I just got off the phone with my sister, you know, the eldest. For years she was called Moll. That was how she was known when she ran a saloon out west. Never a shrinking violet, she knocked a few heads when she needed to. Still she fed her own brood, kept them in line and, on Sundays, (the only time she wasn’t serving the watered-down whiskey) she bundled everyone out of the house and down to the church. She sang those hymns like the best of ‘em and frankly, she still does to this day.
Surprisingly she was the one of us Burke kids that got a proper education. She probably learned the “knockin’ heads” stuff from those nuns at the St Rose Ranch. They towed the line pretty tight at that school for wayward girls so she knew the rules which meant that to hear her bellow “belly up to the bar boys” was always a bit disconcerting.
Nowadays she has settled down in her adopted town, decorates her porch with bunting for all the parades and tries to keep track of her far-flung clan. All the folks know her as Barbara now. I talked to her tonight and she’s doing well. Her voice is strong and her will is too. She always gets me, just at the end of our chats. It’s like, at the last moment of our conversation, she shifts into another gear; a lower, slower locution as she responds “love you too”. It always brings me to the brink of tears.
My brother Mike is a different creature. Really different. He was born and raised in the early years by brown bears up in the hills above White Creek. I figured that has something to do with why he was always a good swimmer when he was a teenager. Somehow the bears eventually gave him up and he came to live in our house. The bears must have taught him to smile ‘cause he had a great one; still does. They must have also showed him how to raise kids ‘cause he seems a natural. Apparently it’s a bear thing.
When he came to our house he was, as you might expect, always a bundle of energy. He did teach me to ride a bike, light fires in piles of leaves and slap carp out of the Hoosick River too. I liked catching those fat fish in my teeth like he taught but then I didn’t know what to do with it next. Yuck! I knew he was part bear because when I was an impressionable boy he would thrash in the water and scare me silly then laugh and laugh. When I tell these memories to my sophisticated Manhattan friends at penthouse cocktail parties their amused smiles slowly turn to appalled disbelief. They just don’t understand small town life.
Funny, Mom and Dad didn’t act like he was part bear. They made him sit down for Sunday dinner just like the rest of us and of course he learned Latin for serving at mass. In a most un-bear like behavior he cavorted about in a blue Chevy convertible as he grew from boy to man. I can still see him, one paw on the wheel and one around some schoolgirl as her scarf blows in the breeze. There was a comic moment in my life when I realized I had a knack for sales. It was when I cleverly convinced him to let me wash it every week.
For years Mike went off prowling the big world, whimsically growling and, for effect, tossing around a few garbage cans. Now, as bears might do, he is aging peacefully sitting facing the Key West sun with a smile on his face and a Miller Lite in his hand.
Now my other sister is a yet a different character entirely. She’s not a great horned owl, a prancing white tail or a possum, she’s all women. True, she was born in a convent which seems weird but, at the time she lived in our house, it seemed believable. After all, we worshiped at the church of the Immaculate Conception, why couldn’t my sister emerge from beneath one of those black mystery dresses? In retrospect I shudder at this image. This sister was my parents favorite because they said she could walk on water (but I never saw that myself). As she grew into adulthood she had a gift for the dramatic and her homes became places of wonder and magic. At the same time her views became more codified.
For instance, she refuses to read fiction, which I can only ascribe to those early convent days. Maybe she subscribes to the opinion that truth can be stranger than fiction. Her kitchen is her chapel and she prepares meals that are spotlessly perfect formulas of her later day quasi-religious convictions that revolve around cilantro, saffron and pinto beans. Her home is akin to a monkette’s cave with everything in proper order from the cookbooks to the Infant of Prague statue inverted in a bowl of seaweed, to the perfect alignment of her foot stool with the TV tuned exclusively to PBS.
It’s funny given my “misgivings” about the religion, yet my evening phone conversations with Maureen, the child of the mysterious convent birth, are often the most personal for me. I have sometimes speculated that our parents cut their teeth in the raising of the first two. By the time Maureen and I arrived on the scene they were either exhausted or maybe their child rearing philosophy had been influenced by Dr Spock.