Russian sable

By Hilary Carr | Aug 04, 2010

Larchmont, New York, 1948

I tiptoe across the dark hallway and stand outside Ta's bedroom door. I am wearing my first communion dress. It is very soft white cotton, with a real petticoat. My new patent leather shoes are slippery and my socks have a lacy cuff. The veil on my head is like a silver halo. It makes me feel holy. I try to tie my sash behind my back and straighten the dress and petticoat. I am so excited. My first communion is only one week away. Ta is not just my older sister, she is my godmother and I want to show her how I look. Maybe she will help braid my hair. I knock on her door.

"Come on in," she says.

I open the door and sunshine is everywhere. A soft breeze moves the curtains in front of the windows. Her two canaries are flying free. She says she doesn't believe much in cages. I hold on to my veil and duck my head. I'm scared. It is the sound of their wings flicking so close to my head. I hope she can't see that I'm afraid of them. One canary is perched on the old iron street sign. Magnolia Avenue, it says. Ta dragged that sign all the way up the 13 front porch stairs, thunk, thunk, thunking it into the house and then up the staircase to her bedroom. Now it leans in one corner and makes a perch for her birds. A canary flies over and sits on the edge of her dressing table. The drawers are partly open and I can see most of Ta's treasures: a silver compact with powder, bobby-pins, safety pins, hairbrushes, combs, lipsticks, mascara, necklaces and bracelets. I look up to try to see myself from head to toe in her big mirror. She has so many of her favorite cartoons from the New Yorker scotch-taped on the mirror that I can barely see myself. Oh well, I think, the nuns had warned us that too much looking in the mirror would make us vain. Being vain is a sin. Not a mortal sin, but a sin. A venial sin. I have to be careful because I have made my first confession and my soul is all cleaned up. My first communion is only a week away so I have to be very good. I take a twirl or two in front of the mirror and glance over my shoulder at myself. Then I sit down on the chaise longue, pushing aside her blouses, garter belts, stockings and slips. I am careful not to muss my dress, waiting and watching.

Ta is sitting on the bed in her slip, looking through a pile of movie magazines.

She reads everything she can and loves reading about movie stars too. Mom does not approve of this. Mom hates the pictures of the almost naked movie stars in bathing suits or the ones that dye their hair or get divorced. Those magazines are usually under Ta's bed. I know that. I have found them there and I look at them when no one is around.

She looks as elegant as a movie star to me as she sings along with the radio. Her song is finished and she turns to me. She is singing along with the radio.

"That's a very pretty dress," she says. "Are you ready for the big day? Have you learned all your catechism?"

"Sure," I tell her. "Mike has drilled me on all the questions. I know them by heart now."

I am shy with her. After all she is already 23 and finished with college. She has been away for a year in California. That's where she was born and that's where all her favorite cousins live. I wonder if it is hard for her to take care of us. Mom is still weak from her operation a few months ago. Ta looks after things because Steve is away in college and Anne is a five day boarder in high school, so they can't do the job. Mike is 13 and I am 7, so we can't do it either. I am so glad Ta is back.

She turns off the radio. "Come sit over here and I'll braid your hair for you," she offers. "We'll try out some styles for your first communion day." She stands up in her satiny slip and stretches, so tall and slim. Her brown hair is thick and wavy. I wonder if I will ever be as tall or as beautiful. I want to try lipstick, mascara and nail polish too. She leads me back to sit at her dressing table. She undoes my veil. Then she begins to brush my hair.

I watch Ta through the mirror as she works on my hair. I think about how the house has changed since she has come home. On Saturdays she and all the older kids and their friends come to our house. They play ping pong for hours on the porch. I can sit in the living room next to our phonograph listening to the music from "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Oklahoma." I like music better than ping pong because I love to sing and I am too short to play ping pong. From here I can see and hear them through the living room window that opens to the porch. When it is a warm day, we open the living room window and turn the music up loud. The new phonograph can load eight records at once and it drops them down one by one until the record pile is so high that the needle starts to skip. It takes almost one game of ping pong before eight records have played. Then someone has to run around the porch and in through the front door to change them. Ta discovers that she can climb through the living room window as a good short cut. She is careful not to knock over the small flower box of red geraniums that sits on the radiator cover just under the window sill. As she chooses what to play next, the others call out for her to do her Carmen Miranda dance. All of a sudden she grabs the flower box of geraniums to balance on her head and begins to rumba around the living room. She is barefoot and long legged. Her skirt is whirling. She swivels her hips and lets her arms sway. Then she sings out, "I'm Chiquita Banana and I've come to say ..." Cheers and whoops from the porch keep her dancing as everyone is crammed at the window to watch her. My beautiful sister, my godmother, with her purpley black Russian sable toenails, is like a real movie star. Do it again, we all beg.

Now those same hands are very gentle as they brush my hair. She makes careful strokes as she coaxes out my snarls and tangles. She touches my head so softly. I want to sit here with her just like this forever. It is our private world in here. The curtains begin to blow harder at the windows; the wind is warm and much stronger than before.

"Come into the bathroom with me. We need to wet your hair a little."

We go around the corner and she has me lean back over the sink. She combs some water through my hair. As I look up I see the white fluffy clouds she has painted on the ceiling of the blue bathroom. "Don't you love them?" Ta asks. "I think everyone should be able to see clouds in the sky when they sit in their bathtub." I notice that she has painted the nails of the claw-footed bathtub Russian sable, just like her own toenails. Wow, I think, this is all magic. We finally decide that French braids will work best.

"I think I feel a storm coming," she says, looking out the window. "Do you want to watch it blow in? I think we should go down to the rocks at Manor Park. It's the perfect place to be in a storm. With lots of wind the water will be wild too. It will be exciting. Will you keep me company?"

"Sure," I say and run to change my clothes.

We set out, hand in hand, me and my godmother, toward the park, walking into the gathering storm.





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