When I was 9 or 10, we had a neighbor who lived one lot behind and to the left. Will VanZandt was my age and he was the son of Townes Van Zandt, quite a successful folk singer. I never knew he was the son of a famous singer/song-writer. Will’s mom yelled a lot. We could often hear her yelling at the dogs for barking, or at Will’s sister for wandering too far from the house, or at Will for whatever it was that he was constantly doing wrong. Sometimes he came over to play. Not much and not for long, but sometimes. One day our doorbell rang, which was strange because everyone usually just knocked on the screen door and yelled “Hello!” I got to the door in time to see my mother opening it and to see Will standing on the porch with his mom holding his arm very tightly and at a weird angle, like any minute she was going to jerk him off his feet and throw him in the air like an acrobat in a circus. I crept up and stood behind my mom, peeking around her to catch glimpses of Will. He wouldn’t look at anyone. He was just staring at the slim wooden boards under his shoes and sniffing a lot. It was the first time I saw his mom up close. And the last time I saw her. I would hear her for years and my parents would hear her parties and sometimes call the cops because my dad had to get up early to go to work.
“Tell them what you did, Will.” Will looked up at his mom. He didn’t say anything, but he was begging with his eyes. I could tell he felt embarrassed by the way he kept twisting his t-shirt in his free hand. She jerked on his arm again and repeated herself, this time slower and louder. His eyes just started to fill and he sniffed harder and faster.
“Tell them now!” Will still wouldn’t tell and this infuriated his mother so much that she whipped him right in front of us. He tried very hard not to cry. I hid behind mom’s back so I didn’t have to watch. Finally, Mrs. Van Zandt’s anger abated a tad and she turned away from her son to my mom.
“I’m terribly sorry. Will is the one who threw the farmer’s watermelons at the back of your house. He will be over to clean it up this afternoon and it will never happen again. I am so sorry.”
“Oh, it’s no problem. Really, it’s no big deal. I’m sure it will wash right off with a hose.” I loved my mom in that moment and I hated Will’s mom. I knew he was wrong for throwing fruit at the back of our house, but I could also see the fun in it- watching the big watermelons splatter their red guts all over the wood and pool like blood into the white chinked sections between the logs.
“Say you’re sorry, Will.”
“Sorry.” He apologized in the smallest voice, still staring at his feet. She let go of his arm and he took off across our yard, leaving his mother standing on our porch.
“We already apologized to the farmer. What a day! I’m really sorry this happened.”
“Oh, it’s fine. Thanks.” My mom was trying to be cheerful as she spoke. I watched Will’s mom back out of the driveway and thought how strange it was that she drove to our house when she could have just walked. But maybe she didn’t want to climb the fence that separated their back yard from our neighbor’s backyard.
As I finished my dissertation, I felt like Will’s mom. I feel that I am holding my family’s arm, yanking it, and saying, “Tell Holly what you did.” However, Will knew that throwing stolen fruit at someone’s house was wrong. My parents always believed they were doing right by their youngest daughter. And so did I.
Maybe writing about my sister and I is hard because we’re just now really getting to know each other. Or maybe I’m just now getting to know her. I think Holly has always known me, but I have only known the version of her that I created, that I fashioned out of what my parents and I expected her to be and what she appeared to be. It’s really strange. I feel like through writing 15,700+ words, through reliving some of our fights, some of our games, that I have rewritten our past. I have revised so many events so that now they don’t make anyone the bad guy. I was always the good child. That only left one role for Holly to fill. And when she didn’t respond to my parents in the same way I did, it was unexpected and therefore “bad.” I think Holly mostly just surprised my parents. They were never ready for her. And so when they finally figured out that she wasn’t what they thought she was, they always thought the worst. But all this is generalizing. There were times when things were fair and there were times when things were unfair and that is how it goes.
I am writing this because I have finished the creative part of my dissertation and I’m really not sure how I feel about it, besides feeling a little like Will Van Zandt’s mother. I am facing a lot of goodbyes in the next few weeks. Kenny leaves a week from today for Seoul. Tariq leaves a week after that for Saudi Arabia. Some of my goodbyes are temporary; some of my goodbyes are permanent. And don’t anyone dare say “You’ve got Facebook,” because although Facebook is nice, it is no substitute for a late night chat about Truth or an all out roommate bashing. It is not good for hugs or coffee with sugar. So I am trying to temper all my goodbyes with the hellos in the near future. One of the hellos I am most excited about is seeing Holly again.
She’s engaged and she’s living in a house and she has two puppies. She’s got a real job and a good relationship with our parents and she seems happy. I’m looking forward to going shopping with her and getting my eyebrows waxed and doing all the things that as sisters we missed out on the first 20 years of her life. I’m glad I wrote about us. I’m glad I acknowledged Holly’s right to be unhappy. Because for the longest time, I think that’s all she wanted. We had a really good life. And some parts of it sucked. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut would say. So it goes.