Debbie was an adorable child, with blond ringlets, skinny legs and knobby knees, always festooned with band-aids from adventures gone slightly wrong. She had big dimples on either side of her mouth, like our father, and hazel eyes in a striking honey gold color. She loved rough housing and anything physical, and never quite took to my sedate interest in playing with dolls. She was happiest on the swing set in the back yard, pumping her legs to achieve lofty heights, or hanging from the strong vines of the Banyan tree nearby, pretending to be Tarzan.
Debbie was younger than me by two years. We shared a bedroom from the time I was four or five until I turned ten or so. Carolyn had just been born, and she stayed in Greg’s room for all of the night time feedings and general care of an infant. In our room, there was an imaginary line down the center. Debbie had drawn it out. She liked to have control of things, and this was just one example. It was easier to go along with her plan, than to try and change it. I was her big sister, but I was generally more tractable, and it was clear that Debbie needed control, even at this young age. This “centerline” existed in many other areas of our relationship and Debbie’s general interactions with the world. I simply accepted that this was her way. She needed to be the boss, and being older myself, it simply didn’t mean as much to me most of the time. Later on, I protested when my mother shared with me that I was her favorite, but I silently carried that burden of guilt for Debbie’s sake, which colored all the interactions I had with her forever afterward.
My sister had been born with a chip on her shoulder, but from my young point of view, she’d earned it. Mom always blamed her for causing her kidney problems, as Debbie’d “sat on them” during her whole pregnancy. It was also Debbie’s birth which had coincided with it my mother’s hearing problems. She never lost an opportunity to remind Deb of this in the many years to come. Debbie felt her outsider status acutely. She was always being compared to me. And it never went well. It was always, “Look, Helen is dancing, go dance with her.”. Then there would be giggles at her sweet and childish attempts to imitate me, accompanied by not so quiet whispers about Debbie’s less than swanlike delivery. It was, “Look at Helen’s drawing, isn’t it wonderful? Let her show you how to do it.” My parents appreciated my skills, while athletic prowess, one of Debbie’s skills, didn’t interest them. I was the pretty and talented little girly girl; Carolyn was the amusing and adorable baby; Debbie was the inscrutable and defiant tom-boy. Our roles were cast early, our value as members of the family too.
Thus, she was overseer of the goings on in our bedroom. The toys and closet with more toys were on her side, the bathroom was on mine. Whenever I wanted a toy, I would have to wait until she needed to use the bathroom. This resulted, as planned, in my having little to do but sit on my twin bed and wait, playing with whatever toy was already on my side, until she broke down and had to go. She made a point of waiting as long as she could, tickled by the idea that I had to wait to claim a new amusement. “Don’t you need to use the bathroom yet?, I’d wheedle, clearly pained by the desire to get another toy. “Nope.”, she’d say grinning her devilish grin. She had no interest in the baby dolls or tea set I possessed that resided on her side. Her preference was for the stuffed animals and blocks and games that filled our room. I simply complied. I had to wait to gain access to them, as these were the rules. There was tremendous humor in this, which we both recognized, to be sure, along with a slight flavor of retribution, which I accepted as fair. Debbie was the boss, and that was that, as long as Greg was occupied elsewhere and wasn’t there to intervene.
When we played games outside Debbie laid down the ground rules. Whether it was tag, hide and seek, or Marco Polo, we went by Debbie’s rules, no matter how we protested. Even when the rules were stacked in her favor- and they often were, complaints were shrugged off. As we grew, this mode of interaction never changed.
During typical sibling scuffles, if she felt I had gotten the upper hand, she would pinch herself until it left a mark, and then run to our mother saying I had done it. While I got the prodigious spanking, Debbie would crouch somewhere within eye sight and smile at me. The mark was proof enough for my mother, and I was beside myself with remorse- not for having done anything, but for allowing my sister to put me in this situation.
She could be fiercely protective too. From her very beginnings, she stood up for what she felt was right. Once, when we were quite small, she and I had been out in front of the house when a neighbor boy approached us. I was around eight and she had to be about six, the same age as the boy approaching. The boy had flame red hair and a face so full of freckles that there were no breaks in the pattern. He was somewhere between Debbie and me in height, and was sporting a baseball jacket covered in insignias of all description, lending him a kind of tough guy aspect, at least to us at the time. The boy spoke, addressing me, “Do you know what I’m going to do with you? I’m going to tie you up and throw you in our motor boat and drive you out into the middle of the lake and throw you in!”. His eyes were on fire to match his hair and I was duly impressed and frightened. At the moment in which he’d managed to take my breath away and I was verging on tears, Debbie much smaller than him, replied, “Oh, no, you won’t!”, and socked him solidly to the solar plexus, turning on her heel as the boy crumpled on the pavement. I followed along, her wimpy big sister, grateful and proud of her guts in the face of such a threat.
When she was at her best, she was funny. She had a wry sense of humor mixed with a devilishness grin that made us all laugh. She loved to stir the pot, declaring with some regularity that one or another was cheating at a board game, often just for the rise she would get. She loved games of all kinds, Mousetrap, Monopoly, Yahtzee and cards, which never failed to raise her spirits. Competition was her comfort zone. As a pre-teen, Mad Libs were a great favorite, and she never failed to think up the best and most appropriately appalling words to fill in when asked for a noun or verb. At times like these, her laugh was hearty and unreserved. As she got older, she never lost that appreciation for a bawdy jokes and black humor. I always made sure to send her a funny card on the holidays as she didn’t appreciate the sentimental stuff as much.
She was very territorial. When we were teens, it was Debbie who could demand the most unbelievable gifts at Christmas. One year, Debbie asked for sunfish, a small sailboat, to use on the inter-coastal waterway! To our amazement, Santa delivered. Debbie would not allow either of us to use it. Her territorial nature forbade any such activities when it came to things she valued. She never used it beyond the first few days of possession and still, she would not loan it out. It was a peculiar kind of selfishness, which she never viewed as anything more than what was right and fair. We had our stuff. She had hers. Ownership was all.
Above all things, Debbie loved animals. Aside from our family dog and a parakeet, and various gerbils and fish, she had her own personal pet. There was a cat she’d discovered living in the neighborhood who had no owner. It was a lanky and underfed creature with dirty longish fur in mixed tones of black, gray and brown. Every day for months, she lured the cat in with treats and bowls of food until the cat finally allowed Debbie to pet her long coat. From there, with more food and incredible patience, she was able to pick the cat up and bring her indoors. Debbie named her Toto, and they became fast friends. No one else could befriend Toto. True to form, Debbie would not allow it, and as the cat was already skittish, the cat remained hers and hers alone. For most of the time, Toto lived outside, doing what she liked, going where she wished. When Debbie was home, all she needed to do was to call to her, and she would magically appear out of the greenery, ready to greet and spend time with her friend. By then, her general appearance had improved remarkably, and she was obviously grateful for Debbie’s ministrations. She allowed Debbie to brush and fuss over her in every way. Toto even took to delivering mice in a neat line to our side door for Debbie; a tribute to their closeness. At dinnertime, she would take Toto back outside, where Toto preferred to be. It was around then that Debbie confessed to me that she liked animals better than people. I could not blame her, even as her actions often pushed others away.
Debbie had a horror of her first baby picture. She often compared it to mine. I had been born with a full head of hair, and the picture of me was of a child who had a mild and not unpleasant expression. Carolyn’s too was mild and sweet. By contrast, Debbie’s photograph was of a completely bald baby, not unusual, as she was a very blond child, but the photographer had caught her at an unfortunate moment in which she appeared to be gazing down at something very scary just out of view. Her eyes were open wide and staring , while the baldness added to the impression Debbie described as the enormous cranium of an alien. She hated the unflattering picture, but seemed to be drawn to it. I recall many times she would bring it up as proof of the fact that she was different, I was never quite sure why. I did not blame her feelings about it, although I did my best to reassure her that it was just a bad picture, not some indication of anything else. Debbie never relented on this point, and I suspect it was because she was trying in her way to express something more troublesome.
There was something else. The bad photo aside, there was something different about Debbie. She was extremely willful and could be selfish, to be sure. She was also shy with strangers. She was territorial and could be almost tyrannical with Carolyn and me. But those things didn’t describe it either. It was that Debbie was never really joyful. She took small difficulties harder, and the good things were always less so. I knew it then, but could not have put words to it. The problem wasn’t only the family we were born into. I knew where our family had left its scars. But this could not explain it all. Carolyn and I found ways to find moments of happiness even in the household as it was. It is a coping skill which we all must devise, no matter our situation, for survival’s sake. As far back as I can recall, I have no memory of Debbie ever expressing true happiness at anything. She kept virtually everyone but Toto at arms length and was never quite satisfied, no matter what. She showed great gleefulness at winning during any kind of competition, yes, but it was not the kind of happiness that comes with feeling good within one’s own skin or with solid contentment among one’s fellows. Back then, as her older sister by only two years, I could not say how I knew that there was something wrong with Debbie, but I knew it the way you know the sky is blue. You just know.