Only A Dream by Mary Chapin Carpenter from Come On Come On
My older sister is eighteen months older than me, my brother and sister only a few years younger. As kids we were thick as thieves, doing almost everything together as a family. But as we grew into our teens we either drifted apart or made alliances where and when it was to our advantage. I shared a bedroom with my older sister all but the last two years I lived at home. Given our extremely different personalities, it’s amazing that we got along as well as we did. She was a neat-nick, I was a slob. My sister was a girly-girl and a goody two-shoes who loved fashion (mini dresses), make-up and boys. I was a tomboy who never wore anything except jeans (preferably the same pair, over and over) listened to rock and roll and liked recreational drugs. There were times when we actually had to draw an invisible line down the middle of our room just to keep the peace. Never the less, when the rubber met the road we always had each others back. Always.
In the summer of ’72 my sister went to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh PA for a trial program. This was the first time in my life that I’d ever slept in a bedroom alone. I didn’t have to use headphones to listen to my music at night, I didn’t have to pick up my clothes and I didn’t have to tiptoe around my sister’s erratic mood swings that always had something to do with her boyfriend. In fact, before she left she made me guardian of her boyfriend’s high school ring. It was a big clunker of a thing with a Tiger’s Eye stone and a half a ball of yarn wound around the shank so it would stay on her slender finger. I remember feeling pretty honored. Then, after pretending the ring was mine for awhile (from an imaginary boyfriend) I put the ring in a drawer where, later that summer my cousin stole it during her visit. I didn’t miss my sister all that much, unless of course you count the times a thunder storm rolled through or I needed an opinion on something important.
Before I had time to get used to having my own space my older sister was back home again. We continued to be roommates for another year, though she was so preoccupied with her life that she hardly had time for me unless it was to ask if she could borrow something or accuse me of taking something of hers. The following summer she had a job and dibs on the family car and I saw even less of her. I’d hover in her periphery and ask questions about her boyfriend or her job, but for the most part I didn’t register a blip on her radar screen. In autumn when she left for college I was pretty used to her being gone and so it was just a matter of taking over the empty space she’d left in her wake. Her twin bed housed our childhood collection of stuffed animals and I took over her space in the closet, but I was pretty sure it was only a matter of time before she’d be back again. Little did I know, it was the last time my older sister would ever live at home or share a room with me. A chapter in my life had closed for good.
When I graduated from high school I enrolled in a tech program in a nearby city. I chose to live in a dorm room with three other girls and once again I found the rotating company enjoyable. I guess I’m just one of those people who doesn’t mind sharing my space with others. When I finished the program I found a job working for a local dentist and moved back home to the farm. By then, my younger sister had moved into my old bedroom, forcing me to occupy my brother’s empty room. My younger sister and I got along well and we started to get reacquainted. A five year age gap had been tough to bridge when we were kids, but I soon discovered that my fifteen year-old sister was a good listener and a supportive friend. We spent many a night talking late into the wee hours of the morning. It was during this period of time that I rekindled a relationship with an old flame who lived out of state, which entailed driving to various locations to meet him on the weekend. My sister listened to my exploits and encouraged me to follow my heart, which ultimately led to my decision to leave home.
My parents were fairly understanding when I announced I was ready to move out. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t know where I was going every weekend. I’m sure they figured it was only a matter of time before I decided to do something more permanent. Still, I found it hard to pull up the stakes and leave. I’d been paying my parents rent and while I liked the sense of freedom it allowed, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to be totally on my own. But I had a fat savings account, a new car and I thought the road was calling me. So I set a date, proceeded to give my two weeks notice at work and started to pack my meager belongings.
Feeling time was of essence, my sister and I spent every evening together talking about our future hopes and dreams. I cherished those nights of sharing and laughter, never once stopping to think how hard it must have been to know you’ll be the last child left at home. The four of us had once been somewhat of a team, but as we grew up one by one, each child set sail for the next chapter of their life leaving the younger siblings behind. Now that it was my turn to fly my mind was on the future and the exciting new changes to come. I wasn’t thinking about how empty the house would seem to the last sibling still living at home.
All too soon my date of departure arrived and although there was a faint surreal quality to it, it was really just a day like any other. The sun came up over the pasture and the barn swallows swooped over the yard scolding the fat lazy cats that lounged on the front porch. I gave my camera to my mother and asked her to snap a few photos of my sister and I standing beneath a big pine tree in the front yard. Our eyes were swollen from crying, but we composed ourselves and smiled bravely for the camera.
My sister and I hugged and whispered our goodbyes in hoarse, wavering voices. I promised her I’d come back for a visit soon, knowing full well that I wouldn’t. I hugged my mother and told her I’d write, which I seldom did either. (Mom wrote to me faithfully every week for many years, sending coupons and correcting my spelling with every correspondence) My father had already left for work after pausing only long enough to give me a big, but dry-eyed bear hug and tell me, “The door swings both ways.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but I’ve since learned it’s 70′s Dad-speak for, “Love you, honey.” I’d like to think my father shed a tear or two after he drove off, but I’ll never know.
Unable to stall any longer I climbed into my loaded hatchback and turned the key. I inched down the long gravel driveway while taking a moment for one last sweeping look at the beautiful farm I’d grown to love. Deep down in my heart I missed it already. I turned in my seat and waved one final time at my mother and sister, then pulled out onto Victor Road. As I drove off I glanced in my rear view mirror. My mother had vanished into the house, but my sister stood stoically waiving like a princess in a parade. Through my tears I watched her until I drove around a bend and the house dipped out of sight. I never lived at home again.
The day you left home you got an early start
I watched your car back out in the dark
I opened the door to your room down the hall
I turned on the light and all that I saw
Was a bed and a desk and a couple of tacks,
no sign of someone who expects to be back.
That must have been one hell of a suitcase you packed.
Twirl me about, twirl me around
let me grow dizzy and fall to the ground
and when I look up at you looking down
say it was only a dream.