My older sister Dorothy was never really a part of the family. Sixteen years older than I, her mother had been dead for thirteen years before I was born, and my mother could not really mother her; she and Dorothy were only eight years apart in age. Dorothy’s brother, born when she was almost three, who would have shared her history, died before he was a week old, following their mother to her grave. In one fell swoop, Dorothy was rendered a half-orphan, consigned to various relatives who loved her and died, to my father’s second wife, who abused her, and finally to my mother, who was more like a much older sister, albeit a sister from another country, another life. Dorothy was, like so many children in our society, a member of a first family that failed, and she was robbed of a birthright I took for granted. Dorothy and the Father She Adored
My parents cared. They tried at first to make a home for her. But Dorothy was a tween, nearly a teen, restless and unhappy. It felt unnatural to share the father she adored with the strangely accented, exuberant young woman my father chose to be his third and final wife. My mother, still adjusting to life in the country she had only entered five years before, had no experience with parenting. My mother was Jewish, a refugee from the horrors not yet fully disclosed in Europe, and Dorothy had no way of understanding where Mom came from; our father and his family were American bluebloods, deeply entrenched WASPS. Together Mom and Dad and Dorothy decided that boarding school was a good solution, and thereafter, Dorothy only visited for whichever holidays and summers she did not spend with our father’s only remaining sister in New Mexico. My parents never provided a presence she would be able to call home.
My birth brought her closer to them. Dorothy doted on this new being, this little sister, young enough to be her own daughter, and she was a great help to her earnest stepmother. But I belonged to my mother, not to Dorothy, and though she visited more often than she had before, she would always feel estranged; my mother would always be something of an interloper, albeit a welcome, loving one.
In New Mexico, my father’s sister introduced Dorothy to a handsome young engineer named Oliver, from Michigan. He had been stationed in Los Alamos during WWII, had participated in the Manhattan Project, and after using his GI Bill to obtain his degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he had signed his life away to the American government he revered and moved permanently to the city in the clouds. Our aunt was not amused that her still teenage niece was falling in love with a man nearly twelve years her senior, and she forbad their seeing one another.
Dorothy, who was perhaps the gentlest, least defiant person I ever knew, stood her ground. She loved this man, and if Aunt Elizabeth would not allow her to date him, she would find another way.
She called my father. At first he agreed with his sister. “You’re too young,” he said definitively.
“I’m 20, Daddy,” she replied. “Older than you were when you married my mother.”
That hit a nerve. My father had fallen in love with his (gasp) Irish Catholic beauty when he was 16. His parents would not allow him to see her – they were WASP, a “good family,” after all, and their kind did not date people from the other side of the tracks – so he told them the girl was pregnant and demanded to be allowed to marry her. Then he got to work making sure he wasn’t lying, and the two were married.
“That didn’t turn out so well,” he demurred.
“I know, Daddy. But I love him. And I’m old enough to know.”
My mother intervened. “Let them come here,” Mom said. “If they want to be married, we’ll make them a wedding.”
So Dorothy came to Springfield, MA, where we lived at the time, and she had her wedding in Trinity Methodist Church. I was her flower girl, and even the chicken pox, which Dorothy discovered on me the night before the event, did not ruin the festivities. Our aunt did not attend, and though Dorothy told me many times how very hurt she was that the old woman rejected her, she was never sorry she chose her Oliver.
The night before the wedding, she pulled me into her bed, as she often did, from my cot in the room we shared. I remember crying. “I don’t want you to go, Dodo.” I pleaded, “Please don’t move away. Please don’t get married. Please.”
“I love you, little sister, I really, really love you. But I have to do this,” she replied.
“Why?” I moaned.
“Because I want my own family. I don’t want to be a visitor. I want children of my own to love. Children who will love me first.”
Over the years, we hardly saw Dorothy and Oliver. She wrote me letters. Long, detailed missives, the litanies of her burgeoning family. “Derrick had a cold, and I had to call the doctor,” she wrote in 1958, when Darrick, her firstborn was five. “He’s probably not going to school for the rest of the week, but I thing it’s okay for him to miss Kindergarten. Kenneth fell off the swing and hurt his shoulder, but I don’t think anything is broken. Margie won’t stop crying because her ear aches, and Laurel has a terrible diaper rash. Did I tell you I’m pregnant again?” But Los Alamos was a long way away from where we were, and she had her hands full.
Meanwhile, my parents also continued to procreate, to build my father’s second family. From 1953 till 1961, Dorothy and my mother each had six children within months of one another. I kept track of Dorothy’s children’s ages by remembering which of my siblings was born in the same year. Dorothy and Oliver and their kids traveled to Michigan to visit his large, Finnish family, but they only came east to see us twice. My parents traveled often to Queens to visit my mother’s sisters and parents, but we only went to Los Alamos once.
We were the second family, and Dorothy was not one of us; Dad didn’t do anything to encourage her to be. I grew up in my father’s house, and as stern and demanding as he could be, his was a constant presence. My mother was always there to welcome me home at the end of a day, always attendant to all our needs. Dorothy had to become her own mother, and she transferred all her longing for maternal love to her offspring, which made her a consummate Mom.
My existence provided a modicum of connective tissue between Dad’s first and second set of offspring, and I lived for those letters she wrote me at least once a week. I spent the summer with her when I was nine, and I went to college in Albuquerque for three semesters, a choice I made in order to be close to my big sister. But I was never really a satisfying little sister; I was too much imbued with the sense of entitlement that comes of being the oldest, the alpha female in a large brood. We made the best of our relationship, but it remained at a distance, and our visits, even when I lived in the Southwest, even after I had children of my own, were never more than intermittent.
My brother once said that my father was a terrible father to Dorothy, and perhaps he was. But he was no different from the myriad men I know, including my own former husband, who focus, perhaps by necessity, on the new family, the second family, the family that demands the most of their time and attention. Men are not, as a rule, very good at multi-tasking, and juggling families requires great skill in that area. Men compartmentalize far better than most women, and to the man who does that well, a first family must reside in a separate cabinet, less emotionally accessible than the one that takes up the space in his living quarters.
Dorothy’s life was not very long, and yet she had more than her share of sadness, which she endured without us. She had learned to fend for herself, to refrain from reaching out, so she never called and asked me to come when things were bad; I heard about all her trials after they were over. Consequently, I wasn’t there when she buried children, suffered through poor health and horrible medical treatments, ferreted through marital problems. She got through them.
Remarkably, Dorothy never lost her gratitude or her joy. Darrick stopped her once in the middle of reading about Cinderella and her evil step mother and asked if Dorothy’s stepmother were like Cinderella’s.
“No, silly,” she laughed. “She was always kind and generous, just like she is now. She is a wonderful woman.”
“But she sent you far away, didn’t she?”
“Only because she loved me,” Dorothy answered without thinking. “She loves me still.”
Dorothy may have been robbed of a family, but she never resented the fates that separated her from the “normal” life her half-siblings always enjoyed. She was never bitter, never remorseful. Now, when I visit her children and grandchildren who idolize her memory, I realize that in many ways she regained everything she needed. She built her own family and dedicated her life to them, and she left them with a deep, unwavering faith in the power of love.