I remember that night, lying in bed, my sister by my side, both of us staring at the ceiling with our hands behind our heads. We had just gone to see West Side Story. The year was 1961. She went first: “I feel pretty! Oh so pretty! I feel pretty, as pretty can be!” We convulsed in teenage giggles, and then started up again: “See the pretty girl in that mirror, there? Who can that attractive girl be?” More laughter.
And then, Peg said, “Sis, you know my date with Robert?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, something was wrong. It felt funny. I didn’t feel right with him. He tried to kiss me, and it grossed me out.” I didn’t get it, then. Oh, how I wish that I had understood.
A couple of years passed. I came home from my after-school job and there was a huge argument going on in the living room. I could hear Dad yelling at Peg. I whispered to Mom, “What’s wrong?” Mom’s voice was shaking as she said, “Dad caught Peggy in the bedroom, making out —- with a girl.”
From that moment forward, our family life as I had known it changed forever. What had been right in front of our faces for so many years finally found its voice. My sweet Sis had tried so many ways to let me know, perhaps to have an ally in a world she knew would not understand. And I had been too blind, too naive, to see.
Dad never accepted the truth. Mom seemed to have always known, but never spoke about it. She just wrapped her arms around that kid and let her know, from the get-go, that she would always love her no matter what. And she did. But Dad did not make it easy. Nor did I, in the beginning. We just simply had no exposure back in those days. We were still living the Father-Knows-Best kind of life, and in this case, father did not know best, but we still had to listen to father. There were no television shows, no radio shows, no books and for that matter, no teachers, who were willing to discuss the subject. So talk about shell-shocked. We all were.
Mom and Dad got counseling. It didn’t “take” with Dad. He just could not flex that conservative upbringing of his to find any acceptance. I got married. At 18, I married my first husband and left home. Peg was on her own, and for the next couple of years, lived a miserable existence, while I busied myself trying to start my new family.
Thankfully, a few years passed and I grew up. Working in San Francisco, after a seven-year marriage which ended in divorce, I was probably the only straight woman in the office. My tolerance for Peg’s lifestyle softened as I came to understand what it meant and who she was.
My sister and I found a way through this maze, and our love did not waver. Thank God. Because the rest of our lives, in many respects, was one big lie. The family did not speak of Peg’s lifestyle to the relatives. I did not discuss Peg’s lifestyle with my friends, as if it reflected badly on me. We stopped socializing as a family and as I raised my two daughters, visits from their aunt were very rare. Holiday dinners were strained, and after time, Peg and her partner stopped coming.
Years have gone by. Years of separateness. My Sis going her way with her circle of friends, and me, with mine. Peg ended up in a longstanding relationship that lasted longer than my marriages, but because of her lifestyle, it was not accepted or acknowledged as “real”. Peg spent years tending to Dad in his later years, all the while listening to his admonishments about her “choices” in life. When Mom died, Peg’s anchor was loosed from the sand and she was left to sail that ship all by herself. It is no wonder that she so easily inherited the insidious addiction to alcohol that has permeated this family.
My sister is gone now. I cannot make it up to her. She knew I loved her, thank God, and in the end, I was able to care for her and I’m so glad for that. But shame on me. I’m so sorry, Sis, that I did not have the courage to speak up for you. I’m so sorry that our lives together were half truths and not whole truths. You are gone, and they cannot hurt you. You are gone, and I am no longer afraid of the repercussions of telling the truth to those who may not understand or be able to accept.
See the pretty girl in that mirror there?
Who could that attractive girl be?