Susan liked to talk deep into the night, long after we’d been kissed and tucked in. We called our talking our play, as in a theater arts play but without a curtain or lights or often, even a script. Our plays usually depended on Roy Rogers cowboy and Indian themes, or a story Susan had read and clearly misunderstood, she being younger than me and not very experienced, not very savvy in the world of plot and story elements. Teaching pretend sleep was a delicate art and was important for the second tucking in when our mother would rearrange our blankets and place stray arms and legs under our covers, lower or close the windows; making sure our room was safe before she joined our father for the night.
I was a master pretend sleeper – I had the breathing rhythm down pat, I kept my face blank and did not scrunch up my eyes as the bright hall light cut across my pillow. I could pretend sleep on short notice but usually I could hear my mother’s heels click on the hallway floors warning of her arrival. Shhh, Susan! Mom’s coming! It took quite a while for Susan to be able to mimic natural sleep. The test was passing our mother’s serious scrutiny – for hardly anything got by her, she was sharp even if she couldn’t hear without her hearing aide. Her lack of hearing gave me an edge that helped me become the sneak and bold-face liar as a teenager; in short, a budding actress, producer, director and storyline author of some of our best night-time theater. And in order to totally support our play theme we had snacks during intermission: stolen cookies from the kitchen cookie jar.
Stealing the cookies and hiding them from my mother’s nightly inspection was a challenge that involved all of our stealth skills: I would plan the whole escapade – everything depended on if my mother could be distracted, if my father was home and if the cookies were high or low in the cookie jar because they were counted. My mother treated the cookies, crackers and cereal as if she was in charge of a jewelry store’s inventory, as if she was a banker and the cookie jar was her vault, and her daughters (and husband) were theaven’ desperados.
If everything was right and I could snag a handful of molasses or cowboy peanut butter cookies the problem then became how to store them for the night. Mom’s nose was like a bloodhound’s so a napkin would just not do to wrap up our aromatic haul. I came up with the idea of hiding the stolen cookies under Susan’s sheets way down at the bottom of her bed. If my mother suspected anyone of dastardly deeds it was me she thought of first, she considered my sister to be of moral superiority, an angel, too innocent for cookie theft. Me, on the other hand, had none of my sister’s saintly attributes, I was considered naughty and in need of constant discipline which I received almost daily.
If someone wanted to find me I was in either one of three places – swinging outdoors, drawing in my room, or sitting in the corner. I probably spent more time in the corner than most kids on my street, especially considering I spent a large chunk of time there every Sunday after Mass. I wouldn’t or couldn’t keep quiet, stop squirming, talking, whispering to my sister, making faces, dropping quarters, sleeping, staring at people behind our pew, playing not praying while my mother tried to concentrate on the Latin Mass. She would glare at me, her lips invisible in a straight seam and her right hand in a fist signaling my corner punishment awaiting me at home. Sitting in the corner is pretty much the reason why I detest wallpaper to this very day.
Back to the sleeping lessons. As I said before, the art of pretend sleeping was a delicate lesson to both give and learn. Susan was a naturally bright student and generally quick to pick up most lessons but pretend sleeping was not a skill that came easily to her. Susan would cry when she received a B on her report card because she was accustomed to A’s and A pluses. She couldn’t relax her face muscles and she wrinkled her brow and eyelids – a dead give-away to fake sleep and our biggest challenge to alleviate. Susan’s main problem was that she feared getting caught. I can’t even remember Susan sitting in the corner, once when I had been particularly bad and sent to the corner for a long length of time Susan pulled her little chair over and sat with me for some company; a brave show of solidarity.
Teaching Susan to pretend sleep took all of my effort for weeks on end until suddenly she got it! She perfected her timing, slow breathing, lifeless body parts, unfurrowed brow, lax mouth – everything was prefect and our plays, with snack intermissions, could go on. Susan was an apt pupil, my little protégé under my exacting tutelage, she never failed to put her pudgy fingers out to grab the gold ring – and I never failed to praise her efforts to pick up my dastardly skills. Together we were an unstoppable team, beauty and the beast so to speak, that one without the other would have made childhood unbearable and our mother more enlightened of childhood development.
October 13, 2008 KBP