Soothing the Sting Of Sisterly Squabbles

By

MY sister, newly married and still in her lacy pale-pink wedding dress, kneels beside one of the open packing boxes in her new home.

''I know it's here somewhere,'' she says, stirring through the keepsakes of a lifetime. She sighs. ''You can't imagine how nice it is to have space for all my treasures.''

I nod, remembering the cramped house where she lived during her first marriage.

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''George and I even have an attic,'' Kaye says.

She smiles, and her deep- brown eyes sparkle, just as they did years ago, when she was 10 and I was 14.

Kaye and I shared a chilly upstairs room in a house built by our father. The bedroom next to ours belonged to our two brothers and was strictly off limits. My Saturday-morning job was to clean our bedroom, and I hated it. I was tidy; she was a slob.

''Come here, Kaye.'' I all but dragged her into our dressing room. ''Look at your clothes!''

Dresses, skirts, and blouses dangled askew on the rod, each one hung up by Kaye shoving the hanger through a buttonhole.

''So?'' she asked.

''So, why do you have to be such a slob? I've shown you a million times how to hang up your clothes.''

I jerked everything off the hangers and threw it all in a heap on the floor. ''Now do it right, or I'm telling.''

I grabbed the dust mop and pulled it across the old hardwood floor, past the dresser and under Kaye's bed. Along with the usual dust balls, out came orange and banana peels, dried bread crusts, comic books, socks and underwear, and an assortment of little kids' toys.

Without saying a word, I dumped everything except the underwear into two brown paper bags. Through the window, I saw flames leaping from the incinerator. I smiled and raced down the stairs.

''Stop! Please stop! I promise I won't do it again.''

I heard Kaye's footsteps and ran faster. I was on a mission.

''No! No!'' she cried, as I dumped everything into the flames. As she reached to retrieve her treasures, the soaring fire singed her long auburn pigtails. Tears streamed down her face, and she sat down in the dirt, sobbing.

My mother reached Kaye, gathered her into her arms, and chastised me for tormenting my little sister.

''Why do I have to share a room with her?'' I asked. ''Why can't she clean it? I hate her!''

That afternoon, my friend Carie came to visit. I shut the door so Kaye couldn't come in, and we sat down on my bed. Carie was lucky. She had her own room. She listened to my complaints, without saying a word.

''Are you finished?'' Carie asked.

I nodded, feeling smug and self-righteous.

''I've always wanted a sister,'' Carie said. ''Kaye's not that bad. Maybe you just need to give her a chance to grow up.''

''I'm moving into the attic,'' Kaye told me, two days later.

I smirked. ''I thought you were scared of mice and spiders.''

''I'm not that scared. Besides, Mama said she'd help me clean it.''

That afternoon, my father secured a plywood partition along the unfinished attic wall and moved Kaye's bed into that dark, cramped place. When I got home from my piano lessons, all my sister's personal belongings were out of my bedroom.

''Want to see my room?'' Kaye smiled and took my hand.

On the door hung her Campfire Girl's necklace, plus stickers, drawings, and school projects, all arranged in a pattern.

''Come in,'' she said, opening the door. She reached up, grabbed the long ceiling cord, and switched on the bare bulb. Her comic books were in a neat pile on the floor, right beside her bed. School books rested in open boxes. A large paper sack stood in the middle of the room. I smelled orange peels. Two drawers held what wouldn't fit elsewhere. A warped dresser mirror was perched in the corner.

''I won't be bothering you anymore,'' she said, ''except to get my clothes.'' Those huge brown eyes looked into mine. ''And I promise to hang up my clothes right.'' She threw her arms around my neck. ''You can come and visit me any time you want,'' she said, '' 'cause you're my big sister, and I love you.''

My stomach tightened. Tears stung my eyes. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, too, but the words stuck in my throat.

''Speaking of attics, Kaye,'' I say, ''remember when you moved into the attic at home?''

Kaye laughs. ''I sure do. I liked having a private place where I could play with my friends.''

''Everything you owned, you crammed in there.''

''Yup.''

''But it was so small.''

She chuckles. ''So was I.'' She begins to shuffle through the next box.

I shake my head. ''Kaye, you stayed in that attic for over a year.''

''So?''

I touch her arm. ''I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm sorry. Can you forgive me?''

''For what?''

''For being so unkind.''

''Goodness, that was a long time ago, Mary.'' Kaye smiles. ''Don't worry about it!''

I wipe my eyes.

''Did you find what you were looking for?'' I ask, as Kaye holds up a lavender vase.

''No,'' she says, shaking her head, ''not yet.'' Those gentle brown eyes look into mine. ''Did you?''

I wrap my arms around my sister and hug her hard.

''Yes,'' I whisper.

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