By Loretta Fox
Natalie is awesome. She’s a lot like me…and then not like me at all. Meaning, she shares my best qualities (like pluck) but not my worst (like self-loathing). She’s somehow able to make the point that my new favorite jeans from that sale corner at Anthropology don’t really flatter me at all, as well as confirm that playing dead is a fine and reasonable response to my young son’s attempts to bring out the worst in me. This incredible woman knows my allergies by heart and respects my avoidance of gluten, even though gluten is not in fact one of my allergies. She gives me salon-quality blowouts and sends me a case of wine when touring Napa or Paris or wherever cases of wine can be sent from. She offered to give my husband a hand job when I was eight months pregnant, and never questions my complicated obsession with dwarves. Natalie takes my nine-year-old boy to long dinner dates at the Cheesecake Factory so that his father and I can catch up on TiVo and lovemaking. She has her left kidney marked for donation in case I should need it. She’s the greatest big sister a gal could ask for, and she exists solely in the confines of my gritty imagination.
I’m a big sister with no bigger sister, or little sister, the oldest child with two younger brothers. These brothers will likely forever be referred to as “the boys.” The title perhaps addressing the boys’ pervasive state of arrested development. They roll their own cigarettes, squabble over the use of my dad’s Chrysler and cash in my $25 holiday gift cards to Trader Joes on jars of bean dip and Vodka of the Gods. My husband likes to say that my family is like a Eugene O’Neill play—without the laughs. I’ve decided that this is my parents’ fault for being too beautiful when they were young. I’m not sure what kind of a big sister/only daughter I am, but I refer to myself as “the closer” when it comes to my family. They’re all still in Ohio and I’m in Los Angeles where I’ve made my own life for close to thirty years. When packing for Dayton I’ve learned to allow for a box of chardonnay when considering the 60-pound baggage limit so I can hit the ground running. I fly back “home” to do stuff like:
A. Clean out attic.
B. Prod my sixty-nine-year-old mother into a nursing home.
C. Take my mother’s two little old dogs to be put to sleep, and
D. Tell my dad it’s okay to die.
Thankfully there’s no “E. All of the above.” These tasks were delivered over a couple of visits, or I might be counting the minutes to a smoke break while crafting placemats in a psych ward.
Growing up, I seldom wished for a sister. I suppose I liked being the center of girl-oriented attention. Growing older, I find myself longing for a Big Sis to take some of the heat off. I’ve taken the time to acquire a nice array of sisterly friends, most of whom put me in the big sister role. These women get to hear me say things like “I don’t give a shit how fat you are as long as you don’t give a shit how fat you are” and “Boys don’t like girls who talk too much.” They’re the ones I call when I’m cracking into that box of Chardonnay, and they know who they are.
There is one woman in my village, who’s about twelve years my senior, and the closest thing to a Big Sis that I have. Her name is Anne, not Natalie. Anne brought me a metal water bottle of bloody Mary and a tub of tuna from Gelson’s when I got hoodwinked into waiting in a 7-hour line to sign my kid up for an insanely cheap summer camp.
After my dad died, she made a gluten-free shepherd’s pie and nestled a Budweiser in between the lottery ticket and tennis balls on his shrine atop my credenza. She rolled me through Target three days after my bunion surgery and gripped my right knee throughout my son’s reluctant birth. Anne’s deserving of her own homage, but she’s the oldest of ten with six younger sisters of her own. And she doesn’t judge me. I think I need someone to judge me, the way only a real sister will.
If I’d had Natalie as a Big Sis when I was a little girl, maybe I wouldn’t have bribed other little girls to strip for me with the promise of a bag of Doritos, or offered to flash my brothers (the boys) for a quarter a peep. I might not have shoplifted thousands of dollars worth of peasant blouses and eye shadow when I was a teenager or turned into a whore in my late twenties. She could’ve shelved her judgment to help me manage the house when my mother had her doozy of a nervous breakdown while I was cramming for my SAT’s. She would’ve made me gazpacho after my procedure at Planned Parenthood in 1993, told me to sip Jack Daniels after my TV show cancellations, and treated me to a Tai massage after the three or four break-ups that really broke me down.
Certainly she would’ve met me in Florida last November to help me negotiate with my cancer-ridden father who seemed nowhere near ready to die. She might’ve kept me from noticing that asshole at Bob Evans who decided to eye-roll me while I was on my cell with my brother in that 45-minute line to pick up tomorrow’s Thanksgiving dinner. Or backed me up when it was finally my turn at the counter and it became apparent that I’d neglected to give my name when ordering for pickup. Maybe she would’ve pummeled that eye-rolling dickweed when he muttered, “What kind of person forgets to give their name?” to which I responded, “the kind of person whose dad is dying at Thanksgiving, you piece of shit, white trash, fuck wad!” It would’ve been Natalie’s palm on my back instead of the kindly woman behind me as I raved on about how “I hoped he choked on his turkey and had explosive diarrhea.”
My sister would’ve read the hospice pamphlets and known that terminal people shouldn’t be made to eat and morphine doses are merely suggestions. She would’ve insisted that I stay with Dad when he finally got transported to a hospice facility so that I could’ve been with him for his last breath, stroking the hair on his arms and humming Foreigner songs. The dark truth is that if Natalie was alive I might not even have made that trip to Florida last November, leaving the tour of duty to the eldest daughter and letting my grief remain distant, the images of his struggle not so goddamn close.
With Natalie in the mix, my dynamic would be entirely different. My son would have an auntie to treat him to naked summers with cousins. My husband, a sister-in-law to charm and beseech him. With a blood sister to be accountable to, I probably would’ve opted out of that handful of three-ways, rebel less, be more kind. I might be a better Catholic or, possibly, not a Catholic at all. She wouldn’t abide my bossiness, OCD, stoicism, fear of blood. She would dissuade me from making lists and playing the counting game where if I can get to ten-Mississippi before the refrigerator door closes then I will get a job offer by the end of the week.
Of course, there’s no concrete loss that I have to ponder and dread with Natalie relegated to my imagination. Being younger doesn’t necessarily imply that I would survive her, as death and other estrangements can take you by surprise, but I would hate to say goodbye to my big sister’s familiar face, a face like my own.
What if I was the one who had to tell them to stop giving my big sister water, to pull the plug? Going to more funerals than baby showers makes you consider these things. I’m at the point in my life where when I buy that case of Q-tips at Costco I can’t help thinking “Shit this might be the last time I buy Q-tips.”.
I’ve created Natalie so that she can be awesome, my conscience, a bridge, that niggling voice that says, “Hey babe, maybe you should have that third glass of vino with seltzer.” Or “Would it kill you to tell your husband you’re proud of him?” I suppose Natalie is whom I aspire to be, someone to tell me “Love yourself, Loretta, be grateful for the flow, smile more” and “You aren’t de-toxing, honey—that’s called night sweats”. Unlike a REAL big sister, I’m learning to listen to her.
Loretta Fox resides in Los Angeles, CA. She’s a wife/mother, writer/performer and appreciates that she can merge these realities. Meaning that she plays a lot of wives and mothers and writes about her family. She performs her essays in various venues in L.A. Loretta enjoys both collaboration and quiet moments.