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My Sister

May 26, 2019

Things at home were very different now. My dad and brother Ken had moved out, which helped to relieve the explosive and unpredictable stress in the house. But the chaos wasn’t over yet. My sister Leslie was angry, and she didn’t want to live with us, she wanted to move in with Dad, where there were no rules and boundaries. She was 12 years old, and couldn’t demand that decision until she was 13, which she had to do in custody court in front of a judge. For now the law required that she stayed with us. Mom made it very clear that she wasn’t going to let her go live with Dad. She loved Leslie so much. She already lost the oldest; she wasn’t going to give up her young daughter so easily, and she let Leslie know that. It seemed unlikely that the courts would decide that it would be ok for my sister to live with my Dad. Even at 8-years old, I knew that. He was an alcoholic, cheated on my mom, and was not of good character. Besides, how many judges are going to let a 13-year old daughter move in with her dad instead of her mom? This was 1970 – everyone knew that children are taken care of by the mothers.

 

My mom knew that our dad was not going to provide a safe place for Leslie, but my sister did all she could to rebel. My mom took the opposite tactic. She did her best to do things that would make her feel good about living with us. She gave in to many of Leslie’s demands, hoping it would change her mind.

 

Leslie complained about having to share a room with me (we were also sharing a bed), so Mom finally agreed to let her have her own bedroom in the basement. My sister got a dark light and put up glow in the dark posters. It was a dark room filled with patchouli and incense and she never allowed me to be in there, not that I wanted to be in there. It was a windowless room with concrete blocks on the walls. It was cold and damp, and exuded anger and depression.

 

At this point in our relationship, she was tired of me. She claimed (and did until I set her straight when she was 50 years old) that all I wanted to do was be just like her. I wanted to do the things she did – dance, gymnastics, Girlscouts (especially with our mom as the leader – she went above and beyond) and draw. She had some Barbies with clothes and accessories that she never let me play with. They stayed in her drawer, and I was never allowed to touch them with or without her. I never got my own Barbies, so I never had any to play with. I basically wanted to play – just like she wanted to play, and she interpreted that as me wanting to be just like her. I was just being a girl – a kid – and a human – wanting community. But it was annoying to her, and she let me know it. I’m sure it didn’t help that Mom would dress us up in the same clothes for special occasions – even though we were 5 years apart. But she acted like she loved it. Even at this age, we all went out shopping and Leslie and I jumped up and down over our matching pink frilly pajamas. Mom had gotten $5,000 from her mother’s death, and she spent it on clothing for the three of us kids. It was the first time the shopping cart was filled up with new clothes. We almost never got new clothes. We got shoes, pants, shirts, pajamas and underwear. All I ever wore were hand-me-downs from my sister or clothing my mom sewed. To get all these new clothes at once was an unforgettable experience. She also bought a riding lawn mower so she could cut the couple of acres of yard without having to push it all. The rest went to outstanding and current bills and groceries.

 

Another thing I remember about my sister – she had this habit of laughing whenever someone got hurt. If one of us fell, tripped, hit our head – whatever it was, she laughed. It’s almost as if she were watching a slapstick movie, but it wasn’t a movie – it was us. And she mostly laughed at my younger brother, John and me. Maybe it was some sort of survival mechanism, so our older brother wouldn’t pick on her. I’m not sure where that came from, but to me, it was as bad as getting teased and physically picked on by my older brother Ken. Whatever her reasons, for a small child it felt like she didn’t care. Not only did she not care, but from my perspective, she delighted in our pain.

 

Still, I missed my sister and the comfort of having someone in the bed with me at night, even though I was always in bed first, and didn’t know when she came to bed. At least I knew she was going to be there at some point. It was a wonder to me how she could leave our room. In this house we had a big queen size canopy bed, with soft lavender flowers on the fabric of the canopy. It coordinated with the bedspread and shams. I loved this bed. It felt soft, inviting, protective, and special. The room was bright with a big picture window, and we had deep purple tie-dyed curtains my mom made, so the sun wouldn’t wake us up. And now without my sister – it felt empty. I still had fond memories of the times she did play with me – like when we put on shows for our parents’ parties, and the fun we used to have trick or treating. I longed to have “the real her” back in my life.

 

The divorce between my parents escalated her anger. She was incredibly mean and demanding, especially to Mom. She yelled and screamed and argued over everything. She also tried to take advantage of the fact that Mom would do almost anything to win her over. She begged for a unicycle, but my mom put her foot down on that one. She said it was too dangerous. (Dad bought her one anyway – so to my mom, it seemed that he was trying to win her over to live with him. And maybe he was?) Leslie wanted to go to Florida with uncle Chuck, who wasn’t really our uncle. In fact I never even heard of him until this trip came up. When I met him and his wife at our house, I KNEW he wasn’t a man to be trusted. He seemed like a criminal, and didn’t have good intentions. I was scared for my sister, and didn’t understand why she’d want to be with him. I decided she was just using him so she could go to Florida. (Interesting side note – this is when I decided I never wanted to go to Florida – “too dangerous”.) Not only did Mom let her go, she bought her an expensive satiny, bright pink bikini with fringe that Leslie picked out from a catalog. It looked completely inappropriate for a 12 or 13-year old to be wearing. I couldn’t believe Mom paid for it, much less let her go. I was actually scared and thought I might not see my sister again. I felt like something terrible was going to happen to her.

 

I don’t know what happened to her on that trip, but when she came back, she didn’t seem the same. She never mentioned “uncle Chuck” again. Soon, she had boyfriends come by when she was supposed to be babysitting us. She continued to smoke cigarettes – and Mom’s rule was “Not in my house!” so she smoked outside or in her basement bedroom where she could cover the smell with patchouli. I would hide in my room when a boy came over. I knew it wasn’t allowed, and my sister wasn’t the same person when she was around boys. I didn’t feel safe. One afternoon, she was outside with her boyfriend and my brother John. I was in the house alone. She came running in, screaming, so terrified – and started running water in the bathtub.

 

“What’s going on?” I asked with fear penetrating my heart.

 

“John’s been in an accident. Mom’s going to kill me!”

 

“What happened?! Where is he?” (Part of me was afraid he was dead.)

 

She was in a state of panic. She started speaking in broken sentences.

 

“The bike…he shouldn’t have ridden it.”

 

“Where is he?!” I yelled. “Is he ok?!” (Now I was even more sure that he was dead.)

 

“He’s with my boyfriend. He’s taking care of him.”

 

I was afraid of her boyfriend, and didn’t go out to check on him. Leslie also gave me the impression that I better stay out of the way.

 

Mom had a rule that no boyfriends can be at the house while she’s babysitting. John apparently rode her boyfriend’s bike and crashed it in a bad accident. His leg was scraped deeply and bleeding. She was afraid his leg was broken. She wouldn’t call a doctor. She was hoping she could take care of him and Mom wouldn’t find out. She prepared the bath getting ready to clean his leg.

 

It turned out John was ok. I don’t know if our mom ever found out - I don’t remember. I had never seen my sister so scared. I could tell she was really worried about John, too. Again, my intuition was affirmed – I wasn’t safe. And neither was John.

 

Mom did so much to give Leslie some amazing opportunities, before and after the divorce. Besides being her Girlscout troop leader, she would take the cheerleading squad in the van and be the chaperone and driver to take them wherever they went. (Yes, my sister was also a cheerleader. I don’t know for whom she cheered for, because I only remember seeing her once. I wasn’t allowed to go with the older girls very often. It was so impressive though - she was doing handsprings and back flips – things I didn’t even know she could do. I was blown away.) Mom drove her to dance rehearsals, dance recitals (which Leslie usually starred in) and even signed her and John up for a very expensive gymnastics club in Milwaukee. I don’t know how she afforded it, probably with the money she inherited. Both kids complained about how hard it was. I wanted to go so badly – I loved gymnastics and was fairly good at it. My mom would not let me go. I told her I wouldn’t complain. (This was probably another factor that my sister thought I wanted to be like her. I just wanted to do gymnastics.) She said no. I think she was hoping they would burn off some of their energy and be more stable from all of the intense exercise during this difficult time in our lives. It didn’t work. It made them both exhausted and more irritable. John told me the coaches were tough and abusive.

 

My sister also got the lead as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz in the school play. It wasn’t the musical version, because my sister couldn’t carry a tune. (It was the only thing she couldn’t do.) But I remember my mom working for hours on her costume, making her outfit look just like Judy Garland’s in the movie. She helped her with her lines, and did everything she could to make it a successful experience for her. For some reason, Mom and I were the only ones to see her in the play. I think she really wanted our dad to be there, but he didn’t come. My brothers weren’t there either. We sat in folding chairs, and the place was packed. I was little, and couldn’t see over the heads of anyone. I tried to watch my sister, but missed most of the play because of my height. I was frustrated and bored. I had little time with my mom and Leslie was one of the reasons. When I tried to tell Mom I couldn’t see, she just hushed me. I was miserable.

 

Leslie still had on her costume as we walked to the car in the parking lot. I was tired and ready to go home. We were standing next to the car, and Mom said something about how proud she was of her. My sister was satisfied with her performance, but she was not happy. Keeping true to her rebellious state, she said something terribly mean in response. Probably something to the effect of, “Yea, I did fine, but I still wish I didn’t have to do it. You made me do it. I didn’t want to be in this stupid play anyway. It would have been better if Dad came instead.” I can’t remember the words, but the feeling that overcame me was, “HOW COULD YOU?! How could you say that after all the love and effort Mom had put in to make this incredible experience for you?!!” Inside, I was livid.

 

Mom spontaneously slapped my sister across the face. “FINALLY!” I thought. Finally she put Leslie in her place. I felt washed over with relief. Leslie had been so mean, and this was the apex of her bullying our mom. The look of shock on my sister’s face was combined with a look of that young, innocent child that lived within her. I was so happy to finally see that child again. It was as if she was going to break down and cry, fall into Mom’s arms and say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

But suddenly the tables turned. Mom realized what she had done, and guilt consumed her. It was Mom that started say, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll never do that again. I promise. I’m sorry.” I could feel her digressing. She was thinking thoughts of, ‘oh no, after all I’ve invested in the hopes of making her feel like being with me instead of her dad, I just ruined it.’

 

Leslie’s face hardened. The little girl was gone. I felt the hope and promise of a turning tide immediately fade away. The opportunity Mom had to show that she had respect for herself and was no longer going to take the abuse of a child, came at an impulsive, yet perfect moment. I knew the moment she apologized, she had lost all ground in terms of the adult versus child distinction. There was no adult present that was in control. Basically, we were all fending for ourselves.

 

Mom and Leslie went to custody court shortly after her 13th birthday, which was in October. I remember Mom being incredibly worried. I knew that there was no way they would side with my dad. They would never approve of her living with him.

 

I was wrong. It was a shock when Mom came back without her. The court ruled in my sister’s favor. Even after all the evidence was laid out she was permitted to move in with Dad. There was nothing my mom could do to change the court. She fought hard. He fought harder. Evidently Dad really wanted her to stay with him and it was obvious she wanted to stay with him. It was difficult for me to comprehend. Dad wanted Leslie? He wanted to take care of Ken and Leslie? He was never home – he seemed to have no interest in us. At least that’s what I thought. Then it occurred to me, he must really want them with him. What was going on here? And who said it was a good idea? I wanted to go and tell that judge what I thought of it all. I also wanted to go and rescue Leslie, yet it was very clear she didn’t want to be here. I wanted to talk to Dad and ask why he wanted Ken and Leslie. He didn’t have time for them. Actually, I felt that he could keep Ken. It was much better without him. But I didn’t want to give up Leslie, even if she was spiteful.

 

The grief that overcame my mom is difficult to describe. She had to let her go. She had to allow her daughter to be in an environment that she knew was destructive. Having daughters myself, I cannot begin to imagine what that was like. Years later, my sister blamed her for her difficult life – and “letting her move in with Dad.” I tried to set the record straight, but she was never sober enough to actually hear it.

 

My sister never came back. She never packed her things, she never said goodbye – it was as if she died. I guess she took things that were hers from the basement, but she never came in our room and got the rest of her clothes, her toys, or any of her belongings. All the drawers were mine now. The Barbies became mine. The whole room was mine. The yelling stopped. There was quiet in the house. It was a great relief from the stress, but now it was covered with a blanket of grief.

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