Part One in a new series about brothers and sisters I have adopted throughout life as an only child.
I adopted Susan as my sister when we were two years old, in daycare. It wasn’t daycare, really, not in the modern sense. We didn’t have a certified childhood education specialist preempting our literacy development, rudimentary mathematics, and confidence-building socialization. We had Carla, the kind, middle-aged woman from across the street, under whose dining room table we took naps, whispering to each other from opposite sides of the fake Persian rug. It was Rainbow Bright and Spaghetti-Os daycare. Carla, whose bushy brown hair resembled an Elizabethan headpiece, sent us home with vivid orange mouths each weekday to our single, working moms.
Susan was a natural choice for an adopted sister. Her real sister was a decade older than us, already edging into preteen disaffectedness, reading Seventeen cross-legged on her bed, stereo playing, door closed (yes, we secretly worshipped her). Susan and I also shared a birthday. Susan was older by fourteen hours and six minutes, a fact I resented until our twenties. That our parents were both divorced made it irresistible to posit theories of twinhood, one of our mothers having an affair with one of our fathers, producing us, and then splitting us up for cover. Divorce apparently made us numb to things like infidelity and conspiracy. When our mothers put an end to it–“Who the hell do you think we are?” my mother said at dinner, lighting a cigarette–we tried to become stepsisters by setting Susan’s mother up with my father. Seven years old and broke, we picked wildflowers and put them in a vase with a forged note. I couldn’t get my father’s left-handed print to look right, and the ruse never got off the ground.
We looked nothing alike, of course. I was tall, working my way towards plump, with frizzy brown hair and eyes the color of black coffee. Susan was short and spindly, with luscious, dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and a ski slope nose I still think is the prettiest in the world. If we were twins, even in our imaginations, we were undoubtedly fraternal.
It worked to our advantage that our mothers became friends, too. While Susan and I donned costumes and smeared pilfered red lipstick on the mirror in my bedroom, our moms drank boxed white zinfandel and smoked. They talked single-mom talk–bosses who made their daytime lives hell, daughters who made their nighttime lives hell, child support payments, houses in various states of disarray, fatigue, depression, anxiety, anger. My mother’s sense of the dark comedy that was our life was better honed than Susan’s mother’s, so we spent most of our time at my house, where we had more privileges and less yelling. Not wanting to part at the end of the night, we devised a fail-safe system for sleepover requests: we counted our mothers’ glasses of wine. At number three, we struck. We tiptoed into the kitchen and handed our respective parent a note.
Can Susan please spend the night, pretty please with carrots and peas? I’ll take out the garbage and dust and vacuum the whole house. Circle yes or no.
Mommy dearest, can I please please please please spend the night at Amy’s? Pretty please with hot chocolate, whipped cream, and three cherries? Yes No Maybe.
As soon as we got our way, we fought. I was an overly sensitive child who cried easily and couldn’t take a joke, and Susan was a ball-buster. I can’t remember that our fights were about anything more than that. But once feelings were hurt, we were likely to push each other, scream, and swear we hated each other, just like real sisters. My mother’s penchant for doting on any child that wasn’t her own made these fights fraught with extra sensitivity–deep down, I had grown accustomed to not sharing my mother, and nothing could make me feel as unsafe as the thought of her loving anyone more than me. When she took Susan’s side–and she always took Susan’s side–the knot of worry that I would go through life alone tightened inside me.
When I was ten, my mother had a breakdown during Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house. Wordlessly, she began crying at the table, great, silent sobs that shook her shoulders, her head bent over her plate. My aunt and grandmother led her upstairs, and when they returned, my grandmother told me I would be staying with her and my grandfather for a while. “Your mom needs some time to herself,” she said.
I stayed with my grandparents for a week. Every meal invariably included red meat, something I never ate at home. My grandfather critiqued my table manners. “Elbows off the table,” he said. “Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food.” Each morning when I woke in my grandmother’s sewing room, sunlight weak through the pleated coral-colored curtains, the sinking feeling that my mother wouldn’t return grew stronger. I didn’t know how to deal with this fear except to cry, an act not well tolerated in my grandparents’ reticent house. “You’re not a baby,” my grandmother said, “so stop behaving like one.”
Towards the end of the week, my grandmother took me along while she ran errands. We drove my great-grandmother’s seafoam green Chevy, a car that steered more like a boat and had a clean, minty smell I can still conjure in my dreams. Sitting in the Grand Union parking lot, her long fingers curved around the thin, hard steering wheel, my grandmother told me that I was the reason for my mother’s breakdown. “You’ll have to grow up, Amy Lynne,” she said, using my middle name for emphasis, “if you want people to love you.” I stared out the window at the slushy parking lot and said nothing, even as the air in my gut went straight out of me.
I don’t know if it was this or puberty that kicked my obsession with people liking me into high gear, but around this time I began letting my insecurities run wild. At school, I desperately sought popularity, kissing up to the Lindsays and Lauras that ruled our class. I spent Thursdays with my father and took advantage of his cluelessness, preying on his penchant to show love through money. We took epic trips to the mall and returned with bags of clothes from The Limited and Gap. My mother’s face would fall when I came home, arms loaded with Daddy’s love. She didn’t like watching me get spoiled, especially by the man I had come to worship because he wasn’t around enough to hurt me like she could.
Susan’s mother, on the other hand, gave new meaning to the word “thrifty.” Determined to pay off their house and save for retirement, she took Susan to K-Mart for new clothes. Susan’s father had all but disappeared–he showed up every other year or so for a lavish visit, only to vanish into another chapter of his new life near Lake Placid. If anyone had the right to feel lonely as a kid, it was Susan, not me. While I grew more sociable, hanging on the periphery of cool kids and chasing boys, Susan grew quieter and more detached from the cliques forming at school. She hardly ever raised her hand in class or participated in extracurricular stuff, possibly because she really had no interest, possibly because her mother wouldn’t let her do anything that cost money. A Czech immigrant whose family fled to Germany at the start of the Cold War, Susan’s mother was practiced at living without, and passed minimalism on to her two daughters. Every other year, Susan’s mother would take the family back to Germany to visit Susan’s Oma and Opa, and I complained to my mother that we never took trips like that, all the way to Europe. I’m embarrassed to remember my jealousy when Susan would leave for two weeks in the summer and return with bars of chocolate thick as a book and wrapped in paper with another language written on it. In reality, because she did not speak German, Susan’s trips overseas were hardly more exciting than her life at home.
As our priorities grew more disparate, Susan and I saw less of each other. We still walked to school together during junior high and high school, but we had increasingly shallower conversations as we crossed the railroad tracks over Nanticoke Avenue, cut through the sparse backyards on North Street, crisscrossed the potholed parking lot of Philly Sales. Though I was actually just a patsy for popular girls–I did their homework, wrote their papers, gave them my mother’s stolen beer–I pretended to Susan that I fit in, bragging about parties I went to, guys I flirted with, substances I consumed. Every time I made out with someone, I told her every salivating detail, acting as though I was growing up faster than she was, pitying her for getting left behind. Either because she was kind or because it was easier, Susan said almost nothing during these dish sessions, letting me believe her silence was envy and not indifference. While I was out gathering “friends” and boyfriends, Susan began working part-time at K-Mart when we turned sixteen. That’s where she met Bob.
Bob was twenty. An almost five-year age gap was a huge deal when it came to a junior in high school. Susan’s mother went ballistic over the relationship. She called my mother to report catching Bob in Susan’s bedroom, Susan sneaking out to meet Bob, Susan and Bob continuing what Susan’s mother had strictly forbidden. In addition to learning what she could live without, Susan had also learned from her mother a fierce independence. Her personal rebellion wasn’t expressed with black clothing, body piercings, or tattoos. By the time she met Bob, Susan didn’t care what people thought of her, who she dated, or what was “normal” for a teenage girl, even when it came to how she pissed off her parents. She cared only about being happy. And Bob, a gangly, bespectacled artist who loved heavy metal and black humor, made her happy.
Susan and Bob circa 1999
For a few months, Susan and I had more than our history in common again. She had a boyfriend. And she was thinking of sleeping with him (I had rather notoriously lost my virginity the previous year, one of the first girls in our class to do so). Though we still only shared the occasional walk to and from school–I got rides from boys with cars whenever offered–we were finally having two-way conversations again. Susan’s perma-scowl receded from her clear, makeupless face, replaced with a giddiness I hadn’t seen since we last opened my costume chest and put puffy green wigs on. Then, as suddenly as the onset of her glee, Susan stopped walking to school.
My mother knew before I did. She sat me down at the kitchen table one night when I returned from a party slightly buzzed and sporting swollen lips. “Susan’s mom called,” she said, a full ashtray in front of her. “Susan’s pregnant.”
By the time she began to show, in the middle of our senior year, Susan had become nearly invisible to the rest of our high school’s twelve hundred students. She recently made a crack about how she showed up to Economics in sweatshirts to hide her growing belly, and nobody noticed anything different about her, that her slightness had ballooned underneath those layers of fleece. Only a handful of her closest friends knew she was going to have a baby, and maybe because it was Susan, because our friendship had become something private and compartmentalized from the rest of my social life, I was actually able to keep her secret. She gave birth to her son, Devin, in early spring, finished her coursework from home, and graduated on time. To this day, I bet plenty of people from the Class of 2000 still have no clue there was such a scandal among them.
I visited Susan in the hospital the day after she gave birth. My mother has a picture of me holding Devin, a garish shade of purple adorning my lips. I clearly attempted to straighten my curly hair, which hangs in a bushy ponytail down my back. The red sweater I’m wearing is the cropped style popular that year, a terrible cut for my high waist and hips. In trying to look like everyone else, I just look ridiculous.
It’s funny how people grow apart only to grow closer again. In the years after high school, when I went to college and then graduate school, and Susan and Bob had four more boys together, I shed most of the friends I had back home. I have no idea what those Lindsays and Lauras are doing now, though I bet they think back on high school and scoff at their former selves, too. I don’t know if it’s quite the same for boys, but girls from suburbia have a giant orbit of self-knowledge. It leads them out into the nothingness of identity and only very slowly draws them back into something recognizable, something that feels right again. Few of us escape the pull of that orbit. But Susan did.
Susan and Bob got married by a justice of the peace almost a year after Devin was born. My mother and I both attended. I felt honored to be invited to the small, informal ceremony, to eat cake at Susan’s mother’s house afterward, the house now fully paid off. As her grandsons came into the world–first Devin, and then Cooper, Mason, Jaxon, and newborn Kaiser–Susan’s mother would take the money she scrimped and saved through years of wanting, and help Susan and Bob buy a house in the country where their family could stake a small, but rich claim of the world together.
I now teach freshman writing and learning skills development at a private liberal arts college about an hour from where Susan and I grew up. School, as it always did, continues to structure my life, offering me routine, offering me chances to outshine others and accumulate praise, chances to belong to a group of like-minded people, academics nowadays. Other than my half-identity as a struggling writer, I’m as conventional as they come–educated, ambitious, and now, newly married to an equally educated and ambitious man. If my husband and I have a child before I turn thirty, we’ll positively reek of normalcy. Susan will barf.
For her part, Susan’s Facebook page does the finest job describing where she has landed:
I am who I am and I won’t apologize for it. 😉
I am an against the grain, on the fringe, vegan, breastfeeding, baby wearing, sleep sharing, non vaccinating, unschooling, pagan, hippy mama to 5 awesome boys. I couldn’t have said all that even four years ago. I am always educating myself so that I can make the best choices for my family.
I am married to my partner, my soulmate, my strength, my rock, my best friend. I am one very happy girl.
Susan uses the term “unschooling” for the education her five boys receive at home. It’s unstructured for sure–no lesson plans, no exams, no formalizing of any kind, even in a basement or garage classroom. Her children learn by living, as Susan says, helping their mother total grocery bills, helping their father restore vehicles, helping their grandmother garden. If you subscribe to the rigors of conventional education, like most Americans, you might be unsettled by this learning design, or non-design. As a teacher, I didn’t quite know what to make of it either, though I certainly knew better than to question Susan’s decision. She would have told me to fuck off and mind my own business.
But I’ve spent time with Susan’s family, especially since my husband and I moved back to upstate New York, especially since I’ve realized that the people who love you best are the ones who don’t expect you to be just like them, like Susan, like my mother. Bob had an art show at a local bookstore last summer. I stopped by to show support and say hi to my old friend, my first adopted sibling, my only twin. Susan had her hands full with Jaxon, her two-year-old, who had just discovered that pulling his pants down in public is funny. We stood around hiking up Jaxon’s britches and catching up, when suddenly her oldest, Devin, appeared at her side wearing a deeply familiar look. He had something behind his back, something he was about to ask for. I half-expected him to slip Susan a note.
Susan pointed her upturned nose at whatever Devin was holding. “Whatcha got there?” she said.
Devin showed her. “Mom, do you think we could get these? Please?”
Susan inspected the goods, then smiled and handed them to me. They were floppy, glossy-covered workbooks, just like we used in grade school. Math workbooks, to be exact, fifth grade level. Devin was ten.
If you think Susan’s unconventional schooling methods don’t work, you might have to reconsider. Not only do Devin and his brothers exhibit high intelligence and endless curiosity, but Susan thinks about education constantly. Her Facebook page is packed with links about homeschooling, or unschooling, stuff she devours in her spare time. Strangely, her belief in practical learning–the stuff of life–isn’t all that dissimilar to my interest in experiential learning at the collegiate level. But I’m sure we’ll have that debate the next time we get together, and Susan’s sharp tongue will sting at least once, even if I no longer cry about it.
We celebrated our mutual 29th birthday last week. While I got married last October to a man who, other than the heavy metal, kind of reminds me of Bob, Susan and Bob recently celebrated ten years of marriage and the birth of their fifth son. My twin sister may be fourteen hours and six minutes older than me, but those hours might as well be years, both in experience and in her sense of self. I still agonize over some hallway exchange with a colleague, some email with an indiscernible tone. Not Susan. She knows who loves her, the real her. She knows that a few blessed, precious things are, against all odds, permanent.
The Brown family at Christmas last year.