Photo by Scott Oglesby
I wasn't surprised when Rhonda screamed "I want a divorce" in the midst of one of our fights. We'd been on the outs for a while now and a split-up was long overdue. Her choice of words, however, was provocative. Rhonda happens to be my sister.
They say never live with a grown-up sibling, but here I was pushing 60 and sharing a house with my slightly older sister, an ex-beauty queen no less. Her blonde glamour was lost on me, but giving testimony to the bonding power of childhood bickering, we had become quite close after being thrown together in midlife to lick our wounds from failed marriages. How we ended up together in a rundown upstate farmhouse is a tale of sublets gone bad and dysfunctional meandering. Basically, my long distance help with her mortgage led to more frequent visits, a joint music venture, and finally my permanent move from the West Coast.
Our sprawling home was a magical place, an 1860 Saltbox perched on a hill with a million dollar view, 80 acres and a spring-fed pond. The neighborhood — a rough mixture of farms, getaway cabins and doublewides — was a reflection of our Arkansas youth. Children of the dreamy Sixties, my sister and I had careened through life — me a career-challenged late bloomer, she an acclaimed songwriter-actor who was star-struck but without the killer instinct (or agent) required for a full-fledged Broadway career.
Deep down we were both still crackers, but our adaptation to life couldn't have been more opposite. I became a pragmatic, post-hip moralist; my more complex sister, a worldly spiritualist, tomboy and feminist front-liner. After a couple of martinis, she'd take on all comers — usually the first male lurking in the area. Quite often that was me. This Southern-Scottish habit was bred from our often tipsy and controlling father. As a child, I inherited his insecurities as well, making them my own at the breakfast table. Over my sister's shrill protests, I rationed our orange juice drop by drop into equal shares. In adulthood, this gambit morphed into squirrelly parsing in all areas, with special focus on my sister's alcohol consumption. We were the sibling sand in each other's eyes.
In our new competition for head of household, we had taken to sitting on the porch like slacker versions of Hee Haw characters, and jawing about home improvements. We rarely agreed, which brought heated arguments, both of us ignoring the scarcity of completed projects. She wanted a washer-dryer.
"Just more pipes to freeze up in the winter," I'd say.
"Then, at least let’s tear off this tacky screen porch."
"No way," I'd balk, "I love the levered windows." I didn't bother to mention the porch's tin roof, and how it conspired with summer showers to patter me to sleep on the daybed, a bright orange sun rousing me at dawn. Not her — she stayed up late, plying her brain with brandy, Guru "somebody," and weirdo talk-radio. Then she slept till eleven; I had to tiptoe around in the morning, NPR on my headphones.
We tried to play nice, and we did manage some joint projects — recording a song demo-tape, building a dock for the pond, nursing the vegetable garden, clearing our hiking trails. But being the man, I took on the physical upkeep — mowing, roofs and gutters, firewood and such. A "foodie" as well, I also ruled the kitchen. And as in any marriage, there was subtle as well as blatant scorekeeping of who was getting over, doing or paying more than their share.
Originally a weekend escape from city jobs and apartments, our shared home revolved around our changing circumstances. At one point, Rhonda spent a lot of time in Nashville in a hopeful career-move. I remarried and moved into a NYC apartment. These moves defused our head-butting, but inevitably, we both forced our will when the other was absent. She'd build a carport, or cut a new door into the "hippie room," our attic disaster filled with old LP's, Hendrix posters and lava lamps. I'd harvest my secret pot garden, or bonfire a ratty piece of disputed furniture. We always knew how far to push it. Talk of buyouts were frequent margarita topics but neither of us had the means to leave. Luckily, we were both childless so the only kids to worry about were us.
How long could we do this? Sixteen years it would turn out — through a husband and a few boyfriends for her, two gals and two wives for me. They would alternately mediate or take sides, getting sucked in and spat out frequently in our whirlwind dramas. Longevity had never been in our house-sharing plan. Obviously, planning was not in our genes at all.
It's possible that our folks were the guilty enablers behind this dilemma. Old farm-kids themselves, they embraced our Yankee paradise, thrilled to visit their grown kids on the same coast in the same house. With no grandkids to dote on, they swamped us with the attention, love and money, absent in our youth. How else to explain their surprise Christmas gift of a paid-off mortgage — an obligation my sister and I were managing, if barely, even in our down-sized midlife.
In the last few years, successive life dramas had begun to warp our equation. Our father died of cancer, and a year later my wife from leukemia, the latter unexpected and brutal. Then our Mom raised the stakes with Alzheimer's. Suddenly our farmhouse got much smaller.
If there's one thing siblings are good at, it's home warfare. After all, we had devoted years to learning how to push each others buttons — my sister a ballistic ball-buster, myself the passive-aggressive master. We could snipe, ambush or insinuate while enduring slings galore. But then our ragging met a new audience — I remarried (yes, again). Adding my new wife, Ann, to the old recipe created new sizzle. For a full year, she dutifully suffered our rows, but eventually she extracted multiple apologies and promises to refrain in her presence.
Rhonda and I backed off for months, until one afternoon with the help of two too many cocktails on the porch, we kicked off anew. She made a remark about feeling like our maid because she was at the house full-time while Ann and I showed up on weekends. This was no shot across my bow, it was a torpedo in the engine room — familiar subtext for who should stay, who should move.
"Our maid!" I yelled. "Are you kidding me!?" We squared off. "You wanna compare? You really wanna know who works around here?" Remembering my promise, I stopped mid-rage and glanced at Ann.
With a look of disgust, she threw up her hands. "No, no! You two go for it!"
"OK," I said, "let's start right here!"
"Good!" my sister shouted, cosmo sloshing in her martini glass.
I strode over to our cottage dining table, its legs made of rough beams from our long-gone chicken house. I slammed my hand on its top, an old door from my last job at a health-food joint. "Daddy and I built this, remember?" Before she could answer, I pointed to the daybed. "Your neighbor threw that out on Sullivan Street; Tom and I hauled it up here in his van. Oh, and all this paneling," I ran my hands over barn-wood wainscoting, tracing it the length of the porch, "we had to cut each piece to fit."
"I know," Rhonda said, "it's looks great, but —"
"That's nothing, come on!" I marched into the house, my frenetic wake pulling them behind me. There was more barn-wood in the kitchen but I had bigger fish. "This window," I stood by a huge antique window, flooding the area with light, "John and I put it in." I whirled around. "And remember the pantry wall? Boom!" I yelled, spreading my arms. "I knocked it down with a sledgehammer; room's twice as big, now."
"You did a lot, I —"
"Follow me!" I charged into the parlor ranting like a demented estate lawyer.
"That woodstove — I bought it! Four hundred bucks."
"It was your project, I didn't have the money."
"You always say that...oh, and Daddy and I built that too." I pointed to the natural rock mantel just above the stove. "John and I built the chimney as well; it was fucking hard!"
Rhonda went quiet after that; Ann too. They watched in silent awe as I tore through the house taking inventory. "Mine!" I yelled. "Helene's console TV — it almost killed me getting it in the car." I must have raved on for twenty minutes, listing roofs, paint jobs, cellar doors, things long-forgotten. It was a tour-de-force, the explosive climax you wait for in a gutsy play.
It ended as quickly as it began. We milled at the bottom of the stairs, all of us a little bit embarrassed. I had never been this aggressive, not to mention organized and articulate. So shocked was my sister at my breaking the fight rules, she was speechless. Finally, she flashed a hurt smile. "That was impressive."
"Yeah," I replied, numbly. "I guess it was."
Ann let out a big sigh. "Well, I'm just glad it's over."
Rhonda turned and walked up the stairs.
I watched my sister, saying nothing. Rarely did one of our spats have a clear winner and I was thrilled. But also ashamed. My forceful arguments had bulldozed larger truths — I might have been the house muscle, but Rhonda was the heart of our home. She had given me selfless guidance and support in some tough years, especially during my late wife's illness, her tragic death, and endless months of grief.
In that moment we all knew that a threshold had been crossed. We just didn't know what it was. In less than a minute, Rhonda was bounding down the stairs. Our group hug was spontaneous, as was our bawling, competing apologies and babbling our eternal love.
It didn't happen immediately, but soon the mysterious threshold revealed itself. My impressive claim to the things I had bought, built, or hauled in, had somehow cleansed me. It allowed me the space to leave it all behind. I wouldn't realize till later that saving my relationship with my sister was my reward for letting the house go.
Today, Rhonda and I are completely divorced, from owning mutual property that is. We live just a few miles from each other, still share many dinners, and have far fewer fights. We keep watch over our respective houses like the good neighbors and loving siblings we have become.
It's hard to remember the force of passion that brewed from our years of farmhouse score-keeping. Or why it drove our last fight into nuclear territory. But the lesson we learned came straight from our childhood. It was time to stop measuring the juice. And time to have our own homes as well.
About the author:
Scott Oglesby lives in Greenwich Village but grew up in the “Ark-La-Tex,” and after a BA from the U. of Arkansas, worked in social services, until he discovered espresso in San Francisco and opened his own coffee house, "Simple Pleasures Café". Scott is a photographer, singer, actor and writer and has been published in West Side Spirit, the Villager, and Bellevue Literary Review, among others. He has also published a novel, Riding High.