MY BROTHER AND I, ages 8 and 11, were shocked when our parents sat us down in the living room to let us know we had an older half-sister. And what's more, that she would be coming to visit us in our suburban tri-level home, smack dab in the middle of the 1960s.
As my brother and I sat on the couch, my mother explained that my father had married someone else before her. It was around the time he got shipped off to serve in the Aleutians during WWII. People were confused then, she said. They didn’t know whether they were coming or going, or if they were going whether they would ever be coming back. So a lot of people got married.
This is how I got the impression that my father’s first marriage was sort of an accident, like the time I tripped over a tent stake and gashed my foot. As if a wedding could just happen to you if you weren’t paying close enough attention.
My brother and I looked at our father for comment, but in keeping with his taciturn nature, he remained silent. So we looked at each other, and after an uncomfortable pause, one or the other of us said, “They’re weird.”
It was obvious to both of us even then that our parents were weird, but the comment actually referred to a catchphrase from some comedy album we listened to all the time. We listened to a lot of them then—Bill Cosby, Beyond the Fringe (precursors to Monty Python!), Tom Lehrer, Allen Sherman. What we really meant was that the concept of a half-sister was so strange that we had no idea what to say.
So shortly after this, our half-sister, Deanna, comes to visit. I find her very glamorous. She's in high school, has curly blond hair, and wears plaid Bermuda shorts. Her nose is the same as mine (my dad’s), and it’s a little unsettling to see it there residing on someone else’s face. She and my father play par 3 golf—she likes golf--and we all go out for a restaurant dinner.
YEARS PASS, AND I DON'T THINK MUCH about Deanna or my father’s first marriage, until last year I’m at a conference in the city where my older cousin lives, and I go to visit him. It’s inevitable after a couple of glasses of wine that we start churning the family pathology. He confesses that he doesn’t have a single positive memory of his own (bipolar) father. None of the other aunts and uncles ever believed my mother’s claims that she was beaten as a child. And when your father married that other woman, your mother had a nervous breakdown and had to go home to the farm for the rest of the year.
I’d never, ever questioned the idea that my father’s accidental marriage happened LONG before he met my mother. He tripped and fell over a tent stake, picked himself up, married my mother, then had my brother and me, right? Turns out not true: My mother and father had been quite the item at Central Michigan University, my cousin reports. “He was supposed to marry your mother. Everyone said he just got drunk one night and married this other woman.”
Funny how knowing that one bit of information—how my father betrayed my mother--has caused the tumblers in my mind to turn and doors within doors within doors to open. I always knew my mother didn’t like me much. For instance, when we went on our annual vacation to visit my grandparents up north, my mother and father and brother slept in the upstairs bedrooms, while I slept on an ancient , lumpy fainting couch on the downstairs porch, a world away--even though I was the youngest, and a girl.
When I think of my brother now, it reminds me of another comedy catchphrase, when Tommy Smothers whines to Dickie, “Mom always liked you best.” Truthfully, my mother was always overly attached to my brother if she was underly attached to me. It was obvious to me that he was the more important child. But how could he be anything else? He was the one who broke through the barrier of my father’s betrayal, who by being a real child from her real body made her and my father into a family.
As for me, I suspect Deanna had a good head start when my father married her mother. And although it was hard to tell when my father was actually having a feeling, I will say he seemed to prefer me slightly.