ourselves in the water, to then float downstream to where we began.

Loud, hand-lettered signs pointed us back to shore and to the parking lot where the minivan was parked. We paddled furiously to the water’s edge, as the boys pushed us, greatly exaggerating their labor. We splash up to the shore and Michelle muses that surely our aunt has been happy since then, who are we to say? The odds are that she has had some happiness, whatever that means, whatever that is – who knows, really?

Casually, almost an afterthought, Michelle says, “I have. I’ve been happy.”

I have seen her laughing at times in the years since her boy died. I have seen her giggle madly, I have seen her howl uproariously, her fine, tanned face tilted to the sky. I have even seen her not cry when his name is mentioned. I suspect she may be telling the truth. She does, after all, know everything.

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