After causing a minor scandal in the Yale anthropology department, I left my graduate student boyfriend Norman, married my three-times-divorced Australian dissertation advisor, and moved with him back to Queensland. On a brief return trip to the States to defend my dissertation, I arranged to meet my sister Dinah and her ten-year-old boy Henry in Amherst. It had been three years since I’d seen them.
Our parents were doctors who’d moved to an Amherst Valley farming community in an ideological protest against their privileged Connecticut upbringing and Deerfield-to-Harvard-Med-School career trajectory. Dinah was six when they divorced; I was twelve. She’d always been a hyperactive child, diagnosed with ADHD when she was only three, and then classified as bi-polar in her teens. Yet, despite all her emotional problems, no one in the family could have guessed how seriously the divorce would impact my sister’s tenuous hold on her life.
My mother had dubbed me “Ennis, the laid back sister”—which in fact was not the case. Even at a young age, I knew it made more sense to assume at least the appearance of a phlegmatic temperament in order to survive in our parental war zone. It was no secret to either of us that mom and dad weren’t getting along. In fact, things had gotten so out of hand between them in the months leading up to their separation that they’d started throwing stuff at each other. My mother was the more violent of the two—she’d nearly taken out my dad’s eye once, flinging a heavy crystal paperweight at him during one of their colossal fights.
Dinah and I were also separated when our parents divorced. She remained with my mother in Amherst, while I was sent to boarding school in Seattle, where my father had moved with his new wife. Mom had clearly preferred Dinah while I had always been “Daddy’s girl,” so, by the time they split up we were already too accustomed to our designated roles to question them.
Depending on the vagaries of her bi-polar communications—my sister would either barrage me with daily emails describing her plans to revolutionize the Amherst preschool system or remain silent for months at a time. She’d let drop in her last email that she was no longer working as a preschool teacher’s assistant and was on welfare and collecting food stamps. From my occasional Skype sessions with my father, in Seattle, I learned that Dinah had been fired from, not one, but a series of preschool jobs, that he and my mother were contributing to her rent, and that, though money was scarce, she’d managed to keep her studio apartment within walking distance from the university and was still intermittently working on her Masters degree in early education.
During one of our rare international phone conversations, my mother revealed that, against her psychiatrist’s advice, Dinah had stopped taking her meds, and that she and her husband had separated and were sharing custody of Henry. None of which surprised me. Dinah had made an art of unpredictability. She had a special knack for reinterpreting our mother’s alternative life style, turning the merely “eccentric” into the “out-of-control.” I don’t have enough fingers to count her innumerable transgressions—and hairsbreadth escapes—from the law. According to my mother, the latest example of my sister’s flirtation with jail took place after her brief stint as a receptionist in a popular local naturopath’s office blossomed into a self-prescribed regime of “medical marijuana” grown in her “window box organic herb garden.” When her landlord got word of it and served her with an eviction notice, homelessness seemed like the inevitable next phase of my sister’s erratic life. Yet, for some arcane reason I have never figured out, Dinah once again managed to land on her feet. All it took this time was a plaintive note on handmade rice paper along with a dozen of her home-baked ginger cookies.
Plagued by the onus of responsibility for my unstable sibling, and fearing for my nephew’s future, I went into long-distance action, immediately opening an online “education fund” account at the Amherst Savings Bank in Henry’s name to which my husband Philip and I would contribute twice a year. Needless to say, Dinah never thanked me. She didn’t even mention it. But, this being my sister’s way, I did not bring it up again. Henry’s education was secure, and I had fulfilled my elder sister’s duty.
Dinah had married young. She was only nineteen when she met Tomas, a full-time Polish exchange student Accounting major and part-time drug dealer. Tomas was short and stocky with a pugilistic red face and bulbous knuckles. I never understood what Dinah saw in him. Nobody did. He was rough with her, even pushed her around when she annoyed him by questioning his whereabouts when he returned to their cramped studio after disappearing for days without calling her. The contrast between them was noticeable to everyone at their wedding—an elaborate outdoor affair in my mother’s garden, featuring a near-naked Egyptian belly dancer with a lit candelabrum on her head. Dinah, who was blonde, willowy and tall, green-eyed and gorgeous in the Slavic way of our mother and maternal grandmother, literally towered over her stocky bridegroom as he stood among his beer cronies ogling the near naked dancer. Snatching the candelabrum from the belly dancer’s head and putting it on her own, Dinah launched a wild, sexy belly dance that so enraged Tomas that he had to be subdued by his cronies. She later informed me that she would have asked for an annulment of the marriage, if she hadn’t been two months’ pregnant at the time. I never understood how someone as impetuous as my sister could have endured her tumultuous marriage long enough to raise such a mild-mannered and refined boy as Henry turned out to be, sharing neither of his parents’ temperaments and resembling his mother only in his lovely blonde looks.
Scroll back to two years before Dinah’s bizarre wedding. I had finished my coursework at Yale and was living in New York with my boyfriend Norman when my mother called to tell me that Dinah had been hospitalized after her second, this time nearly successful, suicide attempt. The two of them were good at keeping secrets because I didn’t know there’d been a “first” attempt. Nor, apparently, did my father, or he would surely have told me about it. Maybe mom thought it wasn’t serious enough to mention. When I chastised her for not calling me sooner, she assured me that everything was under control; that my sister was out of danger and would fully recover. Still, I could tell from her voice that she was shaken. Enough to, uncharacteristically, suggest that I visit Dinah in the exclusive privately owned psychiatric facility to which she’d been transferred. Of course, I booked a flight for the very next day.
My mother had led me to believe that Dinah was no longer on suicide watch—which I took as a flimsy attempt to cover her intervention in my sister’s early release from the hospital. I was used to mom’s half-truths where Dinah was concerned, but I was shocked when, entering the clinic’s clubby lounge, I saw my sister waiting for me with the bandages still on her wrists. Rolling her eyes and flashing me a grin, Dinah wordlessly signaled her amusement at seeing her usually unflappable sister staring at her open-mouthed and speechless. The nurse at the front desk quickly handed me a patient pass granting us a fifteen-minute walk around the grounds. Clearly, here, too, mom had worked her influential contacts in arranging for both my visit and the otherwise restricted outdoor perambulation of a patient in Dinah’s tentative condition.
It was spring, still cold, but there were already pink buds peeking from the branches of the dogwood trees surrounding the clinic. Dinah was heavily drugged, pale and almost skeletally thin, her eyes lusterless. We were both underdressed for the weather: she in a short leather jacket over a tee shirt and a pair of jersey pants that might have been pajama bottoms, I, in linen culottes and a light pullover snatched out of my closet at the last minute. Both of us were bareheaded and shivering; and I was instantly reminded of another cold April day when my sister and I were alone in the kitchen looking out the window at my mother weeding the tomato plants in her precious garden. Dinah was four at the time. I was ten—old enough to know that mom’s “private time” with her vegetables and flowers was sacrosanct since she’d spent a season at Findhorn meditating on the spiritual forces of Nature and growing tomatoes as big as grapefruits. I had once made the mistake of intruding on her when she was communing with the vegetable devas. Maybe it was because I looked so much like my father—same dark, curly Sephardic hair, sumptuous lips and heavy-lidded black eyes—that my one pathetic attempt at sharing a spiritual moment with her provoked my mother into a fit of rage usually reserved for him. Her face as red as the tomato she was holding in her hand, she exploded: “Get out of my garden, Ennis!” And I did, like a shot. No tears. No complaints. I didn’t even tell my father about it. Just kept it to myself, nurturing the slight for use at a later time. Already adept at quietly collecting grievances for future use, I had also learned by then how to check the ongoing hurt my mother inflicted on me. Where she was concerned, I could do nothing right, no matter how I tried. Okay. I could accept that. The harder thing was dealing with my envy of my sister. Privileged by her “illness,” Dinah, no matter how crazy, violent, or intrusive, evoked no such response.
“She can’t help herself. You should know this by now, Ennis,” is what I got whenever I pointed this out. Never mind that Dinah had taken to pummeling mom with her fists at the supermarket for refusing her the sugar-loaded junk food never allowed in the house; my sister could do no wrong.
Rewinding to that cold April day in the kitchen when my sister and I were kids: I had turned away from the window just in time to notice that Dinah was no longer standing next to me but was determinedly approaching the refrigerator. Fearful of her intentions (with Dinah you never knew), I bolted across the kitchen toward her with my arms outstretched. But too late to stop her, for she’d opened the freezer door and had already crawled halfway inside headfirst. I caught up with her only seconds before she could pull the door shut behind her. I dragged, and Dinah resisted, her strong little body twisting in my grasp, her powerful little legs kicking frantically in all directions.
“What are you doing? Do you want to freeze to death?” I shrieked.
“No!” One final pull, and I pried her out, clutching her, still wriggling, against my chest. Both of us were gasping, our breaths merging in the cloud of cold air escaping from the freezer.
“Please calm down, Dinah, please!” I carried her out of the kitchen and sat her down on a chair in the dining room.
Dinah grew still, reflected for a moment, then asked, “What’s it like to freeze to death?”
“Cold. You stop breathing. You stop talking or playing or eating or sleeping or seeing mommy and daddy and me and all your friends. You’re just not here anymore.”
“I don’t care. I wanna see what it’s like to be dead.”
“Well, I’m not going to let you die!”
“I don’t care. Even if you’re bigger than me, and I have to get as big as you to be dead, I’ll do it!”
And that, surprisingly, was the end of it. Until she actually tried to kill herself, and landed us both back where we started almost twenty years to the day later. Pitched, as it was, on Dinah’s childhood curiosity about what being dead was like, and her currently more capable attempt at finding out than sticking herself in the freezer, our discussion took a discomfiting turn. Clearly, Dinah still yearned for answers to the kinds of existential questions I couldn’t, or didn’t really have any interest in answering. Like my mother, she was, in her own way, a spiritual seeker. I, following in my father’s footsteps, had forsaken spirituality for science, relying on empirical data to keep me grounded. Admittedly, watching my sister devolve into deeper levels of madness had made me fearful of losing control—in my work as in my relationships. Even my affair with Philip wasn’t conducted recklessly. (Recall that the scandal it caused was only minor.) I knew from the first time we made love—and told him so—that we’d marry, and remain respectably together till death do us part. “No more divorces for you, my man. Three’s the limit!” I joked, but he knew I was dead serious.
My field research as a cultural anthropologist took me to trend-setting global cities like Sydney, Berlin, and Los Angeles. Granted, my subjects were Millennials with little or no interest in the New Age fads that had preoccupied their parents in the seventies and eighties. Yet, even scattered among them, in meditation centers, yoga classes, and self-help seminars, I had come across pockets of aging hippies like my mother, whose notions of spirituality, rooted in an era of drugs as a way to “higher consciousness,” peace, and love resembled my sister’s. Except that, in the electronic frenzy of the twenty-first-century, most people Dinah’s age had long stopped searching for answers to existential questions about death and the afterlife. The drugs were still there—but less as a path to higher consciousness than an escape into instant bliss. Unlike my mother’s generation, what these young people wanted was a quick buzz, a time-out from the stressful business of saving the planet while unapologetically making tons of money, and being “mindful” about it, too. In this, as in everything else, Dinah was an outlier—an anachronistic throwback to our mother’s otherworldly spiritual quest. I’d have understood my sister’s preoccupation with death as the need to escape the roiling impulses besetting her, or even as a yearning to be liberated from her suffering by some higher power, if we’d been raised Catholic like our mother, or Jewish, like our dad. But, outside of the snapdragon spirits and lettuce elves in mom’s garden, our atheist parents had never exposed us to any religion, never celebrated any holidays, never so much as taken us into a church or synagogue.
Returning to our walk on that cold April day after my sister’s second (technically, third suicide attempt, if you count the freezer incident): Unlinking her arm from mine, Dinah suddenly stopped and turned to face me. “Why did it have to be me?”
Reflexively tuned in to my sister’s non-sequiturs, and recognizing the question as a continuation of her unresolved challenge in the kitchen years ago, I said, “There is no why. It’s like any other inherited genetic illness . . . cancer, diabetes . . . like our cousin Melinda, who inherited diabetes from her father and has to be on insulin for her whole life.”
“I’d rather have diabetes. At least it can be treated.” Dinah shrugged. Then, gazing directly into my eyes, she asked, “Who in our family do you think passed on the craziness gene to me?”
I took her by the hand. “Better keep moving.”
“Yeah. We don’t want to freeze to death, do we?” For the second time that day Dinah flashed me her unnerving grin, and we resumed walking. Drugged or not, she still had an uncannily sharp memory, and a sly, almost deliberate capacity for evoking unsettling events from the past. At least when they concerned me, she did.
I knew it was time I told her about our grandaunt Sheryl but couldn’t be sure of what I was going to say, because I’d only heard a sketchy version of the story from my father, in a canoe on the Charles River, soon after learning about Dinah’s bi-polar diagnosis. He and I were spending the weekend together in Cambridge. Just the two of us, wandering around his old Harvard haunts, trawling the bookstores, pizzerias and bars, and canoeing in the late afternoon, which was something we’d do whenever the battle between my parents became intolerable. Dad had drunk several beers at lunch and was feeling pretty mellow by the time I’d taken over the paddling from him. He was sitting with his shoulders hunched and his head down, not talking, so I thought he might have fallen asleep and didn’t try to engage him in conversation, as I normally would; this being one of the rare opportunities we had for escaping the venomous atmosphere at home. I paddled on in silence for what felt like a long time, but what, cocooned in the unfamiliar serenity of the river, was probably really only ten or fifteen minutes. That was when dad, albeit reluctantly, disclosed a part of his family history he’d never talked about before.
Now eager to get out of the cold and away from my sister’s probing questions, I summed up for her what he told me with the folk-tale brevity of an ethnographic field note.
“Dad didn’t give me the details, but what I got was that his father’s sister Sheryl was an exceptionally brilliant and beautiful, educated but unreachable, young woman who surprised the family by marrying a plumber from the Bronx, and moving with him there, after graduating from Holyoke. Despite everyone’s predictions, the marriage turned out to be a happy one. Until Sheryl’s pregnancy and miscarriage, when she became “unreachable” to the point where she’d lock herself in her room and starve herself. I suppose today she’d be classified as anorexic, autistic, or both. But they hadn’t come up with those diagnoses back in the forties. Her husband, Ralph, did try to get her some medical help, but nothing seemed to work. She’d come out of her room for a while and even start eating, but then she’d revert back to locking herself away and starving herself. Dad said his aunt wrote some beautiful poetry during what he called her 'hermetic periods.' His uncle discovered an entire completed manuscript among her things after she died. The problem was that, for some reason, Ralph decided to keep his wife’s condition secret from the family. Imagine. No one even knew what was going on. The sad thing about it was that they had the money and the connections to get Sheryl the best medical treatment available at the time. But Ralph was too proud to ask them for help, and Sheryl eventually became too much for him to handle. It was only after he had her committed to Central Islip, on Long Island, that the family was brought in. But by then it was too late. The rest of the story is blurry, but dad says he found out when he was in high school that Sheryl had somehow managed to starve herself to death in the hospital. Ralph sued Central Islip for neglect but lost the case.”
Once again, Dinah pierced me with her ironic grin. “So she starved . . . she didn’t freeze herself to death, right?”
I suppressed the urge to slap her.
“Don’t worry, Ennis. I’m not Sheryl, and I don’t want to die anymore. So don’t feel you have to save me. You can go back to your interesting little anthropological life. I’ll be fine.”
And fine she was, after that. At least there were no more suicide attempts. By the time Henry was born, my sister had “pulled my shit together,” as she put it in one of her more tempered emails. The next time I saw her was at Henry’s first birthday party. Gazing down at my nephew in his playpen, giggling and clutching the monkey-holding-a-banana stuffed toy I brought him, even left me feeling optimistic about my sister’s future. Surprisingly, she turned out to be a caring and affectionate mother. Better, in many ways, than ours was.
That was then.
Now Henry was ten, and I, who had traveled as far away from home as I could get, was living my interesting little anthropological life, and enjoying it. That is, until the day I found myself unexpectedly homesick, longing for the familiar New England landscapes and accents of my childhood, and, most of all, missing Dinah to the point of shedding silent tears. I, who’d never been much of a crier—silent or otherwise—and especially not over my irksome sister . . . thanks to whom I’d had plenty of practice hiding my feelings—from my parents, myself, and everyone else—or so I thought, in the same way I was hiding my homesickness now. But not from Philip, who, alert to my slightest change of mood, urged me to visit Dinah and her boy.
Fast-forward to my last encounter with my sister: Amherst. Early September. We’d arranged to meet at three o’clock, at the front entrance of Henry’s school after the dismissal bell. Philip dropped me off at the corner and drove away, leaving me to greet Dinah on my own. Not bothering to hide her disapproval, she’d always been antsy and sarcastic around him. Once called him “a cold potato” to his face, which, as I later learned, was her way of justifying her budding relationship with my ex-boyfriend Norman. When I confronted her about it, she brushed me off with a laugh. I told her that whatever she had going with Norman was her own business but it didn’t excuse her harsh treatment of Philip, who had always gently evaded her embarrassing questions about his “other wives” before marrying me. Not to speak of her uncalled for attacks on academics, and specifically against “arrogant anthropologists who think they’re above the ‘ignorant natives’ they study, like bugs under a microscope.” Discretion was never one of my sister’s strong suits. Cruelty was.
The schoolyard was filled with mostly mothers, some fathers, and kids of all ages, shapes, colors, and sizes. I was glad to see that Dinah (probably with our mother’s help) had chosen a progressive school catering to a diverse population that didn’t draw hard and fast lines between elementary and middle school students. I looked around for Henry, who, though the bell had rung, hadn’t come out yet. Dinah was nowhere in sight. A group of women sitting around a picnic table—earth mothers in Birkenstocks and dirndls—cheerfully beckoned me into their midst.
“Who are you waiting for?” asked a pigtailed goddess with bare, fleshy arms and a welcoming smile.
“My nephew . . . Henry Richards; do you know if his class has come out yet?”
After a brief consultation with the other women and children around the table, the pigtailed mother sent her daughter, a red-haired sylph of about eight, back into the school. “Go tell them to call Henry over the loudspeaker and tell him his aunt is here.”
The girl ran off, and the announcement came a few minutes later. Then Henry reluctantly appeared in the doorway. Considerably taller and unusually composed for his age—no, let me change that, actually, self-contained to a fault, greeting me wordlessly with a languid hand wave and averting my attempted hug by stepping backward into the shadows. How to account for the fact that he didn’t seem to know who I was? Could it be because we’d last met three years ago, and kids tend to forget adults they haven’t seen on a regular basis? Then what about the steady stream of photos and gifts I’d sent from Australia to remind him of his “Auntie Ennis”: the Aboriginal hand-carved and painted boomerang; the authentic Sydney Swans Footy uniform; and the slew of books, CDs, and junior science projects, the professional NASA models of rockets and movable, intricately geared lunar landers? Thinking back on it, in all that time I’d received only one thank-you card in acknowledgment. Could Dinah have been hiding my gifts from him, or tossing them out, to spite me? I wouldn’t put it past her. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
I stood there contemplating the reasons for my nephew’s cold reception when it suddenly dawned on me that he couldn’t have hugged or touched me, even if he wanted to. Not the miniature Hasid prohibited from touching a woman standing at arm’s length from me, astonishingly outfitted in the Ultra-orthodox uniform of a yeshiva boy: long black pants and a long-sleeved white shirt, from which, on either side, dangled the fringes of his ritual tzitzit; on his head, an oversized embroidered skullcap that left nothing visible of his lovely blonde hair but a pair of corkscrew curled side locks.
What happened next still remains hazy—except that I was led by Henry to the school garden, where I saw my sister, covered in several layers of black clothing, her hair and a good part of her face obscured by a thick black velveteen babushka, holding up a huge orange pumpkin. Bits and pieces of disjointed conversation . . . my hostile questions and Dinah’s ferocious responses are all I remember before launching a full-on attack on her cultish conversion to an Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect with its unreasonable demands on Henry amounting to child abuse. At which point she struck me hard in the face with her fist and I fell to the ground, hit my head on a trowel, and passed out.
When I woke up in the hospital with a star-spangled headache and saw my mother and father standing over me, I let loose a howl. Surprisingly, it was mom who leaned over to comfort me, and my white-faced dad looking as if he was about to faint, who shrank back from the bed. I tried to speak, but every attempt at mouthing a word sent a herd of buffalos rampaging through my skull. It was mom, again, who came to the rescue. She took my hand, and beckoning my dad closer, placed it in his. As he came into focus, I saw that tears were flowing freely down his cheeks.
“Don’t try to talk,” mom placed a finger to her lips. “You’ve suffered a concussion and were out for twenty-four hours. You had us scared there for a while, Ennis.”
Making no effort to wipe his tear-glistened cheeks, dad squeezed my hand, adding,
“Yes, the x-rays showed that you wrenched your neck badly even before you hit the ground. The orthopedic specialists who examined you haven’t decided on the treatment yet. It’ll take a couple of weeks before the swelling goes down and they can see what’s going on.”
No sign of Dinah. Not a word. Not a call. Not a text or an email the entire ten days I was in the hospital. Nothing, until my mother, indirectly, informed me that Dinah needed me out of her life in order to give herself the space to figure out whether she wanted to see or hear from me again. In the meantime, I wasn’t to contact her or Henry in any way.
Philip and I returned to Australia a month later; me with my neck in a collar, my ears ringing, dizzy, with my head bursting but still refusing painkillers and determined to avoid surgery at all costs. Turns out it was Dinah’s blow to the face that resulted in the concussion and the awkward fall that resulted in injury to my cervical spine. Five specialists conferring with my mom and dad couldn’t agree on anything more than the diagnosis: “Post concussion syndrome followed by cervicogenic impairment”—medical terminology that meant little to me and even less when no one could agree on treatment. So I chose the least invasive path prescribed: acupuncture, physiotherapy, and an array of bodywork techniques, which, while mitigating the initial damage, have yet to offer permanent relief.
I’m back in regular touch with my mom, who keeps me informed about Henry, now attending Deerfield on a full scholarship—presumably minus the Hasidic ritual fringes. It’s been a year and I still haven’t heard from my sister, who, according to my mother, claims that my visit “traumatized” her for life.
Before leaving the states, I gave my mother a letter to pass on to Dinah asking her forgiveness and pleading for reconciliation. Now, more than ever, I needed to impress on her that we were sisters first, no matter how far apart we were on just about everything else. I wasn’t about to let anything or anyone break the bond between us. “Remember how we promised each other to stick together through heaven and hell, no matter what?” I wrote, receiving only silence in response.
Eight months passed. Then, one day, an email appeared in my Inbox.
Today during my morning prayers it became very clear that I needed to stand up for something....
When you visited once, you were looking at a map with Henry. (I had offered to show you guys his classroom) and you decided to further (as our culture already does) indoctrinate Henry into your belief in Evolution (it has not been proven…it is just that a theory and a belief.) I didn't appreciate that! And I didn't say anything, and I wish I had, so I am!
Also, I was quite hurt by your choice to mock my choice to cover my hair. It is hard enough raising a Jewish son in galus (“exile”), your support, or at the very least 'do-no-harm' approach is appreciated. Of course Henry and I are grateful for your gifts of clothing funds and appreciate the gesture. You don't have to send them to mom; we can handle our own funds and be trusted to use them as intended. It feels good to be trusted!
Also, I was very hurt by your comments regarding my “forcing Henry into a cult”. They made no sense and were further traumatizing...when you said something about child abuse. I was so confused by that accusation and then later ended up repeating that word to Henry in a moment of upset (which thank god I have learned to manage better.) Point is it did us all harm, which I know you wouldn't wish for.
When I was a teenager and struggling, you had written me a letter and said I was f@*&ed up...and I'm still shedding that impression (thank god!) please be mindful of your words and communication with us! Words are powerful! Encouraging words are always appreciated, as is acceptance and your precious presence.
Hashem used words to create our world. You have read Genesis and ought to know this!
I am writing this to request more pleasant future interactions and to fully release past hurts and let them go, knowing you will be more mindful in the future (now that I have expressed my concerns) is a relief, and a load off my head and shoulders.
The healing process is coming along nicely, slowly and steadily. PTSD is a tricky one. Though I am making significant gains and very hopeful about an awesome rest of my life, B"H! (“Baruch Hashem”—Blessed be the Holy Name).
I pray this finds you well, and happy, and peaceful. Thanks for taking a moment out of your precious time to process what I pray came through as non-violent/compassionate communication.