Mine, and Hers
My parents built their house, the only one our family ever lived in, over a period of years beginning around 1945. A compact, one-story rectangle, asbestos-shingled, devoid of any pretension to beauty, it faced busy, two-lane U.S. Route 11. The “Robert E. Lee Highway,” so designated by the legislature in the ‘20s, ran the diagonal length of Virginia from the Mason-Dixon Line at Washington, D.C. to Bristol, situated partly in Tennessee. In fact, the state line, marked with bronze plaques sunk into the asphalt, bisected our main street. Downtown, at what seemed to me as a child a particularly unsightly location where the multiple rail lines responsible for the city’s bygone prosperity intersected State Street, a modest rectangular arch of steel scaffolding straddled the pavement to proclaim the city’s slogan. Hundreds of incandescent light bulbs, always a dozen or more of them dead, spelled out BRISTOL, VA.-TENN. A GOOD PLACE TO LIVE. When the family car, a beetle-backed, mouse-gray Chevy from the ‘40s, passed beneath the sign on the way home from a trip to “the Tennessee side,” the axles rattled across the rusted rails with the same head-jarring violence set off by crossing a cattle grate.
Our house, on the northeast edge of town, sat on two acres of land; my parents raised flowers, vegetables, fruit, and at one point, chickens. Indoors was much smaller than outdoors; the five-room house had just two bedrooms. One was my parents’, of course, and the other my eldest sister Sara’s. My other sister Betsy—eight years older and cognitively impaired from birth—shared the attic with me.
My father had finished it out, walls, floor, and ceiling, in pine panels, with a large window filling the peaked triangular wall on one end, a walk-in storage closet occupying the opposite end, and in between, running beneath the eaves, narrow storage tunnels accessible by pull-out doors flush with the walls. The room was spacious and light-filled on one end on account of that single big window, but with no cross-ventilation and no source of heat except what rose up the enclosed stairwell, the temperature up there had seasonal extremes: meat-locker chill in winter and, in summer, sweaty airlessness. The attic smelled no matter the season of baked dust and Johnson’s paste wax applied with a rag from a round yellow can and buffed, laboriously, on hands and knees. The scent was bristly, akin to the parched wood benches in a sauna. The only thing in the room not marked off into Mine versus Betsy’s was the table between our two beds.
On my side of the stairwell that protruded into the room, dividing it less than evenly, I got the window, the majority of the floor space, the smaller bed, and room for a bigger mess. She got the door to the walk-in closet, and a dollhouse city I coveted.
I had my own dollhouse; built-in shelves on either side of the stairs held our separate neighborhoods. But her shelf was longer and had a second, lower level, supported on overturned cardboard cartons. Her neighborhood had a grocery store (fully stocked with tiny, bright-colored plastic food items, from canned soup to heads of lettuce); a one-room schoolhouse with an auditorium downstairs; a ‘60s split-level home of stamped aluminum wherein her city’s high-end family lived amid two-dimensional representations of all the most desirable modernities of the era (matching pink kitchen appliances! a couch-sized console TV with rabbit ears! wall-to-wall white shag carpet!); and three much more modest family dwellings, one of them on the lower level beside the filling station (equipped with working garage doors and mechanic’s lift) its occupants were scripted to operate.
My neighborhood consisted of a single “older” home, identical to Betsy’s gas-station owners’, of ‘40s vintage refurbished for me by Sara with furniture made from taped and painted cardboard, along with drapery, bedspreads, and cushions she’d sewn and stuffed with cotton, and a hospital, also constructed by Sara—industriously, ingeniously—from a warren of whitewashed shoeboxes accoutered in intricate detail. She’d tiled the floors with watercolor squares of chalk-white and institution-green, and furnished its many rooms with cardboard and aluminum foil examining tables, filing cabinets, and hospital beds, complete with scribbled charts dangling from each foot. Her effort and skill astounded me even then but I seldom played with this creation. I’d not asked for a hospital, and the precision with which it acknowledged the fact of sickness and death put me off it.
She addressed her toys in a non-stop, incomprehensible sing-song patter, a self-language she still speaks until you ask her what she’s talking about, while I silently narrated the troubles and triumphs of my animals and their keepers. I visited Betsy’s dollhouse city only in her absence.
Betsy played with her dollhouse people only by dusting them and their dwellings with devotional regularity, gradually building up a thick veneer of Pledge textured with inadequately wiped-away dust. I played with a sprawling farm built from several bagged and boxed sets acquired as Christmas presents or bribes for grocery store good behavior: sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs and cats, plastic ponds and hay bales and pitchforks, buckets and pumps and hard-lump sacks of grain, some full and some sagging, in a big plastic barn surrounded by miniature acres of plastic fenced field. She addressed her toys in a non-stop, incomprehensible sing-song patter, a self-language she still speaks until you ask her what she’s talking about, while I silently narrated the troubles and triumphs of my animals and their keepers. I visited Betsy’s dollhouse city only in her absence.
What I wanted, I think now, was access to the stories of the lives implied by the buildings, their objects, and the little figures inside them, frozen in a single pose and a single set of clothes. I ogled with fascinated revulsion the sterile perfection of the affluent family’s furnishings, the molded plastic mother dressed perpetually in belted shirt-dress, pearls and pumps, one hand imperiously on her hip—no matter what she was doing—lying rigid on a bed or angled into the driver’s seat of a car. I could not stop marveling at the disjunctions in scale of the schoolhouse, another of Sara’s cardboard and paint creations, in which the hand bell, the apple, and the teacher—a giant with jointed legs of aqua plastic, a literal bluestocking—dwarfed her desk and her students, some of them in swimsuits and bathing caps, others in grease-monkey coveralls or suits and ties the same color as their pasty faces. I plucked the teacher from the schoolroom to her home—she lived alone, of course, an old maid with no pets, in an apartment behind the grocery store. With the aid of her jointed legs I seated her on her pink plastic couch before the blank pink plastic screen of the television she could not see since her un-jointed waist and neck directed her gaze at her non-existent ceiling.
When Betsy left home in early adolescence for the series of institutions where she would learn life skills and be abused or neglected in proportions she knows and I can only guiltily guess at, I spent hours and hours of after-school time alone in that attic. On a record player, a blue-and-white suitcase-style ‘50s thing, I spun 78s and sang along: Ol’ Man Tucker and his supper; Buffalo Bill who’d come out tonight; the home-on-the-range where the antelope played. I fenced my own plain, worn amber and smooth from many miles of sock-feet tread, and populated it with a herd of several dozen china and plastic horse figurines, while costumed dolls posed on chairs and shelves, actors in fairytale dramas I wrote in my head, silently delivered their lines. Downstairs was my mother’s realm, a militarized zone. The staircase separating us ascended nearly as steeply as a ladder, with tall risers and shallow treads glossily varnished, a slick chute I fell down several times, once flaying the skin from the whole length of my spine. My mother attempted the stairs only when circumstances forced it, and then angrily, because of the arthritis in her knees. If she wanted me, she sent my name up to fetch me. Clutching the rail, sick-anxious about the tear that might lie waiting below, I took my time descending.
When my father was in the house, whiffs of their communication—her stock phrases, his noncommittal grunts—might drift up the stairwell. I cocked an ear like a wary animal, guessing whether and how much trouble was about to break. Mostly, though, nothing emanated from downstairs but the pervading fixed fact of her—working and fuming, or inert with despair, curled fetal on her bed or laid out exhausted in the recliner in the den.
I can imagine, now, how my mother agonized between the rock and the hard place of choosing to exile her child versus struggling alone with Betsy’s infinite un-meetable needs—her “throws” and her “spells,” we called them: recurrent bouts of unexplained vomiting and emotional hysterics—given the school system’s and my father’s complete inability to help her. When Betsy left home, she was simply gone, mainly to my selfish relief. Except for the trips to visit her, retrieve her, investigate new places, and leave her—disturbing endpoints to interminable car trips, taut with my father’s silence and my mother’s angry outbursts at him, at her, at me—I thought very little about Betsy.
No one talked to me about my sister’s fate; I was just a child.
Christine Hale holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and has taught undergraduate writing there as well. Currently teaching in the MFA Program of Antioch University, Los Angeles, her short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Arts & Letters, Prime Number, Spry, Mandala, and Saw Palm. Her first novel, Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press, 2009), won honorable mention in the Library of Virginia 2010 Literary Awards. “Mine, and Hers” is part of her memoir, In Your Line of Sight, recently a finalist for the Autumn House Creative Nonfiction Prize. Christine lives in Asheville, N.C.