A true story though foggy in a mystical, magical sort of way.
Her hair golden, flashing in the sun. Her skin, sun-kissed. Her existence — no nonsense, strong, opinionated. There was no negotiating. After all she was 3 years older. I remember a dream room. A beautiful little girl’s bedroom, in order. Perfection. Delicate trinkets placed carefully on the bureau. Clouds of powder puff and perfume floating in the air. Colorful, character poster images hung neatly, adored. Bedding for a princess complete with stuffed, talking dolls and comfort.
I'm just 5 or 6, holding an apple-sized lump in my throat. I have to leave. Again, I have to leave? Really? Please, let me stay just a while longer. This being the opposite of my life, I find refuge here. Maybe it was the normalcy of it? Maybe. It wasn't just my cousin or her room. It was my aunt, my grandma, my grandpa, the charming small town, the community. The bustling, healthy activity. Life's rhythmic heartbeat seemed to live right here. Tears streamed quietly as I'm whisked out of town.
Months later. It's dark. I smell rain. I smell earth. Groggy from the night drive but excited about my return. "Come on," she says. "Let's go play!" We find ourselves lost in hours of play. I remember grandma's backyard. Organized patterns of blossom lay gingerly, sprawling past a small greenhouse. Gorgeous fuchsia baskets sway, wispy above our heads. "Pop one," she says. "Pop it!" I follow along, popping one after another. There are shades of pink, yellow, and purple everywhere. Pansies dance happily under an oversized cherry tree. We found ourselves masters at dodging busy bees bustling around apple trees. Fragrant roses guard the entrance. The milk has arrived. Cold, thick glass tucked neatly in the box on the front porch. I slip my hand through the metal mail slot in the door. I'm finally here. I'm back.
Fresh, crisp aroma of cucumber in the kitchen. Lunchtime. First, competition to see who can get their hands the soapiest. Fluffy clouds cleansing away the wonders of the backyard. While reaching to dry, water drops race up tickling the underside of my arm. Time to sit. We are served. Giggles. I remember all-out, pee-pee dance giggles. Shhhh. We eat quietly. We lock eyes. Some how my lima beans would magically turn into cottage cheese. And mystical forces would turn her cottage cheese into lima beans! It was our pact. Our little secret. The first of many.
"Today we skip!" she says, slating the activities. "Wait! I'll be right back. " Faint in the background, I hear: "Can we go around the block, PLEASE?" She returns, chin-up, grin on her face, taking obvious pride in her top-notch negotiating skills; off we go. Skipping along, chanting, "Don't step on a crack, you'll break your mother’s back!" Kicking pebbles and pine cones along the way.
Around her, I had the pleasure of being the youngest. In the real world I am the oldest of five children. Her presence is more like a big sister than a cousin; she held my heart and great influence at a very young age. A trickster at times. "Close your eyes," she’d say. "No really, close them." "Don't peek!" A hint of something would graze my lips. I'm thinking, “What is it this time?” A green bean, fresh from the vine? A potato bug?! Or yes, yes, yes a sweet piece of candy? No, not this time. "Okay, bite!" she says. I bite. Oh! Hot! Hot! Hot! A dastardly belly laugh follows. She's done it again. A pepper, a hot pepper, of course. You would think I would learn. Maybe I didn't want to.
But I can't swim! I would think, upset. Knots in my stomach. She would glide under the water near my feet, grab hold, and yank me under. Panic would set in. Off she would go. Content with being left behind I cling to life at the side of the pool, regrouping, spitting, gathering air for the next round. A little playful sibling rivalry? Possibly. Since she was an only child I can only assume she craved it. Looking back I might have been having cravings of my own, eagerly seeking someone older, more "kidwise" to come along and toughen me up.
As time goes by, we grow. It's deep summer. Waves of heat distort views of the valley. A hint of concord grape rides the warm afternoon breeze. We are barefoot, always barefoot. Hot pavement. Too hot for tender, little toes. Heading “home,” snug under one arm, we each carry neatly rolled bath towels. Each towel contains a wet, chlorine fumed, sun-faded bathing suit. A must-have in this hot, sleepy, little town. "The Pool" was a haven. The “social network” of our youth in the ‘70s. Announcements, competition, accomplishments, and relationships flourished there. The vending machine snack hardly touches the oversized hunger pang from hours of hard swimming and play. Faces tight, our eyes are red, we are beat. Exhausted. Slumber soon.
Grandma's tiny home sheltered artful decor and a sense of settle. I remember musical, ticking chimes announcing the time. Velvet petals arranged lazily in the glass pitcher. Grandpa arriving home evident by the squeak and slap sound of the back door hinge. He leans in for a quick, playful smooch. Grandma shoos him away. She's giving him a sideways glance. "Hi squirt," he would say. I stand guard with a shy little grin, steady, ready to flee from the whisker burn headed my way! I reach over, pull hard. Snap! His suspenders my only defense within reach. He pretends to give chase. My heart jumps! More giggles. I head for the backyard.
There she is, my sleepy cousin resting in the grass. I lay beside her. A daisy chain busy in the making. Crickets break into song as the evening sets. I reach for her hand. She knows. I know too. I have to leave. Again, I have to leave. Really? Please, let me stay just a little while longer.