Starting when I was in fourth grade, my sisters, my mom and I were on our own. Divorce had axed our family and as my sisters and I picked splinters out of our hair, Mom went about basically gut-rehabbing — by herself — my Aunt Katherine and late Uncle Rodney’s house in town. The house wasn’t habitable for months and we couldn’t go back to the family farm, so we stayed with friends until we could move in. I still remember the smell of paint when we finally slept in the house on Jefferson Street. I will always love the smell of fresh paint.
Our home was constantly full of people. Rebecca was in elementary school and had her best friends over for sleepovers; I was in junior high and not a total social leper so I was able to entertain; Hannah was in high school and her crew was large and left-of-center, so there were usually interesting conversations going on in the kitchen and the backyard because the kitchen had a fridge and the backyard had a hammock.
The dinner table was big enough for us and at least three friends. But when Mom wasn’t on a business trip (I go on these same trips today, something I never anticipated and cannot imagine doing with three daughters at home) so most of the time it was just the four of us. We talked and talked and shared all the stories from school and Mom’s trips. We laughed, we fought. Hannah did this thing where she’d steal Rebecca’s milk when Biccy wasn’t looking and it drove my little sister crazy. Again and again, Hannah would steal her milk and finally had to stop when Rebecca got big enough to successfully execute sororicide.* But there was another kind of dinner.
My family is a reading family, but we weren’t allowed to read at the table. But there would be times when Mom would call us all to dinner and all of us — Mom included — would put down whatever book we were engrossed in and loaf to the dinner table, reluctant to stop reading. Those nights, we weren’t interested in talking because we were still thinking about our books. The table would be pretty quiet. Then Mom would look at us, slurping pasta. We’d look at Mom, drinking her milk. She’d smile and whisper in a mischievous way:
“Let’s just read!”
We’d whoop and all run for our books and finish dinner together in silence, turning pages, until we were full.
*It’s true. There’s a word for murdering your sister. Share it with any fifteen-year-old in your life who has a ten-year-old sister. She’ll love it.