Family Secrets

Catherine the Great

When a strange lady came to our house one day, I had no idea that my life would never be the same

Cathy and me.

Rubber-legged, whiny and poking annoyingly at my mother's knee for attention, I felt the firm grasp of her friend's hand clutching my cheeks and turning my head in her direction.

"Go away, you're being a brat, toots!" she said and along with her warning came a firm shove away from the table they sat at.

At 5, I was quite strong-willed but this sudden assault from the now frequent visitor of my mother's rattled me, reducing me to a quivering pool of tears. I ran into the living room wailing.

"I wish you wouldn't speak to her that way, Catherine!" my mother admonished. "She's only a child."

"I don't care how old she is, she's a brat and should be outside playing, not hanging around, butting in on our conversation!" she snapped in response.

I took the consolation hug my mother offered as she wiped away my tears.

"Go outside and play for a while. You'll feel better and it'll be dinnertime soon," she whispered.

I trotted out the door and found my friend Holly across the street. This entire scenario was very confusing to Holly and me. Who was this lady? She was much younger than my mom and was at the house all the time now. She was quite pretty, though. She looked like she could be the queen of a Disney-like kingdom in which adults could do whatever they wanted while children were forced to work all day and remain silent. She had a long, thin, frame, impeccable posture—and an air about her which demanded respect and made you want to worship her.

We speculated she was from another country here visiting in some royal capacity. We imagined she hosted grand dinners and wore long, majestic gowns and carried a jewel-embedded wand. The wand, we were sure, was multipurpose: to conduct the orchestra playing each time she came into or left a room, to point towards items she wished fetched for her, to use as a cane adding credibility to her regal stride but mostly, we were sure, it was to thwart off and bash little children when they misbehaved. We concluded that—although pretty—she was a wicked queen.

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I decided it was time for answers. When another of her visits concluded, I coyly asked my mother, "Why is that lady always here now?" Turning toward me, tying her apron, my mom asked, "What friend, honey?" I couldn't believe my ears! What friend? "That lady that is here almost every day, mom, that mean lady. I hate her!" I yelled, surprising even myself.

"Come sit down with me, sweetheart" my mom said as she patted the couch cushion next to her. If not for the gentle tone of her voice, I would have thought I was in big trouble. The couch conversations were generally not the kind that ended with me getting a treat.

I sat down, fidgeting with my hands, finally placing them under my thighs to keep them still. "Look at me, OK? In my eyes," my mom instructed. "That lady that has been coming by is not my friend—she's your sister, Catherine."

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"She is NOT my sister. Vicki is my sister. I don't have other sisters, Mom—why are you lying?" I asked, and immediately burst into tears.

After some more reassuring, I finally calmed to the notion that Catherine was indeed my sister. When I was 22, my mother joked over dinner one night that she was initially so taken aback by my question about who the lady was, until she realized that there would be no reason for me to know what was going on at the time.

Catherine was 15 years my senior, and 20 when she was visiting each day to discuss, I later learned, her wedding plans. She had moved out when I was three, only to return years later when she had her wedding reception at our house.

"It wasn't until I looked at the situation from your perspective that I realized you were too young to remember her living here," my mother mused. "I just never put the pieces together before the wedding. I felt badly that I just assumed you'd know."

"It's OK, I completely understand how the situation came to be ... but, man, did I dislike her!"

"Dislike is putting it mildly," she said and laughed, "but in your defense, she had little patience with you."

It wasn't until years later that Catherine and I became close. She taught me to ride horses, the joy of sipping wine in rocking chairs on a hot summer's night and how to make a mean burger on the grill. We shared conversations about first kisses, sex, marriage and raising children. All the conversations girlfriends have. We had our last and most intimate conversation, as I lied curled up beside her in the hospital bed she called home for a month.

"We had a lot of laughs, toots!" she lamented.

"I remember them all," I said quietly.

When the time came, as per her request, I sang her "Danny Boy" in a broken, muffled voice:

"And I will know, tho' soft ye tread above me / And then my grave will richer, sweeter be / And you'll bend down and tell me that you love me / And I will rest in peace until you come to me."

She made me promise I'd sing the entire song and I did not fail her. She was after all, a queen. She made her exit before I finished.

She was my sister, Catherine.

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