The tongue is the devil’s favorite organ, Mum always said. In my girlhood if one sister snitched on another she was shunned by the rest for a week. A firing squad was too good for her.
There were nine of us, all girls (I’m exactly in the middle). The odds against nine girls in a row are 256 to 1. Mum said that meant that chance would always favor us. Maybe so; meanwhile, our house on Albemarle Road in Godolphin, Massachusetts was falling apart. The rugs had holes. “We get such interesting glimpses of the floorboards,” Mum said. Not a single window hung true. But the place was big, with five bedrooms on the second floor. In the attic there was a bed and a dresser. Mum called the attic “finished.” “Done in,” my oldest sister sassed—but she was happy to move up there during high school, above the noise of the household, keeping company with the birds and squirrels in the neighborhood trees. She became an elementary school science teacher, maybe because of her early friendship with wildlife.
We were all encouraged to prepare for useful professions—teaching, nursing, dietary counseling, public service like our poor dead father the fireman. Marjorie did scamper right out of pharmacy school into the advertising business. She was our rebel: smoking cigars behind the garage, drawing caricatures of our aunts on the insides of dresser drawers. “I’m telling!” I used to threaten—but of course I never did. Marjorie went to New York and became a copywriter and then a boss of many copywriters. “Advertising is useful too,” Mum said. “How else would we know which products to mistrust.”
We learned to cook and clean and wash and iron and tend our numerous young cousins. All of us, even Marjorie, loved to shell peas, scour the stove, fold sheets. As far as I know—and I’ve been a nurse for twenty years—there is no pill that can give you the peace of those activities. My sister the lab technician agrees.
Each of us thought she was Mum’s favorite. I was really the special one, though. Chance hadn’t favored me so much. “I’m not pretty and I can’t flatter,” I once sobbed into her lap. I was seventeen. She ran her hand along the back of my head again and again. “You are trustworthy and you are tolerant,” she said at last. I calmed down.