Original art by Kathleen Swain
Unless you’ve been cursed with a prissy, goody-two-shoes older sister, you couldn’t possibly appreciate this, so just go on with whatever you were doing. If you want to commiserate, jump right in. Phyllis was three years older than I. This put her just far enough ahead of me that all the teachers and Sunday School teachers were still raving about her performance. “Phyllis never misspelled a word on a test the whole year. Phyllis is the best student I had in all my twenty years of teaching. Phyllis is the neatest kid in class. Phyllis always reads her Sunday School Lesson and knows her memory verses.” I’m sure it was all true. She worked on her homework from the time she got off the bus every day till Mother made her go to bed every night, copying it over rather than have an erasure.
I did my homework on the bus, if I could borrow some paper. The second day of first grade Miss Angie called me a blabbermouth and a scatterbrain. I was delighted till she sent a note home. My parents pointed out neither was a good thing. The only notes Phyllis ever got asked if she could be the lead in the school play, tutor slow kids, or be considered for sainthood. Mother had to chase the schoolbus to brush my hair. If we had pancakes for breakfast, my papers stuck to me all morning and dirt clung to the syrupy patches after recess. I never got the connection between being sticky and not washing up after breakfast.
It was bad enough that Mother tried to civilize me. After I started school, Phyllis was embarrassed about being related to “Messy Mayhem.” She started in telling Mother I needed to pull my socks up, brush my hair, not wipe my snotty nose on my sleeve, and most of all, not tell anyone I was related to her. She was a hotline home for anything that the teachers forgot to send a note about. It didn’t help our friendship.
Phyllis was always first in line to get in the door at church. I am surprised she didn’t have her own key. Sitting quietly and thoughtfully through sermons, she’d occasionally nod and mark passages in her Bible. The minister was sure she was headed for “Special Sevice.” Meanwhile, I sat next to Mother, barely aware of the minister’s drone, desperately trying to find interest, somewhere, anywhere. I liked the singing but it didn’t last long. The words didn’t make sense, but it sure beat the sermon. Once the sermon started, I’d start at the front and enumerate things: roses on hats, striped ties, bald men, sleepers, crying babies, kids who got to prowl in their mother’s purses, or the number of times the preacher said “Damn, Breast or Hell!”. Once in a while something interesting would happen, like pants or skirt stuck in a butt-crack, or a kid would get taken out for a spanking, but all this made for a mighty lean diet.
One glorious Sunday, the sun shone. As we filed out, I looked longingly at the lucky kids running wild in the parking lot. We had to stand decorously beside Mother and Daddy as he waxed eloquent, rubbing elbows with the deacons, whose august company he longed to join. As he discussed the merits of the sermon with Brother Cornell Poleman, a deacon with an unfortunate sinus infection, Brother Poleman pulled a big white hankie from his coat pocket and blew a disgusting snort in its general direction. Fortunately for Sister Poleman, she wouldn’t be dealing with that nasty hanky in Monday’s laundry. A giant yellow, green gelatinous gob of snot went airborn, landing right on Phyllis’s saintly, snowy, Southern Baptist forearm, where it quivered just a bit, before settling into its happy home. Her expression was priceless. Mr. Poleman grabbed her arm, rubbing the snot all over her forearm before she could extricate herself from his foul grip. She flew to the church bathroom to wash before joining the family waiting in the car. That snot trick had put a hasty end to all visiting. When she got home, she locked herself in the bathroom to scrub her arm with Comet. I enjoyed church that day.
My brother Billy certainly didn’t have to deal with comparisons to a saint when he followed three years behind me.