My sister, Nancy, was my first playmate and is my oldest friend. We are the only ones left that remember us as children. She is seventeen months younger than I am. Before we went to school, she had strawberry blond hair that turned brunette as she got older. I had black curly hair that was the envy of older girls when curls were fashionable. Given our ages, we were rivals, always trying to outdo each other. As a firstborn son, I had more free rein (which grew freer when I became a teenager) than my sister, who had to account for what she was doing, where she was going, and with whom. The older she got, the stricter Mom became, which was not particular to our family but a general difference in the upbringing of brothers and sisters in our neighborhood.
Mom was very protective. I was not allowed to go out of our building unsupervised until I was about eight, when I was considered old enough to look out for both Nancy and me. Nevertheless, Mom frequently took us to one of several playgrounds nearby with none of the safety features we take for granted today. There were swings and we would compete over which one of us could go faster and higher. On the see-saws, using my weight, I would lift Nancy’s end and let her hang suspended up in the air, and then push my feet up so that she came down with a bump and a cry. I did this so she would get the maximum rush with a minimum of danger. On the monkey bars, we would race to see who could get to the top faster. Nancy liked to roll over upside down, hanging onto one of the bars, which I never did as I thought it felt horrible. One park we used to go to had a wall with a narrow ledge. Mom, watching intently, would let us walk along the edge, ready to catch us if it looked like we were losing our balance. Both of us loved the illusion of danger.
We played a lot inside our apartment, too. There was plenty of sibling rivalry, fighting, and yelling but never any hitting. We quickly learned not to ask our Mom to intervene. Otherwise, both of us would get swatted. I remember the earliest of Nancy’s toys was a dollhouse next to my garage, both made of scrap metal pieces assembled by our father. It was the Fifties and she had dolls and girl stuff, while I had guns and cowboy stuff. Games were great fun: Chinese checkers, Parcheesi, checkers, and jacks. Jacks was my favorite because it had stricter rules, and was more challenging to cheat at, so you needed more skill to win. Once I discovered you could control the locations of the jacks by how you threw them, it was easier to scoop them up. I won most of the time.
Some of these games we played with our cousins who lived nearby, or friends from the block. One or both of us would often cheat, and cries of "you cheated" would ring out. Cheating was part of the fun, especially if you could get away with it. You had to keep a close eye on what was happening. A classic strategy was to distract the other player and move things around. Both of us were very competitive, always trying to win. If cheating didn't work, you could always try to change the rules, ask for a do-over, or make it two out of three. When we didn't have a game handy, we just made one up. We loved playing pretend with large cardboard boxes we would bring back from the supermarket. They could be caves, trains, or cars. There was arm wrestling and feet wrestling. In feet wrestling, we would lie on the bed, lift our legs until they met, and start pushing until the other's legs bent back or somebody gave up. Nancy was surprisingly strong for her size. Part of the game was to make the other one laugh, lose their concentration and buckle.
Eventually, we left our nest. I went to the first grade at PS 102, three blocks away, and my little sister followed the next year, with me walking her there and back. Going to the same school I did and being a year behind was not good for Nancy's self-esteem. Teachers would ask her if she was as bright as her brother, not a good way to start the school year or build confidence. Dad worked on 112th Street, which was on the way to school. When it was cold, we would stop and say hi to him and warm up by the forge of the blacksmith's shop where he worked as a bookkeeper. On the corner, there was usually a cart selling hot dogs. Selling what New Yorkers call sewer dogs, because the carts were often parked on top of a sewer grate, which was convenient for dumping the water the vendors used to cook the frankfurters. We always had ours with spicy onions.
As we grew older, we started to have a circle of friends made up of boys and girls our age that lived near our building. We played Simple Simon, What's in the Ice Box, Red Light Green Light, or Hopscotch, which we called Potsy, using a flattened beer or soda can as our puck, games that kept us on the sidewalk and out of the path of cars. Whenever I see the outline for hopscotch, I wonder if I could still skip to the end triangle, jump up, and whirl in mid-air, my feet landing exactly in the two squares below. Someday, with my grandchildren, I will give it a try. We also played the card game Knucks. I don't remember all the rules, just the pain. The object was to get rid of all cards before the other player. If you lost, you would hold out a fist, and the winner would whack your knuckles with the deck, once for every card left in your hand. Or you could take a chance and cut the deck. If it was a black card, you received a soft tap on your knuckles. But if got a red card, the whacks would be hard. Not just hard, but the winner ran the deck down your arm, scrapping it before delivering the blow, flinching earned an additional fifty-two smacks, one for each card in the deck. I marvel sometimes at how we survived our childhoods with two functioning hands.
As we approached puberty, we tended to split into boy and girl groups. My sister and her girlfriends stuck closer to home, while I spent more time playing with boys near the firehouse. It seems strange now but boys only played ball games, while girls only jumped rope. When girls tried to join in our games, we told them that they "threw like a girl" and would send them on their way. Sometimes one of the boys would hop into the swirling jump rope, usually leading to much laughter when he could not get the rhythm right, got tangled and fell. I would watch with awe when my sister and her friends, singing songs and rhymes, jumped double Dutch with two long ropes. Nancy was also a great roller skater; a skate key on a necklace was part of her outfit and those of her girlfriends as they glided along the sidewalk. I never really learned how to skate. It seemed to be another of our unwritten and unspoken rules that none of the boys I hung out with skated.
I loved to scare my younger sister. She was flighty and all I had to do was hide, jump out, and shout. I loved the way she would scream and then yell at me for scaring her again. In summer, hairy caterpillars often infested the trees in Jefferson Park near our house. I would pick one up with a twig and chase her with it. Nancy would, of course, flee and shriek. Thinking back, it seems almost as if we were all part of a play in which we knew our assigned roles by heart. Brother-- jump out or chase. Sister-- scream and run...Until, one day, my clever little sister got her sweet revenge. Nancy knew it was my habit to lie down on my bed as soon as I got home from playing. Nancy waited quietly under the bed with her hands through the springs and on the bottom of the mattress. As soon as she felt me lie down, she pushed up as hard as she could, and the mattress levitated. Terrified, I jumped out of bed so fast that I almost hit the wall. It was the best prank either one of us ever pulled. More than sixty years later, we still laugh about it.
That wasn’t the only time Nancy got back at me. Once, my sweet baby sister actually blackmailed me. Mom bought me a charcoal gray suit when I was about ten. I loved it. It made me feel mature and distinguished. What made it so special was that it had tiny red and blue threads woven into the dark fabric. Mom repeatedly warned me not to play while I was wearing it but coming back from church, I ran into a friend from our block playing with a ball. We started running around, throwing the ball at each other wild to make the other miss. I lunged and made a fair catch but slipped with my knee hitting the pavement. Bang, my beautiful suit had a hole in the left knee. What to do? What to do? I had heard about reweaving but I had no idea where to get it done or how much it would cost so I tried sewing the hole shut to hide it. Using white thread was definitely not a good idea. To keep Mom from finding out, I tried to avoid wearing the suit. When she insisted I tried to stand so that my body was at an angle with my left side away from my mother's gaze. Sometimes I would stoop "nonchalantly" with my hand covering the hole, or better yet carry a shopping bag to hide it. Nancy saw right through my hopeless attempts at hiding my mistake and took full advantage. If Mom asked for someone to clear the table and wash the dishes, my sister would stare at me and touch her knee. I got the message, cleared the table, and did the dishes. If Mom wanted the trash thrown out, down would go her hand and down the stairs I would go with the garbage.
The separation between boys and girls accelerated until we reached puberty when both groups finally split apart. When my sister became a teenager, there were a lot of conflicts with Mom. They got worse as Nancy got older and our mother tried to exercise more control over her. When she was younger, the battles had been about her picky eating; then it became about her social life. Always fun to be with, Nancy loved music and dancing. She was the one who taught, or at least tried to teach me, how to dance. My sister, as all of my friends told me, was a real beauty. Being a teenage boy, I knew what that meant and became more protective of Nancy. Mom was desperate to make sure that what had happened to her and a couple of her sisters —young mothers without partners and no financial support— would never happen to her daughter. It didn't happen to my sister. Maybe that was due in part to Mom’s vigilance but I saw it was more because of Nancy’s own. Our father was ‘sick’ by then, away in a hospital ward that served the function of a nursing home today. I had to be the one to intervene, standing between my mother and sister to keep things from getting violent. The first time I did this, by stepping between the two of them, Mom didn't speak to me for days but she gradually learned that she had to control her temper.
To get around Mom, Nancy would tell her she was going to the local library to ‘study’. How could she say no? Nancy was allowed to go to the dances at church, where a priest would chaperone and I would escort her there and take her home. My sister wasn’t thrilled with the fact that I was hanging around when she was making out with her current boyfriend but she had no choice. The cold war of heated arguments between the two of them continued until my sister got engaged at twenty. By that time, Nancy was long out of high school, working, and the engagement ring meant a wedding band in the future. With less strife, being around my mother and sister became fun again. I was just Big Bro looking out for Little Sis, not the mediator in the family. Nancy’s fiancé became part of the family and used his car to run errands for us. Mom being Mom, some things never changed. She still had to know where Nancy was going, with whom and when she would be back. Me? I still came and went as I pleased. Although my Mom still waited for me to come home, even if it meant being bleary-eyed when I returned at three in the morning after a two-hour or more round trip between Manhattan (The City) and Brooklyn (definitely not The City then) to bring my future wife back to her new home. Mom could be critical about my choice of bride but Nancy always had my back. My sister and I are both septuagenarians now, a world we wouldn’t even have known in those days. We call each other most nights. When we email, I'm still "BIG BRO", she signs "lil sis."
Michael De Rosa is a writer from Wallingford, PA, who recently retired as a professor (emeritus) of chemistry at Penn State Brandywine. Interests are travel, photography, and birding. He has recently published a short non-fiction piece “Boiled in Blood” in Ariel Chart and a poem "Ten Years Old Again" in Trouvaille Review.