Excerpts from One Sister's Song: A Few of My Favorites

Audrey could see, because she’d been the one watching, always watching, while Laura led the way.

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After closing on her home in October 1980, Laura stood with Audrey on the front lawn, amazed the house belonged to her. The sisters shielded their eyes from the afternoon sun as they looked around. The neighborhood was full of mature trees, and Laura relished the thought of viewing their colorful display every fall. Each time a breeze rustled the sugar maples in her own yard, falling leaves traced silent, undulate paths around her and Audrey on the way down to rest at their feet.

The house appeared regal in its sunlit orange and red frame. Laura recalled the first time she’d seen the farmhouse, how drawn she’d been to it. She’d loved its straight lines, the simplicity of its ordered windows, its solid, traditional bearing. Inside, she’d smoothed the ridges worn into the built-in shelves on both sides of the grand fireplace, marveled at the floorboards cut of so many different lengths, probably from a pine off the premises. The home’s evident history enthralled her.

“It’s the kind of house old people haunt,” Audrey said.

The young women stood side by side, like two soldiers saluting a looming sergeant. From another angle, they might have been mistaken for mother and daughter, with Laura in low heels and a maternity dress while Audrey sported jeans and a short sweater. Sunlight sparkled off their gold earrings, and off the small diamond ring on Laura’s left hand.

“It may very well be haunted,” Laura said.

Audrey squinted at her sister. “I meant by live people, not dead.”

Laura brushed away her sarcasm, determined to savor the view for a few more minutes. She realized Audrey’s comments were laced with concern over her purchase of the house, and about the old home’s condition, which Laura admitted was poor. She’d bought the farmhouse for next to nothing, though, a fact she’d made clear to her sister many times. More importantly, she loved the old place, and knew this was her best chance to ever own a home like it. “The real estate agent told me there are stories behind it,” Laura said. “He said it may have been a site on the Underground Railroad.”

“I say that guy saw you coming from a mile away,” Audrey replied.

Laura smiled, then crossed the yard and ascended the porch stairs, brandishing her new key. Audrey watched, unmoving, as her sister opened the front door, entered her house, and was swallowed whole by its shadows. 

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A silver Oldsmobile pulled into the parking lot. Audrey had been told her Aunt Letty would arrive in a silver sedan driven by another young cousin. She went outside, smoothing her worn sweatshirt and faded jeans, wishing she looked more presentable, especially when she saw her great-aunt get out of her car.

Though in her eighties, Aunt Letty appeared steady and self-assured in her towering frame as she walked across the parking lot. She reached toward Audrey with open arms, her floral perfume caressing her grandniece almost as perceptibly as her embrace. “My, my,” she breathed into Audrey’s ear, smoothing her back as they hugged. “You’ve been through so much, sugar. My, my, my.”

Audrey let the woman rock her in the middle of the dusty parking lot, in the heat of the warm October afternoon, her eyes and throat pressed closed against the tears and sobs that threatened to rack her body as soon as she let go. She drank in her aunt’s soothing words, feeling, hearing, even seeing behind her closed eyelids the essence of her Southern-bred father in their sweet, rolling echoes.

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Audrey slipped away from the kitchen and wandered into the parlor, where she rubbed her palm along the smooth, dark banister that led upstairs to various bedrooms. Everything in the home was dark, and cool, and comforting, from the hardwood floors and the rugs that muffled them, to the cushioned settee in the parlor and the thick banister. Audrey tried to imagine her father as a boy, racing through these rooms, banging in the back door and upstairs to retrieve some treasure. But she could see, most clearly, Laura lounging on the settee, Laura with her brown face pressed against a screen window to smell the summer rain, Laura skipping out that same back door to join their cousins as they chased fireflies in the dusk. Audrey could see, because she’d been the one watching, always watching, while Laura led the way.

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Laura continued, her voice now an irritated whisper. “You’ve pushed a button, and I’m almost too tired to discuss this right now. Almost.” She gave a curt sigh. “But I’m also sick of being pigeon-holed simply because I look on the bright side. I get this at work all the time. I’m often frustrated and upset by things, just not in public. Stereotypes are so common and convenient; I don’t have the luxury of giving people more reasons to label me. I could cure cancer, and people would still look at me and see yet another single parent with brown skin.”

Audrey peered at her sister. “What do you mean, you get this at work all the time?”

Laura shrugged. “At work, at college, at school when I was a kid. You know what I’m talking about. People read so much into your behavior. First semester freshman year, my roommate told me I ‘acted white’ because I wanted to be white, like her. Do you believe that? Harry often said I was ‘unaware’ of racial issues, so he made me feel I didn’t act black enough. And did I ever tell you about the girl in third grade?” Audrey shook her head. Laura went on to tell of the only other black girl who’d been in her class. While her father was stationed overseas in the Air Force, Leticia Atkins had stayed with her mother and other relatives nearby and attended St. Therese’s for one year.

“Remember those awful gym uniforms we had to wear?” Laura asked Audrey. “They were one-piece and had blue shorts and a blue striped top? I’d just want to change quick and get out of the locker room, but Leticia would corner me and want to comb out my hair. She’d run her fingers through it,” Laura brushed an absent hand toward her ponytail, “and ask why it was so straight. Then one time, she stood there staring at my face, I mean really studying the shape of my eyes, my nose, my mouth, then declared she ‘knew my secret.’ ‘What secret?’ I asked.

“‘You can’t fool me by acting so white,’ she said.

“‘I’m not trying to fool anyone,’ I said. ‘Everyone knows my parents.’

“‘But what are they?’ she asked. ‘What are you?’”

Laura shivered. “I hate that question. ‘What are you? Are you adopted or something? Come from an island somewhere?’ It’s like people need a tidy answer because they can’t figure it out for themselves, and that drives them crazy. Don’t you remember shopping with Mom and getting those looks?”

“I still get those looks,” Audrey answered, “even when I’m alone. Or no looks at all. Like I’m invisible.”

“Right.” Laura’s hands moved now as she spoke. “But back then, when we were kids, how were we supposed to know we didn’t belong with a white mother? What were we supposed to think when cashiers scowled at us? I’d think something was wrong with me, like my face was dirty all the time.”

While Laura rose to get herself a drink, Audrey recalled a memory of her own. She’d been about to walk into her sister’s room one day after Laura had arrived home for a college break, when she’d glanced at a mirror on the far wall that revealed Yvonne with her eldest daughter, brushing Laura’s hair. Audrey had watched, breath stopped, while her mother smoothed her hand behind the brush over the silken sheen. She knew her mother had always loved Laura’s hair, and had seen Laura and Yvonne in long conversations before, but at that moment she’d been shocked and dismayed to see her mother and sister so relaxed together. Yvonne said something, sharing some confidence in low tones, and Laura listened with a serene smile. In the instant she knew she had to retreat before she was caught spying, Audrey wrestled with the jealous awareness she’d never shared a moment like that with her mother, and most certainly never would.

As Laura returned to the kitchen table, Audrey took a deep breath before exhaling her next words. “Your lighter skin did seem to make things easier for you.”

Laura surprised her with her ready “Ha!” and wide grin. “I always assumed you knew better than that,” she said, “but maybe it seemed that way, to some people. Still, it was no crystal stair.”

Audrey’s brow furrowed. “No what?”

A slow, knowing smile spread over Laura’s face. “You never read the Langston Hughes collection in Daddy’s study? I always loved that image of a crystal stair, from ‘A Mother to Her Son.’ When life’s no crystal stair, only you can decide whether to keep climbing or to turn back. That’s what I think. Sometimes, though, I get tired of working, day in and day out, just to make others feel at ease around me.”

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