There are things we never say about my father anymore now that he is dead. At his funeral we recalled his journeys and his optimism, not the fact that his journeys took him away from us (the absent father) or that in the face of any acknowledgement that his dreams were less than realistic he would become cruel and angry. Only my brilliant sister walked off the stage without speaking, without waxing poetic about the blurry dream my father had become. Instead she read a poem by a poet none of us knew. It was a nice poem. I am not sure what it had to do with anything. After the reading she walked off the stage and straight to her car, to drive the two days home without stopping.
I say my brilliant sister because the rest of us are not. Brilliant. Smart yes. I was an academic overachiever, desperate to be good at something. My half sister received perfect SAT scores in both math and language. Is that possible? Apparently for her. My middle sister could never finish her school work, but plays brilliantly on the viola. My youngest sister is a modern day Aristotle, obsessively categorizing everything into neat packages. She is the only one of us who can walk faster than my mother.
But only the fourth sister is brilliant. Only she can keep up the liquid satire that oozes over all of us. Only she can resist buying into the dream.
Our family dream.
By the time my half sister got married I was in my twenties. I had a boyfriend then. We stayed up all night fighting because he wouldn't come to the wedding. Maybe I knew, although I didn't know that I knew, then, that the split between happiness and life in my family would always be absolute. There would never be any integration of happily ever after as long as I remained a member of my family. He said he couldn't fly from Arkansas to New York because of the money. Maybe it was the money. I could only afford to go because my sister bought me a ticket. But none of my other boyfriends would come to visit my family with me either, whether because they knew I would become someone else in that setting, or because joining my family permanently meant they would fall off the world.
This sounds like whining. My other siblings, most of them, managed to marry at least once. Perhaps it is my unique ambivalence, torn between my history and my unrealized future, which was was at the crux of the problem.
At any rate he didn't come. My flight from Fayetteville to Tulsa was in a little two seater airplane. The only other passenger was a horsetrader who tried to engage me in a conversation about fillies. I must have seemed strange to him. A 21 one year old woman who couldn't speak.
The second leg of the journey got stopped due to storms over DC. We made a hasty landing to sit out the storm, before catching another flight to Kennedy. I arrived hours late for the rehearsal dinner. Just catch the shuttle to Grand Central, my sister had said. I jumped on a shuttle bus. It took me to the Bronx.
Look lady, the driver said, turning around. You are going to have to get out here. I can't take you to Grand Central. I got out in the middle of the Bronx and looked around. How innocent I was then. I jumped in a cab. At least I was smart enough to hail one.
It turned out to be the cabdrivers first night on the job. He couldn't find anything. He drove up and down Manhattan. He kept turning around apologetically. At last he let me out. I didn't pay him. I pulled my suitcase after me up and down the island. How I eventually arrived at the rehearsal dinner before everyone left I really don't know. But I got there in time to see my family, who had already eaten. Betsy is here! they all chorused. I must have looked rather dilapidated.
I went back to my sister's apartment to sleep on the floor with my brother in law's relatives.
My father was no longer married to the Chiquita now, but instead to the sullen potter woman. I never saw that woman smile. She either looked coquettish, when speaking to my father, or she had her lips turned down in a sullen angry threat. She used to stand by my father and point to her cheek. Billy, she would say. Billy. This was the signal for my father to kiss her on the cheek. They were as giggly as teenagers. My brothers and sisters and I laughed uproariously over their behavior.
There were three wives at that wedding. My half-sister's mother. My mother. And the potter.
The day of my half sister's wedding was spent waiting for Jimmy to arrive from Italy, where he was interning with an Italian chef. He flew in the for the wedding and flew out again shortly after the ceremony at the UN chapel. With all those wives in attendance it was wise to hold the cermony at a neutral zone, gifted in arbitration, although the real reason the ceremony was held there was because my Protestant sister was marrying a divorced Catholic.
My three sisters and I lined up for a photo as we entered the chapel. I still have that picture, 33 years later. You can recognize immediately that we are family, despite the array of coloring (some pale and light, like my father, some darkish like my mother) by our smiles. My brothers use to call these our 'gummy' smiles, and for most of my life my photographs have documented either a woman with her lips pursed to cover her teeth, or a gawky teenager with a hand over her mouth.
The cermony was lovely, and my beautiful half sister looked like a china doll in her crocheted dress. Afterwards, when it came time to throw the bouquet, my brother raced out of the reception, anxious to catch his flight back to Italy. Jimmy's leaving, my mother called in a panic struck voice. We must go after him and say goodby. Obediently we all teetered after him in our heels. My brother ran faster and faster. I never asked you to come with me, he yelled back, furious. My half sister, meanwhile, stood confused and silent in the hall with her bouquet. Where are my sisters? she whispered to my half brother. Gone, my half brother mouthed back. Just throw the bouquet. It was caught by a stranger no one knew.
We sisters teetered back to the wedding. I was embarrassed to be part of our family.Was it the sight of my mother, cozying up to the bar with my father's first wife, comparing war stories over sherry? Was it my father, as he danced cheek to cheek and groin to groin with the mother of the groom? Was it the newly wed groom's mother's husband, threatening to have my father killed? (Sal, the dentist. Were there mafia connections?) Was it the sight of the sullen potter, standing there bereft, angry and viperish? I am leaving now, Billy, she repeated over and over again. I am leaving now. My father was too tipsy to respond, except to toss his head and stubornly remain on the dance floor. Live and let live, my father called out gaily to my mother as he danced by, chasing my half-sister's quickly retreating maid of honor. My mother shook her head briefly and quickly, like a robot turning from left to right, and stormed out, looking pointedly at my younger sisters and commanding silently that they should follow her. They trotted after. Was it the first wife's bemused and distant expression at the bar? Your father, my sister in law shook her head, gets more with less than any man I know. And there he was, dancing. Bald and fat and happy. My half sister sobbing at the disarray her wedding had become.
I left the wedding and went back to her apartment and started washing dishes. It was all I knew how to do.
In the morning I flew home, tip0toeing out of the apartment before anyone else was awake, overjoyed to be reunited, even temporarily, with my own boyfriend, and our life together running marathons in the hills of Arkansas.