When I remember my childhood, I am somehow perpetually seven years old. Of course there are memories from before this time, but they are still vague and murky, pieces of a floating puzzle.
And so I am seven, which makes my sister three or possibly four years old. We have spent the night at the Weber’s house because our parents are away. It is Sunday morning, church morning, and everyone is in a frenzy. The house is chaotic, there are things and people everywhere.
The Webers had ten girls although probably not that many yet at this point in my memory. The house was hodge-podged together out of a double-wide trailer and a bricks and mortar addition. Rooms were added here and there and people seemed to sleep in every nook and cranny. Highlighted in my memory, there was a hallway that also served as a pantry where the laundry would end up. Most days, one would shuffle through the hall, ankle-deep in laundry, unclear whether it was clean or dirty. There was a sort of “every man for himself” attitude with children frequently helping themselves to the containers of flour or sugar that sat on the shelves in lieu of an organized snack. Every day was its own brand of bedlam in the household, but Sunday mornings held special significance because those were the days when everyone absolutely had to be somewhere at a specific time.
So we had spent Saturday night and now it was Sunday and time to get ready for church. I quickly readied myself, but my sister was not moving as quickly. She was just beginning to exhibit signs of a child who was perhaps not “typical.” She didn’t know how to move quickly; didn’t understand the urgency and was rattled by the chaos around her. Mrs. Weber called out reminders for everyone to keep moving, we couldn’t be late, we were Prayertown!
Initially I divorced myself from her. I wasn’t in charge and wasn’t going to go down with her ship. She was on her own. But it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t my choice. I was on her ship whether I wanted to be or not. I was told “she’s your sister and your responsibility!” Angrily, I grabbed her and shoved her into the bathroom. Why couldn’t she just behave? Why did she have to be my problem? I ripped off her nightgown and tried to shove her dress over her head. She would have none of it. She screamed and cried, turning red and sweating with the effort to resist. Getting behind her and attempting to physically restrain her by holding her elbows back, I pulled her tights on while she flailed, acting as though I was strapping her into a straitjacket. I struggled and gritted my teeth, overwhelmed with the task and embarrassed that I couldn’t reason with her better. I was conscious of the Weber children watching me fail. I couldn’t believe how bad I looked.
And then suddenly I stopped, exhausted. I was on my knees, she was in front of me. I leaned back on my haunches, really looking at her for the first time. She was clearly spent, her body shaking as she screamed. Hot tears streamed down her face, her hair completely disheveled. She was so small, half-dressed, standing there in her standard-issue white tights. I could see every rib outlined in her chest as it heaved in and out with each breath. This moment is frozen and put on mute. She is tiny and vulnerable; I am a monster.
Then time continues. An older Weber girl steps in and helps me. We get my sister dressed and though I am conscious of the moment that just happened, I do not show particularly increased compassion. I am on auto-pilot now, just moving robotically, doing what needs to be done. We get to church only slightly late. We are perfect examples of Christianity, gracing others with angelic glow.