By the time I was 15, my sister was serving time in prison. No one took me to see her. I was probably too young and not allowed anyway. No one gave me an address and told me I could write to her. I learned years later that she was in a prison cell that held 20-30 women. They were all in the same room together – and the room was filled with cots. (She drew a picture of it and had sent it to Mom. They were in close contact with each other through letters. I’m sure my mom had visited her as well.) A lot of the women were on Huber Law – if they had a job, they could go to work during the day, and had to come back to the prison at night. My sister had helped several of the women get jobs by sewing them new clothes. There was a sewing machine in the prison, and she had picked up some sewing basics from our mom. She could not get a hold of a pattern, so she made it up as she went. She got so good at it, she made businesses suits for some of the women – without a pattern! She was sober, she was smart, and she was finding purpose.
I visited her once when she went into a half-way house – the next step for drug addicts after prison. It was the first time I saw my sister in a couple of years. The place looked like a horrible place to live. It was a regular 2-story house in Milwaukee, but it felt really dark inside. There wasn’t much sunlight, and I could feel Leslie’s tension as she gave us a basic tour. It was almost as if you were being watched at all times. She whispered when she spoke with us. I think she was there for 3-6 months. She told us how they would make them scrub the bathroom with a toothbrush, while screaming over them. I remember thinking, “and you used to complain when Mom asked you to clean the bathroom.” I also felt it wasn’t right – therapies back then were a bit screwed up. I could tell she was trying her best – and she was using all of her charms to be friends with the counselors by doing more than the others. She also covered for some of the other residents and did things for them as well. She was hoping to get out of there sooner, but had no preset date. She was a lot more seasoned now, and I felt sorry for her. It was nice to see a bit of her old self shine through with her sobriety, yet she looked broken to me. It was hard to see the one I loved, the one who was so physically strong and gifted, look like she was hanging on by a thread. Her nerves were on edge, and you could see the circles under her eyes. She was in a lot of emotional pain. I prayed she would make it through.
Leslie left the halfway house, but I’m not sure if she was released, or just left. No one came after her once she was gone, so she worked it out somehow. It’s possible that E helped her out – E was his nickname – a shortened version for his eastern European name. I don’t remember how E and Leslie met, but I do remember the first time I met him.
Leslie called and asked me to come over and spend time with her at her new place (E’s apartment.) I had my driver’s license now, so I was 16 or 17 and she was 21 or 22. Before I went, I had already heard of E. According to Mom, Leslie had finally met a decent guy who could handle her. He had his own business fixing musical equipment in a music store, and did very well for himself. He also had an apartment and seemed to be straight as far as drugs went. I was nervous, but really wanted to see my sister. I didn’t know what to expect – I didn’t even really know her at this point, but the fact that she wanted to have a relationship with me was enough for me. I knew she had been sober for a couple of years now, and was looking forward to reconnecting with her.
Leslie was the perfect host. I think she took after Mom with having appetizers prepared – which felt really welcoming. Also, like Mom, she gave me the recipe for her incredible “taco plate” which had cottage cheese and cream cheese mixed as a base, sprinkled taco seasonings on it, then added shredded lettuce, black olives, tomatoes and cheese. I was hesitant to try it, but she was so enthusiastic about it, I didn’t want to let her down. I took a corn chip and slid it under the pile of ingredients. When it hit my mouth all the taste sensations melded perfectly together. This was the first introduction to my sister’s cooking. It was one of the best things I had ever put in my mouth.
She offered me a daiquiri, but I declined. My heart sank when I noticed the pitcher of prepared alcohol. I didn’t drink as a teenager for obvious reasons, (I saw what it did to my family) but it wasn’t for the lack of offers. I was hoping Leslie would continue her sober path, but it didn’t look like that was the case.
My first impression of her new boyfriend, E, was that he was physically striking. I had never met anyone like him before. He had dark hair, dark expressive eyes, skin that looked like it was permanently, yet naturally tanned, a soft smile, and a lean but strong body. He had kindness in his eyes, and looked straight into mine. I felt that he really cared about my sister. Not just in a physical way, but in every way. He had a calmness and confidence about him that I knew she needed to balance out her free and creative spirit.
We hung out for a couple of hours eating taco dip with the football game blaring in the background. This was a little bit like hanging out at Dad’s house. I saw the pattern she was going for. For me personally, I knew by then I would never settle with someone who loved to watch sports on TV. I equated a man watching sports to irresponsibility, drinking, and exclusion. My dad was responsible for that impression.
Hanging out in this new environment with people I hardly knew was a little awkward for me. I liked my comfort zone and as an introvert it was a stretch for me to walk into this unknown situation. But overall, I was happy to be with my sister again, especially since she seemed so much happier since the last time I saw her.
We met a couple of more times at her apartment and I saw her and E again at Dad’s house. Leslie was someone who could fill up the whole afternoon with conversation. She told me everything that crossed her mind, from new projects she was working on and new recipes she discovered to sharing her desires to have a baby. She thought the idea of having a child would bring love back into her life.
“What about E?” I asked. “He loves you.”
“Yes, but that’s different,” she explained. “A baby is pure love. I know that having a baby would fill me up with love!”
My heart sank. It felt backwards to me. From my experience, you needed love to give to a child. The child isn’t the one who is responsible to love you. And in my mind, she was still a child. She wasn’t ready to have a baby. She wasn’t married yet, so hopefully it would be awhile before that happened and she could grow up in the meantime.
At one of our visits she mentioned that she wanted to take me out for my 18th birthday – just the two of us. “Wow” I thought. “She really is working at our relationship. This will be fun. We can go out and play!”
The drinking age in Wisconsin at this time was 18, so I would be legally considered an adult.
Disco was all the rage back then and even though I didn’t care for the music, I loved to dance. (In fact, the next month, I was going to be part of a 12-hour dance marathon raising money for Muscular Dystrophy.) I couldn’t wait to turn 18 so I could go to clubs and bars and hear live music. The alcohol was of no interest to me, but the music and bands I would read about in the paper had been on my mind for years.
On the actual day of my birthday, my mom had put together a party at our house with about 10 or 12 friends. We had a buffet-style dinner and played lots of games, including guessing who was who in baby pictures, and a “Julie Trivia Game” – where my friends had to test their knowledge on how well they knew me – including my highest bowling score. We laughed so hard and had a great time. One of my friends said, “I thought this was going to be a really boring party without alcohol, but it was one of the best parties I’ve ever been to.” My mom was really good at making sure people had fun at her parties.
Now that I was officially 18, my sister picked a date for us to go out. She said she wanted to surprise me with where we were going, but I needed to dress up. I wore my favorite chocolate brown skirt with its matching jacket. It was kind of like a business suit, but not too business-like. It made me feel dressed up and grown-up and I loved the way it fit my body perfectly. It was December, so it was cold outside, and I knew it would keep me warm as well. I felt a little nervous, but mostly excited about what adventure awaited. My sister wanted to celebrate my birthday with me. This hadn’t happened since I was 9 years old. Was I finally getting my sister back? I’ll tell you what played out in next week’s blog.