My friend, who grew up in a Lutheran family in the 1950s in standard, Alberta, says her family motto is My grudge is better than your grudge.
My friend is married to a man who learned the f-bomb at five and experimented with dropping it into a song at supper: Fuckadoodle, fuckadoodle, fuckadoodle. No one said a word. Sounds of forks and knives scraping plates. Meat and potatoes. Family motto: The less said the better.
I think of my family’s mottos. When my sister, fifteen years older than me, was visiting, our father could be counted on at a well-oiled midnight to pester her to perform her famous, hilarious party piece: Little Miss Muffet in a variety of accents—Scottish, Punjabi, Cockney, which she’d learned in her drama training. If she resisted his umpteenth request, he’d theatrically proclaim, Push things to the full! and cajole our mother to make crêpes suzette, the only dessert she could concoct and which he loved to set aflame. As a kid, I loved my family like this. But even then, I could feel tension prickling under the laughter.
Even in her early thirties, she would still perform for Daddy. But when she followed this command performance with a campy, coy rendition of “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” from Oklahoma, our mother got up in the middle and left the room. My sister kept on singing. No more requests.
Two of my mother’s mottos:
Don’t air your dirty linen in public.
Don’t ruin your life like your sister.
What does acting require? What are its essentials?
A stage, however ephemeral. The idea of a stage. An audience, at least the idea of an audience.
Our given names carry the sense that family is our first audience. Consider that my sister’s name is quite theatrical: Moonyeen (rhymes with foo –neen). Moonyeen, our French mother’s attempt to Anglicize the Gaelic m’inion, my daughter.
One of my first memories—I must have been just shy of four—is of my sister as Cordelia in King Lear. I remember the thrill of the darkened hall, its collective held-breath hush, and amazing! My sister (I had no scope then for imagining her as anyone else), shining on the raised, lit stage. When the king yelled at her, I yelled back, her loud pigmy defender, and was quickly shushed out of the hall.
Beauty and Artistic Temperament
There is a portrait painted on leather of Moonyeen as Cordelia, a luminescent strangeness in her beauty. I found it in the basement junk room, wedged behind a corroded old tin trunk that housed the real human skeleton my father bought in medical school to study anatomy. The trunk he hauled around three continents.
I stare into those blue, blue eyes. Marvel at her beautifully arranged blonde hair, pulled back in a loose chignon.
Beauty coupled with artistic temperament. A kind of licence.
A kind of diagnosis.
When I was born, my sister had already navigated puberty, acted in her first play, accumulated a squadron of male admirers. At nineteen, in 1955, she got pregnant. A time when pregnant teenagers were still called “unmarried mothers.” There was a quick wedding. I was the flower girl, in a flocked organza dress and falling-down socks. She stayed behind in Durban with her year-old son and a crumbling marriage, while the rest of the family emigrated to Canada.
When I was eight and she twenty-three, she arrived, divorced, with my nephew in tow. The tiny Alberta town of Alliance, where our father was the new town doctor, left her bored. She began teaching ballet on Saturdays at the Lions Hall and orchestrated a twenty-act talent show. I basked in my sister’s glamour.
For her July birthday—her first, as she said, in the New World—she transformed the patio into a Parisian café, painted a curlicue moustache on our dad, and dressed up as a French prostitute: A beret, black beauty spot on her cheek, tight-fitting striped top that revealed deep cleavage, black skirt slit thigh high, fishnet stockings. A garter on her thigh sported a bone-handled steak knife.
At midnight, the adults’ radar befogged by alcohol, I was still roaming undetected, until a man grabbed me, pulled me down on his lap and drunkenly threatened, “You’re gonna be a mankiller, just like your sister.”
In a few months, she fell in love with a Welsh graduate student, married him, and “poor as stink but in lustful love,” went with him to Wales. She left her son, Leigh, for our parents to raise. A welcome baby brother for me, only five years younger.
Our connections after that were few but thrilling. When I was fifteen, she taught me makeup, fashion, brought me hot-off-the-press Beatles records. At eighteen, I was careened around late sixties London, shopping in Kensington, drinking, visiting her rich friends at the Ritz, talking late about life and sex. At thirty-six, she was the maid of honour at my wedding, slim and platinum-haired in what she referred to as her Blanche Dubois stage, having just finished a run of A Streetcar Named Desire.
In my thirties, she told me that an old lover had nicknamed her Onion. She seemed pleased. Offering me this as a kind of trophy. An enigmatic, layered smile.
“Did you make him cry?” I asked.
An actor’s craft is all about timing, a trained instinct for pitch and placement. I never saw my sister act professionally after the King Lear experience, but I knew she had played many of the troubled leading ladies: Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Medea, Blanche DuBois, Sylvia Plath. She was an impassioned actor, who cultivated various stages and audiences throughout her life. At her peak, her timing was audacious and joyful.
One of her most audacious performances occurred at a neo-pagan dance camp in West Wales, of which she was the founding mother, at age fifty. By 1986, her dream had come to fruition: five acres of tribal summer camp for hippies; dancers, artists, musicians and poets; healers of all modalities; children galore; even a paid camp fool—all cavorting in three giant big-top circus tents in which every stripe of singing, healing, and dancing took place: opera, Taizé plainsong, Reiki, Rolfing, African drumming, ballroom dancing, dancing the astrological cycle (You’re a lion, stalking prey. You’re deep under your crab shell) and folk and circle dancing, of which my sister was a well-loved choreographer and teacher. Five-hundred souls gathered for ten days in August, arranging their nomadic domiciles—tents, yurts, tipis, gypsy caravans—in circles.
The year I was there was the camp’s tenth anniversary and my sister’s sixtieth birthday. Feeling “poorly,” she sent word out through the camp grapevine, “I want. . . palanquin.” This, to transport her—the tacitly acknowledged dowager queen of this madcap carnival—to the late afternoon thé dansant, a Dance Camp ritual involving a live orchestra, beribboned dance cards, and costumes. At the appointed hour, four shirtless men arrived with a rustic log palanquin on which my sister in sequins and feathers was hoisted and paraded through the camp, waving a queenly wave, preceded by children banging pots and scattering rose petals, a gypsy violinist, and red-haired Rufus Maychild, founding father of PAN (Pagans Against Nukes) heralding her presence with horn and drum. She was ceremoniously lowered and helped off the palanquin by an old wizard poet costumed in a skirt and a colander for a hat.
How clever, natural? of Moonyeen’s vision to cultivate this stage and this audience, perfectly calibrating her sensibilities for anarchic playfulness to the branches of British activism with roots in Wiccan paganism and eco-feminism.
Ten years later, that energy seemed less charismatic, more manic. I should have read the clues—the excited 4 a.m. phone calls; the talk, talk, talking up of the fantastic success of her hip replacement, of who would make the invitational A-list to her seventieth birthday party, what food would be catered on the canal boat ride up the Avon River to the rented medieval boathouse. Instead, I allowed myself to get caught up in her passion. I wanted to share again her old magnetic magic.
The event was a disaster.
Watching someone you love in full flagrante mania is a terrible experience.
In the depressions, she slept and slept and moved like a dried seed husk, vacant and used up. But in mania, my sister never slept. She demanded, commanded undivided attention from her assembled coterie, at times competing aggressively with her small granddaughters.
On the last day before we were to leave, she invited the family for lunch at the newly gentrified Cardiff docks. She arrived in outrageous costume—wide-brimmed hat festooned with flowers and little wool sheep; a too-small ball gown, zipper gaping open; rings on her fingers, and, yes, bells on her barefoot toes. A spectacle.
The lunch was a disaster. She attempted to ingratiate herself with the Kurdish waiter by singing a Kurdish song and dancing a Kurdish dance. When the bill came, she realized she’d forgotten her wallet.
She asked me to drive with her back to her daughter’s house. I had to cram into the backseat of her friend’s borrowed car, crammed full of decorations from the ill-fated birthday party. Masses of weeds from roadside ditches, heaps of tangled feather boas, caftans, scarves. And in the backseat, my travelling companion: A red-hatted, pipe-smoking garden gnome she had rescued from a dumpster.
At a cramped angle, I could see her old woman’s hands clutching the steering wheel, the wide brim of her ridiculous hat obscuring her profile. I asked how her ex-husband was faring. The divorce, over twenty years before, had been angry, difficult. Amazingly, Moonyeen answered with compassion and lucidity. With love. She spoke eloquently of his isolation and loneliness, his fear of aging, his increasing confusion.
This, with her in full-out preposterous costume in a car full of weeds, mad art, a rescued garden gnome, and me.
When my niece and I cleared out my sister’s house, I hoped I’d find one treasure—a book of our mother’s poetry she had published in her early twenties before she married. Ombres et Clartés, Shadows and Light, could not be found. It was nowhere in the mounds of broken furniture rescued from dumpsters; boxes stacked ceiling high, stuffed with handleless cups and cracked plates; piles of motheaten fur and wool coats.
In the crannies of this wreckage, we found collage after collage made from paint colour chips, carefully smoothed shiny chocolate bar paper, coffee stir sticks, peach pits.
Mad art. Asylum art.
We come from a family of collectors. When I was six, my mother started a doll collection for me: plastic dolls in bright ethnic costumes; Indian dolls with faces of wizened dried apples; maritime dolls fashioned from sea shells and lobster claws.
I ended up donating my collection to a dementia ward in Calgary, where I’m told the old ladies love to handle the dolls. I feared copying my sister’s pathologically sentimental relationship with things. Sad things. Empty pill bottles, broken watches, flotsam rescued from dumpsters.
But somewhere in the huge clear-out of her house, I began to realize that she hoarded things because of their potential. They could be useful, be transformed into art. She identified with those lost, insignificant things, those discards.
I dream she and I are creating a giant mobile of all the empty, broken, warped, rescued things in her life. In my life.