In a modest but tastefully appointed brick home in northern Alabama lived two little moon-faced girls, decked out in coordinating sponge-painted t-shirts and acid-washed ruffle skirts, rifling through a stack of cassettes. “Let’s play Reba,” decided the older girl as she adjusted her round, red, wire framed glasses. “The ‘Fancy’ song.” She popped Reba McEntire’s 1990 album Rumor Has It into a clunky Sony radio/cassette player, fast forwarding to the singer’s now-classic anthem about a young girl ascending from the depths of abject poverty into a lucrative escort career after her terminally ill mother transferred her into the care of an uptown strip joint. “That’s my favorite song!” squealed her little sister, tugging on her polka dot tights.
“I might have been born just plain white trash, but Fancy was my name!” they sang as they jumped up and down on ruffled Laura Ashley-inspired twin beds. Little Southern girls in the 90s had a distinct style – big bows on their heads, patent Mary Janes on their feet, and tales of tequila and betrayal on their tongues. And my sister Stephanie and I have always been nothing if not en vogue.
As kids, we couldn’t be more different. I was a dark haired, extroverted, talk-before-you-think type, while she was a blonde, shy, studious type. Four and a half years her senior, I was ever the domineering older child that child psychologists write about. A leader, I’ll call it. Even when my parents told me I’d be a big sister, I had a sense that I would need to guide that little fetus through life, position her for success. I would show her the ropes – how to fetch juice boxes for me and my friends, how always be “it” in hide-and-seek and count to 150 in the pantry while my friends and I found the hardest hiding spots imaginable so she would end up getting really frustrated and crying when she couldn’t find us, and how to always be the backup singer in my imaginary musical groups.
During the summer of my sister’s birth, my entourage and I had formed a prolific New Kids on the Block all-girl cover band but were struggling to fill the Danny Wood spot. This new little sister would be the perfect female Danny Wood, I thought. Sadly, when Stephanie emerged from my mother’s womb, she was small, pink, and wrinkly. Even Danny Wood didn’t deserve that. I was so disappointed. Yet, as a colicky baby, her lungs quickly matured, and a few years later, she was ready to play both guy parts in our Ace of Base tribute band, aptly named Ace of Base Two. She resisted these roles at first, which I didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t a four-year-old girl want to pretend to be a muscular, ambiguously gay Swedish man in a techno pop band? She would be Jonas and Ulf, or be nothing at all. She relented.
Ace of Base Two toured our Alabama subdivision for the summer of ’93 but fizzled out by fall due to creative differences. It was during that turbulent summer, however, that my sister started to wise up to the politics of siblinghood and began to build out her own arsenal of weaponry that she would wield rather proficiently over the next decade.
In 1995, we moved to Florida and were enrolled in a small parochial school with one class per age group all the way up to 8th grade. Having both children in one school is a parent’s dream – after school activities were more streamlined, the parent-teacher community was tighter knit, and your younger kid could be a mole, spying and reporting on the older, more rebellious child’s indiscretions. This was very convenient for my mother, as I slipped into a bit of a bad ass phase around ’96. Oh, on the drive in to school, I was a picture of buttoned-up nerdiness. My long, shapeless hair was pulled back taut with a gray scrunchie. “Keep your hair pulled back, Rachel,” my mom said. “So people can see your face!” My face? Eyes that were magnified behind rectangular glasses. Cheeks that were peppered with cystic acne caused by the fresh, new hormones coursing through my adolescent blood.
“You look so cute,” my dad said, as he watched me slide out of the backseat in the knee-length, navy blue uniform culottes that I paired with clunky Airwalk sneakers and a JanSport backpack featuring an assortment of parent-friendly punk rock iron-on patches. I waved goodbye to car and walked my sister to her 2nd grade classroom. As soon as she was gone, it was goodbye, nerd and hello, hottie. As a sax solo played, down came the hair, off came the extremely necessary prescription glasses, and up went the hem of the culottes as I awkwardly rolled the waistband into what certainly looked like an inner tube of stiff fabric. I sashayed my way to homeroom like the squinty love child of Blossom and Gilbert Gottfried, excited to impress my friends with my femme fatale allure.
Yet every time I emerged from my cocoon, there was Stephanie, peering out from the behind the lockers, mentally scribbling her daily reports in her mental notebook like Harriet the Spy. My mother’s very own double agent.
(My sister’s actual diary entry – May 3, 1996)
“MOM SAID YOU HAD TO WEAR YOUR HAIR BACK,” she hissed at me as she and her 7-year-old buddies walked by us on the way to gym.
“OOOOO! MOM SAID YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO ROLL UP YOUR SHORTS,” she called out to me as I was clumsily flirting with a boy that usually hated me but was clearly admiring my newly exposed kneecaps.
“HEY. WHERE ARE YOUR GLASSES?” she asked accusingly as she strolled by on her way to Wednesday chapel. I couldn’t see a damn thing but I knew that judgmental little voice anywhere.
“I thought you said you got contacts, Rachel,” spat one of the mean girls who was popular because her boobs grew disproportionately faster than the rest of her body parts.
This, among other offenses perpetrated by both parties, led to many after-school fights.
And when we fought, it wasn’t the girly sighs, foot stomping, “talk to the hand” nonsense of our peers. It was WWE Raw meets Real Housewives, with all the chokeholds of the former mixed with the emotional warfare of the latter. As quickly as I was able to apply an Indian burn to her forearm, she was just as quickly able to blackmail me with an inappropriate handwritten note she was able to skillfully obtain from my backpack the day prior. Screams were supersonic, piercing the balmy night’s sky, giving my father a veritable ulcer and a sense of cosmic retribution for some past dark deed he committed in some other life.
Yet, as often as we were at odds, we were also thick as thieves, spending hours and hours perfecting cannonballs in our pool, eating Dairy Queen flurries and watching Blockbuster movies on summer nights, making up original comic characters in secret sketches in the living room. Humor has always been the strongest common denominator between us, the thread weaving through all of life’s stages and growing pains. Sisters who watch Mel Brooks together, stay together, after all. While other girls were reenacting Coyote Ugly, my sister and I were lampooning Coyote Ugly and quoting Blazing Saddles and Best in Show.
Time sped along. I left town for college and my sister became more engrossed in her music studies at her performing arts high school (yes, it was just like Fame, except with way more Asian students). Our family relocated to Chicago. I got my own apartment and entered the corporate workforce. Stephanie went to college down in Nashville and became a bohemian singer-songwriter. Dairy Queen and evening movies were replaced by texts and check-in emails. We both came of age awkwardly, facing off with parents who were having a hard time accepting their daughters’ impending adulthood, as well as our own issues with a scary new world of fiscal responsibility, artisanal cheeses, and long-term relationships. Boyfriends came and went, all subject to sisterly judgment as scathing as the End Times. Some were bad, others abhorrent.
I knew my husband was the jackpot as he met my sister’s immediate and gracious approval.
He and I went on to produce two kids, also four and a half years apart — just like my sister and I had been. Our daughter is a spitting image of me, with all the sass to match. Our son is a serious, stubborn little whirlwind who, in many ways, is like my husband. Still, as I watch my daughter dance around the living room, giving choreography instructions to her little brother as he bounds around happily beside her, my mind wanders back to that moment during the summer of ’93 when my sister pretended to be a Swedish beefcake keyboardist because she loved her big sister.
I can only hope for that kind of love between my own children.
Illustrations by Kelly Riker