One of my earliest memories is of my sister Carla grabbing my bony wrists and locking them together with one hand. I struggled to break free of her, but couldn’t. She smiled at me as she held up a fist and waited for a few seconds to let my anticipation build, and then she slugged me. This became a regular event, along with backing me up against a step ladder and pushing me so that I fell backwards on my ass on the kitchen floor. Another time she set me up for prank as we played on a teeter totter at a park. She waited until I was up in the air, carefully got off and let go of the board. I came crashing down and got a jolt in the seat of my pants. My tailbone hurt for days, and I never trusted her when it came to playground equipment ever again. I never asked her push me on a swing or help me get on a moving merry go round. I always climbed on the monkey bars from a position opposite to hers and let her go ahead of me on the slide.
As I grew older, bigger and capable of responding immediately to attacks and provocations, I got my revenge. When I was about ten, and she was nearly thirteen, I playfully punched her in the chest. She clutched herself and began to cry, and I asked her why she was making such a fuss. She usually was a lot tougher, and I had barely tapped her. She sobbed, “You hit me in the…breasts!” I hadn’t noticed any evidence of their arrival so I ‘innocently’ asked, “What breasts?” She howled and ran away from me.
Later that year we went to Thornapple Lake near Hastings, Michigan for vacation. We rented cabins and swam and fished off the dock and in boats. One day Carla and I went down to the shore to take out a row boat. She stepped off the dock and had one foot on the seat of the boat. She didn’t move fast enough and began to do the splits with her other foot still planted on the dock. She reached out to me and pleaded, “Help!” But I crossed my arms and waited until the inevitable happened, and watched her stomp up to the cabins covered in lake water and muck. A strand of duckweed dangled from her hair. She was mockingly cheered by our cousins who were in a cabin next to ours.
She promised to get me for that, and did the following year when we returned to Thornapple. I had finally taught myself how to swim in self defense (my Dad dunked me every time we went swimming, and promised to stop if I learned how to swim) and paddled around in the shallows. I saw Carla swim over to Dad and whisper into his ear as they trod water farther out from shore, but still was surprised when they came up to me, dragged me beyond the end of the dock and threw me into water that was over my head. I panicked, sank, and managed to push off the bottom. But I opened my mouth too quickly to gasp for air when I came up, and swallowed a mouthful of muddy water. I spent the rest of vacation drinking Pepto-Bismol and nursing a high fever.
We had mostly declared a truce by the time she entered high school and I was in middle school. Carla was a good athlete and a cutthroat competitor. We played one on one basketball in the driveway to sharpen her skills after she made the Fairmont East basketball team. She was an aggressive defender and would continually reach in to try to knock the ball away as I dribbled and maneuvered my way toward the basket. I used my left forearm to ward her off. On one possession she let me dribble past her without making much of an effort to stop me, and when I swung my right leg up off the ground to jump into a lay up she swung her left knee into my balls. I got up off the ground when I was able and demanded, “What the hell?!” She explained: “You kept elbowing me in the boobs, so I decided to pay you back.” Two could play that game, so I let her drive past me when she got the ball the next time. The basket was mounted on our garage roof, and when she launched into the air I gently pushed her sideways so that she went face first into the brick wall beside the garage door. I said, “Sorry. Let’s call that a foul.”
We became adults and our relationship no longer involved physical violence. But we hadn’t ruled out psychological warfare, and Carla sometimes liked to tease and embarrass me in front of the family. We mostly made nice in front of outsiders but needed one more clash to firmly establish new, workable limits on our behavior.
My wife and I went to visit her and see her little boy, Danny, after we returned from our honeymoon. My parents were there too. I sat on a sofa and minded my own business as I listened to Judy tell Carla about hiking in Maine. Carla suddenly interrupted her to exclaim, “Denny! You look just like Jim in Taxi!” She went on and on about how I talked and acted like Christopher Lloyd’s druggy, burned out, space cadet hippy. I might as well be that character’s twin brother! Why hadn’t she noticed that before?! Ha, ha, ha, ha!
Judy wasn’t used to our family dynamic yet and looked surprised by Carla’s impromptu attack. She still thought that we were nice people. I debated for a moment about whether I should retaliate and further disillusion my newlywed, but Carla kept the joke running too long. So I asked Carla a series of questions. I said, “Do you remember our rehearsal dinner at Mom’s, and you had Danny on the floor in the living room right by the priest, and Danny had taken a giant dump and you decided to change him?” Carla’s eyes began to get a little wide. She was still a new mother and had moments where she was oblivious to anything but her son. “And do you remember how Mom kept trying to get you to take him to the bathroom?” Carla began to laugh a little. “And you opened Danny’s diaper right next to the priest while he sat there with a plate of food on his lap, and Danny’s dump was about the same color and texture as Father Russell’s potato salad, yellow but just a little more grayish green?” Carla’s face started to turn red. “And you bent down over Danny and said, “Oh! Poo tink! Poo tink!” as you wiped off his ass?” Carla fell on the floor and began to laugh so hard that she rolled back and forth on her sides with her knees drawn up to her waist. She couldn’t get up for several minutes, and every time she showed signs of making a recovery I said, “Oh! Poo tink!”
An unspoken armistice was declared after that day. And while there were a few skirmishes over the next 28 years, we never let a conflict escalate into a full blown battle. We weren’t older and wiser. We finally understood the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction.