Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hannah and Her Sister

My sister is five years older than me. She was born on September 21 1976 in a small town in Sweden, and got a Swedish passport in the bargain. The doctor who delivered her pointed her out as the prettiest newborn he had ever seen, and my father, who had traveled from Copenhagen in a tight, Grey suit to hold his first child, looked closely at the pink thing cradled in his arms, and figured the man knew what he was talking about.

She had eczema from an early age, and baby photos of her show that despite her not yet being in control of her motor functions, she managed to soothe the itch on her own with her soft fingernails. She suffered from this for so many years, my mother trying all sorts of remedies, giving her vegetarian food and soy milk, which in those days had to be bought in specialty stores and must have seemed quite progressive.

She was the first child in a generation of grandchildren and great grandchildren in my family, and so was pampered severely. My great grandfather, in particular, was heartbreakingly smitten by her, and would always have a pack of bubble gum waiting for her when she came to visit him in Sweden. My mother, working as an air hostess in those days, bought her baby Moon Boots and miniature Levi’s on a trip to the U.S., ensuring my sister a massive collection of wet-eyed stares from strangers and acquaintances alike. Every weekend my father would take her horseback riding in the woods, and my grandmother would entertain her in the kitchen of her Copenhagen restaurant, allowing her to fool around with eggs as much as she pleased. In my grandparents’ house in Sweden she was the one to inaugurate the “measuring-wall” against which the gradual but constant growth of grandchildren was recorded with a pen.

Despite my coming into the world to disrupt all this bliss, she was always quite nice to me growing up. I have no recollection of being sent out of her room because she had girlfriends over, or of being referred to in the third person as some kind of alien ‘thing’. So many of my friends, younger sisters themselves, would on and off hear their older siblings call out: “Mom, she’s in my room again!” Such things never happened to me. When we got our first separate rooms, she even invited me over for a sleepover to reminisce those days we used to sleep in a bunk bed, and only laughed when she found out I picked my nose in my sleep, and stuck my sticky findings to her mattress.

That is not say she was an altogether sweet and well-behaved older sister. She would trick me, and often when she herself had felt unjustly treated. Once, when our new puppy had left a turd in front of the door to the garden, causing my sister to step in it with her bare foot, she gently took it out on me. After rinsing her foot for half an hour in the shower (she was squeamish about bacteria back then), she called me into the bathroom to declare the experience had been so traumatic it had caused her to vomit. “Look”, she said, pointing to a white mucus-like substance in the sink. “I threw up”.

To a six-year-old, throwing up was an event beyond excitement that could not only be the subject of conversation for a good week or two, but also something the required my parents’ immediate attention. After some close grown-up inspection, however, she admitted she had simply pureed a banana with a fork and mixed it with water to make it look like it came from her digestive tract.

In general, the bathroom seemed to be an endless source of inspiration to her whenever she was in the mood for fooling me or luring me into mischievous behavior. It was in the bathroom that she lectured me on the importance of fighting external cavities and taught me to brush the outside of my mouth with Colgate. It was in the bathroom that she talked me into baptizing our puppy in the sink and dressing her in the white, fragile gown hanging in our mother’s closet that generations of children before us had been christened in. “We name you Futti”, she said majestically, while I ceremoniously splashed a bit of water on our dog’s head from the running tap.

I miss her a lot these days when I’m here in New York, and she’s all the way over there in Copenhagen. But she writes me an email close to every day, and finishes it off with “krams”. A word we made up that translates into a loving mix between a hug and a squeeze.

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