Forget The Bro’ Code, we had The Sisterhood. We were the Gurgel Girls, five sisters in a family of nine. All five possessing (or possessed by) a giggle/laugh that my son terms a ‘pleasant cackle.’ Lose us in a crowd? Listen for the laugh, you’ll find us. Along with the Gurgel giggle, we shared rooms, (often beds), secrets, babysitting jobs, shopping trips, kitchen clean-up and hand-me-downs. We also shared pride in the matching dresses mother would sew for us for Christmas. Over a period of ten years, she made six sets, an impressive accomplishment. The first set (for Christmas 1958 though the picture was taken in the following summer) and the last set (Christmas 1968) are pictured. (The brothers are included simply because I could not locate a photo of only us girls in the outfits.)
The factual tales of growing up with four sisters would make good reading. Instead I chose nuggets of those tales, the attitude of sisterly love, to employ as an undercurrent in Steeple in the Distance. I find myself sorry for Nan’s sister-less state. Not only that, but she must also endure two brothers. Because I was an inexperienced author, I went for simple. I was skeptical of my ability to handle the clutter and clatter of a large family. The large family and sister incidents were placed on the neighboring farm. They played supporting roles that could be utilized in manageable proportions or left in a closet when not needed. What follows is a glimpse into the sisters, Claire and Maggie Porter. I do not recall that my sisters and I ever took bargaining to the level portrayed. However, nuggets of facts make excellent fiction. “You all are precious and I am glad I have every one of you…” My oldest sister wrote in a recent e-mail. It sums up what Claire and Maggie are experiencing.
To the sisterhood, especially mine!
“We’d better hurry now. If you do the kitchen work before supper, I can study, then you can study afterwards and maybe even get the dress laid out.” Claire’s tone was kindly bestowing a great gift on her sister. In the middle of a laugh, Maggie grunted. “As if Father will let me sit and study with dishes to do, the twins to put to bed and Beckie to deal with. If I do sew the dress, you can help before supper and put the twins to bed. However, if you wish, you can do dishes instead of taking care of the twins.” Maggie’s offer was condescending. She pushed her way out of the woods and into the open fields. Though her mood had changed, Maggie was not going to be sweet-talked…
“Maggie Porter, I might agree to one, not both,” Claire blurted. “How am I supposed to get any studying done if I have to do both?”…Claire tried again. “What if we take turns. Whatever job there is, one studies and one does it. Turn and turnabout. When the work is done and the babies are in bed we both work on the dress until bedtime.” Her tone was reasonable and placating.
“Claire Marie, I know your tricks. You’ll help for the first night, maybe the second and then all of a sudden you’ll be studying or reading and I’ll be doing it all. I’m not twelve anymore.” She tossed her curls and turned to walk backwards again. “You’ll have to do better than that and soon.” She smiled sweetly and raced ahead.
She was not twelve anymore, Claire reflected. Maggie was in high school. She was as capable about all the work around the farm as Claire was, even better at sewing and far more patient with the babies than she would ever be. The gap that had widened between them over the past few years was closing. Next year, next year, Claire thought with a slight sense of panic, it would no longer be Claire and Maggie taking this walk. Next year it would be Maggie and Thomas. She thought of them growing closer, a sense of comradeship in the daily trek to town. Maybe the Schmidt boys would join them. The hole of her own going would at first be gaping, but slowly, Claire thought regretfully, that hole would close. It would fill with other things and other people until Maggie would forget the hole had existed. Maggie might not even miss her. Claire’s throat swelled. “Maggie,” Claire called out. “You win. I’ll baste until my fingers bleed, I’ll try it on and stand still while you poke me blue with pins and I’ll only criticize if it’s really bad.” She ran up behind her sister, grabbed her and gave her a quick hug. “Can’t I give my sister a hug?” Claire asked as Maggie stiffened at her gesture. “Isn’t that allowed?”
“Allowed? I suppose, but what’s the catch this time?” She eyed her sister suspiciously.
“Nothing, Maggie,” Claire replied. “I realized we’re nearly done. Three more weeks and I’ll be done; four and I’ll be gone. No more walks to and from school. No more sharing the work or secrets in the night. You’ll still be here, still doing all the family stuff and I won’t be.”
“No more getting me into trouble you mean. No more of your cold feet on my back. No more stealing all the covers or wearing my slippers because you’re too lazy to find your own.” Maggie wrinkled her nose at Claire.
“No more having to make room for Beckie in my bed or having you tattle-tale on me. No more little sister tagging after every time I want to do something,” retorted Claire.
“No more being told ‘you’re too little, we don’t want you!’ No more you picking the easy jobs first and leaving me with the yucky stuff,” Maggie countered.
“No more, no more, no more!” Claire warbled as they crossed behind the barn and up the path to the house. “No more, no more, no more!” She clung to Maggie and laughed. They staggered with the force of it, clinging to each other while they negotiated the farm yard. To every “no more’” of Claire’s, Maggie began answering with a solemn, “nicht vahr.” They entered the kitchen still trading their nonsense and sputtering with laughter.”
“And sometimes I think about a one-and-a-half-year old child with its baby teeth still coming in, whose days on this earth were so very, very few.” (National Geographic, July 1988, page 53) The author of the article, haunted by that scene as he unearthed the remains of a 4th century town on the Island of..Read More ›
We spent a half week with all nine of the children and the twelve grandchildren. The occasion was our son’s wedding. Tears threatened when the boys, now men, stood as groomsmen for their brother. The struggle of our grandson to stay awake and the relaxed attitude in one of the boy’s suits served to prevent..Read More ›