2003-09-07 Sisters

Soul Sisters

I've only ever had one real best friend. I mean, there have been a variety of girls through the ages that I carelessly hung that label on. Girls I clung to as I cautiously negotiated adolesence... girls of varying social status and skill. And later, girls... women, really, with whom I've shared many a drunken evening, entrusting with my secret fears and petty agonies.

But when I think of best friends... as in best friends forever and ever amen, it's always Terri Sparke's face that lights in my mind's eye, a smooth oval of innocence.

We were inseparable. I can scarcely recall a weekend when I wasn't sleeping over at her house, or she at mine. She lived kitty corner across the street, in the yellow two story on the corner, just a hop, a skip and a jump away. I could see her house from my bedroom window, and sometimes, at night, when the shadowy demons emerged through the secret trap door in my closet that I knew deep in my heart was there despite my inability to locate it in the bright light of day... the trapdoor that lead up from the basement ... the basement where one of the shadowy demons had left an eerie black handprint over the washing machine on the cold concrete wall... it was a great comfort to press my nose against the dusty screen of my bedroom window and see her yellow house glowing under the street lamp.

She had big blue gray eyes and dark blonde hair. She had a playhouse in her backyard and a toy box in the rec room filled with dress up clothes including sparkling silver gogo boots that came up to our thighs and were near impossible to walk in. She had a stripey grey and white cat named Tuffy and a carmel coloured poodle named Buffy and two... and later, three... younger sisters.

Sisters. How I coveted those sisters. At the time, It seemed to me that there was nothing in the world more magical than having sisters. Sisters, plural. Just one would not do.There had to be more. Like in Little Women. Like in Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes. When you have sisters, people always refers to you as "The (insert surname here) Girls". Like a secret club, or a band. Like The Girl Guides, or The Go-Gos, or The Powerpuff Girls.

I had (have) a younger brother. We were always referred to by our first names. Melanie and Scott. In that order, invariably. Birth order, I guess. Or maybe, ladies first. It was hardly an elite and secret club. It was a duo, if anything at all. And trios, as we all know, are absolutely more interesting than duos. Just as triplets are more rare and striking than twins.

Scott and Sandy, the second Sparke sister, were in the same grade at school, in the same class. I feverently hoped they would grow up to fall madly in love and get hitched, making me somehow officially a Sparke Girl, a full fledged member of the sisterhood and perhaps also, a bridesmaid.

But in the meantime, I pretended. The Sparke Girls were all blonde, shades ranging from pale ash to strawberry. And blue eyed. I had blonde hair. That fit. And green eyes... but in the right light they might come across as bluish. That was enough, in my books. Hair colour qualified. Strangers passing, if they saw us all side by side, would surely think we were all related. Surely.

Plus, I had a placemat with my name printed on it at their kitchen table. That was certainly as official as a birth certificate in my nine-year-old mind. Nevermind that Scott also had a placemat at the Sparke table. His had a train on it. Mine had a drawing of a girl in a pink dress surrounded by flowers, just like all the real Sparke Girls' placemats. And Scott rarely ate there. He was always off doing scruffy boy things, playing hockey and smashing up dinky cars and pretending sticks were rifles or whatever it is that little boys do when they're not being bossed around and manipulated by their big sisters.

And o, make no mistake, I was bossy! That was one of Terri's biggest complaints about me. I bossed her and her sisters relentlessly. I bullied and cajoled them into playing whatever imaginary game I wanted to play, persuading them somehow to play the lesser, least colourful roles. If we were playing Little House on the Prairie, I was Laura Ingalls, and Terri relegated to the role of Mary. Because even though I thought Mary was much prettier, Laura was always at the center of the action. If we were playing Anne of Green Gables, I was Anne (spelled with an 'e') always and always, and Terri was Diana. That was just the way it was. that was the way I insisted it should be,

But more often, we played loosely imagined games about whatever it was that I was interested in at the time. Medieval knights, or Star Wars, or Space 1999, Seven Alone or Swiss Family Robinson or the witches of Salem or endless variations of fairytales in which we were princesses in terrible peril from crocodiles and evil stepmothers and shadowy cloaked men.

And at night, snuggled into her big double bed, we drew pictures on each other's backs and traced out words for the other to guess, and ripped the bedclothes off our swapped flannel pajamas to watch the quick sparks of static electricity snap and fly. We talked about UFOs and the girls we hated and figure skating and stuff that happened to our cousins. Her bedroom walls were painted blue and there was a romantic picture of her mother as a girl in an ornate frame above her bed and sometimes we slept by the glow of LiteBrite, though more often Sandy and Lori had it set up in their room next door.

We went to summer camp together, Terri and I sharing the same bunk bed, me in the top bunk and she in the lower bunk. We were in the same ballet class. We went "en pointe" together, carefully swathing our tender toes in lamb's wool and lacing up the pink satin ribbons of our first pointe shoes. We were in the same skating group. When the annual skating carnival came every year, we were costumed the same. Except for the year the club did "Movies on Ice"... our group did The Wizard of Oz and I was Dorothy. Terri was the Tin Man and I secretly envied her sleek silver satin outfit. We went to the same school of course. We lived in a very small Northern mining town and there was only one school. We weren't in the same class though, to my never-ending regret. Terri was six months younger than me. By virtue of my December birthday, I squeaked past the age cut-off and into the higher grade where I was the next to youngest, a status I cherished and despised in equal measures.

On Saturday mornings, we would go to Sparke's Pharmacy where we would fold boxes for pocket money that we immediately spent on candy at the saturday afternoon matinee. Always: A box of popcorn, a bag of Jelly Tots and a cup of "Swamp Water," an often watery mixture of all the pop available at the fountain. Coke, Orange Crush, 7-Up. Occasionally, I would get licorice and carefully poke it through the lid of my pop, using it as a straw.

One afternoon, on the way home from school through the "bush trail", she told me about Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's me Margaret." A life changing book, if ever there was. Suddenly, puberty loomed as never before. I was awed and daunted and determined to do anything I could to stop the inevitable onset.

Under the warm influence of the Sparke family, I sampled nachos for the first time, learned to water ski, ate homemade sourdough bread and developed a deep and abiding taste for Scott's Lemon Curd spread between layers of chocolate cake. I took my first ever vacation sans parents when I joined their clan for a vacation to Mrytle Beach and Florida, the Sparkes piloting their own plane, a little plane just big enough to fit their girls and me. It was astounding to me that Mrs. Sparke was a pilot. I imagined her to be a sort of modern day Amelia Earhart, a rebel and a pioneer. Terri and I shared the exhilaration of Disney World's Space Mountain together, shrieking all the way, eyes half shut. I distinctly remember standing on my tiptoes a bit, always worried that i might not be tall enough to get on the ride.

I worshipped Terri Sparke. I wanted to be Terri Sparke. When she had to have special tubes put in her ears because of repeated ear infections, I wanted tubes. When she got a baby sister, I desperately wanted a baby sister. When the Sparkes got a brand new colour tv, with remote, I wanted a brand new colour tv with remote. I envied her blue eyes, the fact that she was allowed to wear jeans to school. I envied the doll collection that she shared with her sisters, fancy dolls in bright ethnic costumes amassed on their parents' trips around the world. Spanish Flamenco dancers with real hoop earrings dangling from their lobes, a Dutch girl with wooden shoes, a doll from Turkey and more. Exotic.

But mostly, I envied her sisters. My mother came from a family of four girls (and two brothers at the tail end), my American cousins were all girls. It seemed that everyone had sisters but me.

Oh, I liked my brother alright. I never had to share my Barbies with him. He had Big Jim and G.I. Joe with kung-fu grip and Tonka trucks and glow-in-the-dark Godzilla models. I never had to share my clothes with him, or my bike or my skates, or my books. And I liked the way he smelled, like fresh baked bread, and the dimples in his little bear hands. And his infectious, almost girlish giggle. But aside from his giggle, he was all boy. Maddeningly so.

I wonder now if Terri ever envied me. Maybe she wanted a little brother. Maybe she thought little sisters were maddening. I remember that they scrapped a lot, over slights real and imagined. Maybe she envied me for never having to share my toys or my clothes. Maybe she longed to be the only girl. Maybe she envied the fact that my mother was a school teacher, and she had in fact taught all of the Sparke girls second grade. Maybe she envied the fact that my brother and I didn't have to go home for lunch, that we ate our lunch in my mother's classroom or the teachers' lounge, carefully retrieving hot chocolate from the vending machine there.

I remember vividly sitting on the shingled roof of the playhouse, looking out over the neighbor's pin cherry tree, solemnly swearing Terri to secrecy before revealing that we were moving far away as soon as the school year was over. We were moving to Wisconsin. I was eleven and excited by the idea, intrigued by the idea of living in the USA (I was born in the States, but we moved to Canada when I was three and too young to remember much), of television channels aside from the boring old CBC, by the thought of a Junior High school. It seemed like a big adventure. I had no idea then how much I would miss her and her sisters. I had no idea that in saying good-bye to her, I was saying goodbye to the snug harbor of my childhood too.

Today, Terri lives in the United Arab Emirates with her husband, Bill and their two children Rachel and Robert. I had an e-mail last week from Sandy, the second sister, who lives in Bermuda with her husband. I hope they've weathered the hurricane well. Lori is a pharmacist and recently had her first child. Catherine, the baby sister who came along shortly before we moved away, just had a baby boy too. They live in the same city as my parents and their mother. The Sparkes divorced some time ago.

My parents and Mrs. Sparke remain close friends. In fact, Mrs. Sparke is probably at their house right now, watering my mother's jungle while my parents are away on vacation.

I haven't really talked to the girls in years, but in my heart, nothing changes.

They are the sisters I never had, the sisters I fiercely adored. And I miss them still. Always. Forever and ever amen.


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