Family Secrets

My Summer of Puppy Love

When my father left the house that morning, he promised to bring back a big surprise, and he sure as hell wasn't kidding

My sister was the first person who loved me out loud.

When I was 12 years old, I wanted a puppy so badly I would cry myself to sleep at night. I'd dream of a cuddly puppy that would love me the way puppies do—unconditionally. One morning in 1967, my father left the house early and warned my three brothers and me that he was bringing us back a big surprise.

"Big surprise," Mom chanted, blowing some used Kool smoke in our faces to emphasize the point.

Convinced that we were finally getting the puppy, we all began to fantasize. I was dizzy with the thoughts of puppy love.

My brothers were pretty rough and tumble, and my parents were uptight WASPs. Stiff, really. Dad was an ex-Marine and Mom's thoughts on love were passed down to her by Scottish heritage: Affection was like roast beef—it was only for special occasions and even then, it would be tough and tasteless. Her hugs were quick and hard, like being held by a salty surfboard.

By 5 o'clock that night, all four of us lined up like the Von Trapps in wait for our puppy, already arguing about whose room it would sleep in that night.

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But there was to be no puppy. Instead, Dad walked in with a 16-year-old hippie! Even though I'd never actually seen a hippie, I was pretty sure this was one because she was wearing dangling earrings and a poncho. Her blackish brown hair was parted straight down the middle waving wildly down her back, as if to chant, "I'm free … free!"

She smiled at me from behind the most devilish brown eyes I'd ever seen. She had the kind of smile that said, "You're going to be glad you know me." It kind of tilted to the side, and pointed down.

Who the hell is this person, I thought. And why is she with MY dad?

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Dad began tap-dancing in partial sentences. He opened by mentioning that he'd been married before.

"Married before Mom? How?" I shrieked. I didn't like where this was going. First of all, where the hell is my puppy?

"I was married to Susan's mother, Helen. They live in Massachusetts."

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"Who's Susan?" I asked, stupidly.

"This is Susan," said Dad, thumb-pointing to the longhaired stranger.

I suddenly felt sick. "Does she have our puppy?"

Dad began again, "This is your sister."

"Then why doesn't she live here?" I challenged. I wasn't getting it. I was not the smartest kid in the house. I wasn't even the smartest kid in my bedroom and I slept alone.

"She's your half-sister. You have a big sister, now. She's your big sister," He kept repeating that as if the drone of the sentence would lull us into acceptance.

The six-pack of questions started shooting out of my brothers' mouths, "Why haven't we met her before? Does everyone have a half-sister? Are there more coming? What does 'half' mean. Does Mom know?"

My youngest brother Joe started to cry, "So we're not getting a dog?"

"She's your half-sister, because you share one parent," said Dad. "You have different mothers."

"Can you do that?" I asked. "Who's her father, then?"

Susan straightened her smile, put her arms around me and whispered in the most soothing voice, "Debbie, he's my pop, too. We'll share him, OK? I'm so happy to finally meet you. I've always wanted a little sister—this'll be great."

I gave her the Kasper stare, which said, I'll be the judge of that! Susan was a Kasper all right, any dope could see that. She looked like the women on my father's side of the family tree. It was all beginning to make sense.

"OK," I said, clumsily. "But he's really MY father first, right?"

I'd always wanted a sister too, I had to admit, but I wanted a whole sister and didn't really want one just dropped in, like we adopted her.

"You're my little sissy-boo!" she said with more affection than I'd gotten maybe ever! I'm gonna take such good care of you!"

Our weekend dinners were legendary—a roast of some sort, creamy mashed potatoes, asparagus with hollandaise and, for dessert, the family fight. During this particularly awkward dinner, everyone was more uptight than usual. Mom was tossing bourbons back a little faster, Dad was chain-smoking Lucky Strikes while I was busy ogling and touching my new sister.

And there was Susan, blathering away about how fabulous we all were. She had something nice to say about everyone. Nobody knew how to react, so we all just sat there stupidly nodding. Compliments were rare around this joint. I'd learned to go without. Her joy was pure and infectious. Her spirit was already spreading around the house like incense. It was all so exotic.

After I cleared the dishes, I began to serve up mom's homemade strawberry shortcake, which was smothered in whipped cream. I had an idea. I piled extra whip cream onto Susan's strawberries; took the plate and smooshed it into her face! (Just to make her feel at home.) After a moment of shock, Susan started cackling from behind a dripping mask of white fluff. Her laugh was so unhinged, it chilled me.

"Oh, Deborah, I'm gonna love you!"

"Welcome to the family," I said. "Are you sleeping in my room tonight? Please?"

My sister was the first person to love me out loud. She visited throughout that summer and eventually she started blurting out how much she loved me whenever it occurred to her, which was often. At first, it was pretty shocking, the way she just threw the word "love" around like it was free; even a little embarrassing, but it was also incredible! There we'd be in the middle of our meal, nurturing an argument when she'd haul off and scream out something inappropriate like, "I love you, Pop—you're the best!"

It would take us all a moment to recover. Clearly, she didn't know you didn't love somebody in the middle of dinner. Nobody in my house said the "L" word unless there was alcohol involved. If you had a feeling, you were encouraged to go to your room until it passed. Eventually my father started responding with something equally deranged, like "I love you, too, Susie." I'd never seen him do that. I couldn't believe what she was starting here. It was spreading.

Towards the end of that summer, she came to visit once when I was sick in bed. Instead of playing Risk downstairs with the rest of the family, Susan climbed into my bed and held me. She stroked my hair and cuddled me. She quilted me with a crazy patchwork of sisterly love that I'd only read about in Louisa May Alcott books. I was 12 years old when I learned how to say, "I love you, too." I started throwing it around freely as well. And I had forgotten all about the puppy.

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