Authors: Maggie Leffler
I'm so glad we're sisters.
t was my eighty-seventh birthday when my sister Sarah walked into the meeting room of the Carnegie Library. Somehow she was still a young girl of about fifteen, with pale blond hair in a single braid down her back, just as she'd been when she scrambled up the climbing tree in the backyard and tossed apples to me on the ground down below. Of course, I knew it couldn't actually be my sister. Perhaps the Sarah-sighting was yet another side effect of aging. After all, the older I've become, the more everyone I come across reminds me of someone I once loved. I had no inkling that the girl with the braid might change everything.
The day had begun like any other, my birthday notwithstanding. When the doctor called about the results of my recent bone density scan, I was grateful for the tiny touch of humanity all the same. “So, it's official,” I said, upon hearing the news. “You're saying I'm a little, old lady.” The doctor chuckled before pushing another pillâthis one for osteoporosis, which may
prevent a hip fracture
cause sudden, irreversible blindness in certain susceptible people. “Frankly, at this point in my life, I would welcome a hip fractureâjust so long as it's fatal,” I replied. “Mrs. Browning, are you depressed?” the doctor asked, quite seriously, bless her heart. So, I fibbed a little and said to this kind young lady, who was probably about half the age of my son David, “My dear, much the way a youngster anticipates a birthday, I can't help but be a bit curious as to what exactly will be my end. You may have the luxury of distraction, but for me, death is my next big event.” As the doctor grew silent, I waited for her to stop documenting our conversation into that godforsaken computer, waited for the gladness to arrive in her voice, when it might dawn on her that the date of my birth matched the day of her call. “Mrs. Browning,” she finally said, “are you suicidal?” which was so far from the good wishes I'd been hoping for that I laughed. The joke was on me. I reassured her that I had absolutely no intention of ruining the surprise.
While the appeal of living forever was long lost on me, it wasn't as if I didn't value my existence. I had things to look forward to . . . or, well, one thing, which was my writers' group, a weekly gathering of senior citizens who struggled to write their memoirs. Herb Shepherd wrote about growing up in Pittsburgh, back when we played kick-the-can in the streets and had to bring all of our laundry in before noon, before our shirts turned black with soot from the steel mills. Victor Chenkovitch wrote heart-wrenching personal essays about his days in a concentration camp. Jean Fester wrote dreadful prose about her myriad health problems that hadn'tâas of yetâbeen fatal. And of course there was the other Gene, Gene Rosskemp, who mostly seemed to show up for the women, or “young ladies” as
he called us with a wink. No one had hopes of publicationâno one, that is, except for Selena Markmann, who wrote novellas about domestic violence with “happy endings,” wherein the attacker always appeared remorseful, bearing diamonds.
They didn't ask me to lead the group because I was a published essayist: none of them had read my book, nor could they find it anywhere since the publisher christened it
Miss Bixby Takes a Wife,
after my tongue-in-cheek essay about how men weren't the only ones who needed a doting partner to pick up after them. Even before it went out of print in 1958, the collection of essays never got much press apart from a handful of derogatory reviews claiming that it was a “lesbian manifesto” that “stole the angel in the house right out from under Virginia Woolf.”
They didn't ask me to lead the group because they adored my writing: in fact, during the eleven years that I had belonged to the group, I had only turned in a single short story. Whenever I would pick up a pen to begin, it would rattle across the page in my shaky hand, leaving nothing of consequence behind. The real reason I ran the show every Tuesday from 6 to 8
at the Squirrel Hill library? I told them that in my former life I'd been the senior editor of a now-defunct New York publishing house.
It was an offhand remark I'd once made to Gene Rosskemp after he'd introduced himself in the mailroom of our high-rise apartment building. “Where're you from?” he'd asked, pumping my hand as I clutched my catalogs and bills, startled by the intrusion of this big-bellied, white-haired stranger in such a small space. Nevertheless, I appreciated the question. It was the first time since I'd moved back to Pittsburgh that someone had
assumed I'd ever been anywhere else. “New York,” I said, as he followed me into the lobby, and he said, “
” as if he'd expected me to say, “The North Side.” Thankfully, he did not ask me how I'd ended up here, the question I'd been asking myself since my husband, Thomas, passed on the year before and I'd made the decision to move back to the city I hadn't called home in sixty years.
“What did you do in New York?” Gene asked instead, and when I said that I'd been an editor, oh, did his blue eyes get wide. “Magazine editor?”
I shook my head. “Book editor. Mostly novels. Some memoir.”
When he exclaimed, “Mary Browning, you're just the girl I've been waiting for!” I felt like a young training pilot again, practicing spins and stalls in the air. “We got a group goingâof writers! And between you and me, Millie ain't doin' so hot.”
“Millie . . . ?” I asked, trying to rearrange my smile into concern, but it wasn't working.
“Millie Wisnicki, âexecutive editor'âof the
Wisnicki Cousin Camp Chronicles
. You want the honest-to-God's truth,” Gene added, leaning closer and talking behind the back of his handâthe mime of a whisperer, except that he was shouting. “If she had it her way, the group would turn into a knitting club!” Then he laughed and slapped his knee, and I didn't know what to think of this strange, loud man, except that he'd actually made me chuckle. I joined Gene for the next meeting, and the one after that, and every Tuesday for the next ten years. After the unexpected death of Millie Wisnicki in her carbon monoxideâinduced sleep the spring before, Gene suggested the gauntlet be passed to me.
I took it seriouslyâor rather, took them seriously. This
notion of the Criticism Sandwich, two buns of praise to buffer each liverwurst of criticism, was never on my menu. If their prose happened to make me feel like taking my own life, I was compelled to tell them. On the other hand, if they stirred something up in me, some forgotten pulse of emotionâlike surprise, or even hopeâthen I'd confess that, too. I wanted these people to write well. After all, it was for posterity.
My doctor never would've dreamed I was a woman with a passion. Nor my grocer Gary, a youngish fellow, mid-fifties and bald, who seemed surprised each week to find that I still had a pulse. My birthday, naturally, was no different, as he hassled himself with retrieving spices for me off the top shelf. He acted as if I hadn't signed up for Meals on Wheels just to spite him. The real truth was that, though my hands had a tremor, I still managed to cookâchicken soup and applesauce from scratch, and, when I was in the mood for something sweet, my own
. I may not have driven in the preceding eighteen years, but I kept my driver's license updated, just for the sake of it. I still wore my stack-heeled, patent leather Mary Janes for a short walk to the library each week. I never feared death or cracks in the sidewalk. I did fear, in equal measures, protracted suffering and parallel parking, nearly all medication, and nursing homes. But my greatest fear of all was not having a voice of my own.
As per the ritual, when I paid for my cup of coffee and a bun and the few jars of spices for my pantry, Gary watched as I carefully counted out the change before he took the time to recount itâright down to the penny, as if, in the previous decade, I had ever once been wrong. “You are one amazing woman, Mrs. B,” he said, the way he did every time, as he dropped the quarters and dimes into the register. I never once felt flattered. It was
insulting, really, to have the ability to count be considered my great achievement.
Nevertheless, there were small benefits that the little old lady status afforded, I decided. Like at the Carnegie Library, where I could slip into the conference room carrying my contraband mug of coffee and paper bag of bread, and the security guard didn't so much as say boo.
Inside our dark paneled room, the group was already gathering in their seats, chattering about their adorable grandchildren, their fascinating travels, and their impending surgeries.
“How're the girls?” Herb Shepherd asked me, after showing me a picture of his great-grandson in a baseball uniform. “Josie and Hazel, right?”
“Wonderful. So grown up,” I said, patting my empty pockets for footage of my own. I leaned toward him and whispered, “And Tyler got the job with Microsoft!”
Herb's eyes widened with delight, as Selena Markmann interrupted with a tap of her pencil on the table. “Good news, people. My great-nieceâthe one who is getting her P
in psychologyâis willing to type up any of our stories for a very reasonable hourly rate. So, if you've got something longhand or need a transcriptionist, she could use the work to help pay for books. Gene? Mary?” she added, handing out the information on Xeroxed pieces of paper, which I folded up and slipped into my purse out of politeness.
It wasn't that I didn't have stories to tell like the rest of them, but I certainly didn't want to run the risk of being
. Whenever I toyed with the idea of penning my own memoir, I quickly gave up when confronted by the disquieting notion of telling my secrets. Years ago, after reading my one
and only submission, they'd dissected my fictional heroine's character flaws like a roundtable of psychiatrists: “compulsive liar” and “clinically depressed,” they pronounced. If I told the truth about my past, I could only begin to imagine what they'd think of me.
I decided, right then, not to mention my birthday. Gene would've wanted to run out and buy cupcakes, and that would've upset the other Jean, who had brittle diabetes. If anyone remembered, since the first year I let it slip and Millie showed up with a blanket she'd knitted for one of my great-granddaughters, I would do my best to keep them on the task at hand.
Except the task at hand that Tuesday night turned out not to be the writing at all, but instead the girl with the braid who walked into the conference room and looked around just as I was clearing my throat to begin. Her nose was not at all Sarah's nose and her eyes were more hazel than brown, but they were thoughtful like Sarah's and the girl carried herself with the same hesitant curiosity. After a moment, when no one appeared to claim her, I cleared my throat again and tweaked my glasses up on my nose, waiting for her to say she'd lost her study group and to make a hasty exit.
“Is thisâthe writers' group?” the girl asked.
writers' group?” I asked, arching my eyebrow.
“The adâthe one in the paper.” She held up a wrinkled clipping from the
and read, “'Seeking New Writers! Talent and experience not necessary but interest in the craft a plus! Open to the public!'”
“I'm afraid you must be in the wrongâ”
“That's us, honey,” Selena interrupted me, her gold wrist
bangles jangling together against her purple sleeve. “I placed the ad a couple of weeks ago. We needed
to replace Millie,” Selena added, without even looking my way.
“You're in the
placeâno pun intended!” the other Gene said, and the girl cracked an uncertain smile before taking a seat.
And then it was my turn to be baffled. I didn't give a hoot about Selena, who was obviously holding a grudge against me for not sharing her view that a wife-beater belonged in her “Hollywood Ending.” No, it was the girl baffling me, as she slipped a notebook out of her backpack, took out a pencil, and chewed on it as she listened. I felt disoriented in her presence. Could this be a reincarnation of Sarah? Did she know my older sister, in some other life, how we'd shared everythingâfrom clothes, to dolls, to a twin bed in the crowded apartment over my stepfather's dress shop? We even shared piano lessons: Sarah got the teacher, while I hovered by the door, memorizing her fingers on the keys. Or was it just coincidence, the way she and Sarah wore their hair identically and chewed on their pencils with the same revolting attention to the eraser?
“Well, who would like to begin?” Selena Markmann asked brightly, and I emerged from my reverie, feeling a mite foolish. Selena had just delivered my usual line.
Unfortunately, it was Jean Fester's night, an embarrassing showcase for the group. We were critiquing her bypass surgery.
“I found it a little hard to get through . . .” Gene gently remarked.
“That's because it was!” Jean snapped.
I kept watching the girl. Her manner was civilized: after all,
we were not what she'd been expecting, but she stayed anyway. She even listened politely to the debate over whether or not it was a good thing that we all felt as if we'd been cut open by the end of the piece. And in her white blouse and khaki trousersâ“Generals Pants,” we called them in the serviceâher appearance was decent, too, as if she were waiting for a review from General Hap Arnold himself and the chance to pass from ground school into the air. But it wasn't her decency that shocked me; it was that she was there at all, like a birthday present I hadn't realized I'd been waiting for.
“Mary?” Herb Shepherd finally asked, when the room had gone silent, and I realized belatedly that Mary was meâstill me, after all these years.
“I have to admit, Jean, it wasn't quite my cup of tea . . .” I began.