The Tender Reed
BY CHERYL BUTLER BRANDRETH
Rose Ann wasn’t my real sister. She was my stepfather’s stepdaughter from his first marriage. We met when I was five. The day she was to arrive I rode my Big Wheel up and down the driveway in nervous anticipation. I practiced parking, backing up, and had just begun doing donuts when my stepfather, Jerry, pulled in the driveway. His pink Cadillac came to a halt and I pulled up right behind him. A bare foot topped by a bell-bottom leg of faded denim stepped out of the car and onto the pavement. Rose Ann turned toward me and squatted down so we were on eye level. When she smiled a canine tooth caught on her lower lip on one side. It became her signature. She opened her arms wide to hug me and I was surprised by the gesture. She enveloped me with her arms and I planted my face in a shoulder full of chestnut-brown hair that fell to her waist with blonde streaks in front. She smelled of musk. I searched for that smell for years before I knew its name.
The two-bedroom house we rented couldn’t accommodate another person — my sister Renae and I already shared one room — so we converted the garage into a bedroom of paneled walls with orange and brown shag carpet. Jerry’s mom provided whatever was needed, including a dresser and mirror.
I examined the jewelry Rose Ann laid out on her dresser: silver hoop earrings and bangles, leather bracelets and hair clips, and turquoise rings. I timidly reached out my hand to touch her hair brush.
“It’s okay, you can use it,” she said.
“No, I want to brush your hair.”
“Oh, you want to fix my hair? Okay.” She sat down and I stood on the couch behind her so I was tall enough to brush her long, silky hair. Then she put my hair in ponytails. She made me look at myself in her mirror, switching from regular to magnified, until I laughed.
Practically the day she arrived Rose Ann had a boyfriend. Neal drove over in his Camaro, wearing a silk shirt and blue jeans, to take Rose Ann to the drive-in movie theater. I stood forlornly in the laundry room between her bedroom and the kitchen watching her hug him by the front door. I didn’t want to be seen, but Rose Ann turned around as if she could feel me watching her. She held out her hand and motioned for me to come with her. She stooped down and squeezed me as she whispered, “You’re coming with us.”
I fell asleep in the back seat before the movie ever started.
Weeknights Neal came over and the three of us sat huddled together on the couch watching television with an afghan over us, smell of musk in our noses. Until Rose Ann arrived, I had largely gone unnoticed.
Jerry was a truck driver who was gone all week, so Mom was left transporting Rose Ann to and from a summer school program, which was nearly twenty miles away. Every morning we piled into the green Chrysler, an upgrade from the unreliable blue Plymouth we had when we lived on the farm. Mom turned on the wipers to erase the early morning dew and tuned in to WAKY radio as we hopped from one hill to the next on a straight country road that stretched for miles.
During the week it was just us girls, but my mother devoted the weekends to Jerry. Rose Ann’s presence disrupted Mom’s newfound bliss.
“She’s just one more mouth to feed,” Mom complained. “And I always have to clean up after her. She never washes a dish or does a load of laundry.”
“You’re going to have to start helping out around here,” Jerry told Rose Ann. Then he went back out on the road for the week.
The next weekend was no different.
“She got a C on her report card,” Mom complained.
“Young lady, you’re grounded until you bring your grades up,” Jerry told Rose Ann.
The doorbell rang.
“Tell Neal you can’t go to the movies,” he said.
Tears welled up in her deep brown eyes. She clutched the bottom of the poncho Granny had knitted for her and brought her fists up to her chin.
“But you said I could go!”
“That was before I saw your report card. I’m sorry, but the answer is no.”
“I hate you,” she screamed and ran off to her room.
Jerry opened the door and told Neal that Rose Ann wasn’t allowed to go out. By the end of the weekend Neal had a new girlfriend and Rose Ann decided to move to Florida with her mother.
She hugged me for the last time. I buried my face in her silky hair and breathed in her musk so I wouldn’t forget. My tears dampened her hair as we held each other outside the car and cried together.
“It’s okay, I’ll come back sometime,” she said as she wiped a tear from my cheek. “I’ll write you letters. Promise me you’ll write to me.”
She got in the car and Jerry drove her out of the driveway much the same way she had come in, with bare feet and bell-bottoms. I ran after the pink Cadillac, but it drove on out of sight.
I received my first letter a few long weeks later. Rose Ann told me about her new bedroom and her mom’s new husband and his kids. She said I was still her favorite. I wrote back immediately, but it took a little longer to get a letter in return.
Mom and Jerry bought a piece of land and built a house. It was a far cry from the white and green aluminum-sided rental house with the converted garage. It was a two-story home on seven and a half wooded acres with enough bedrooms for each of us to have our own, including Rose Ann. I wrote to tell her all about it, but I never received a reply. I sat alone on the pink ruffled bedspread in my bedroom and cried, afraid that she was never coming back.
Years went by and we hardly ever heard from Rose Ann, but she did send a couple of pictures. In one, she is wearing a short white dress and posing on a piano bench, stomach tucked in, legs crossed, one hand behind her, the other settled on her knee with her torso turned sideways. In the other she is smiling big, standing in front of a meat counter in a white butcher’s uniform, complete with hat and apron. She had been entering beauty pageants while working as a butcher. She was making her own living and finding her own way. She had just bought a new car.
Somewhere along the way Mom and Jerry got religion, and when Jerry found out Rose Ann was living with her boyfriend, he stopped talking to her.
One Saturday afternoon when I was ten, Granny called with the news that Rose Ann was missing. She had last been seen with three friends but no one had any idea where to look for her.
On the third day after Rose Ann’s disappearance her car was found in a canal. It had flipped over an embankment. Four bodies were discovered inside, all wearing seat belts.
“She didn’t suffer,” Jerry said. “The police officer said all of her nails were intact and that if she had been conscious she would have broken one trying to get out.”
That was little comfort to me.
Arrangements were made for us to fly to Florida for the funeral. I tried to sleep, but images of being underwater and dreams of falling kept me awake.
Renae and I sat next to one another on the plane. It was the first time either of us had flown. I clutched the armrests and held on tight as the plane sped down the runway. If I had been at Disneyland, I would have screamed until they stopped the ride, but I suppressed the scream, determined to face what lay ahead. My stomach rose to my throat as the wheels left the runway and suddenly we were gliding smoothly along the clouds. I could see the tip of the wing from the middle seat.
When the pilot announced for us to fasten our seatbelts, I thought better of it. I didn’t want to be locked in if we crashed.
“Girls, look out your window,” Jerry instructed.
We looked out to see a mossy green area below us that became trees, then streets, houses, and swimming pools like the one on my dollhouse.
I was not prepared for the jarring landing and about the time I thought I would scream, we screeched to a halt, then glided down the runway as smoothly as we had flown among the clouds.
No one was there to greet us when we arrived at the airport. I searched every face I passed, hoping it was all a bad joke. Rose Ann was okay, it had all been a ploy to get me on a plane. But I saw no familiar faces in the crowd, no one to assure me it was going to be alright.
We passed by greyhound race tracks and jai alai courts on the way to the funeral home. The place was already crowded when we arrived.
“Are you going to be okay with a closed casket? Mom asked.
“You won’t be able to see her,” Jerry said. “Her body is bloated from being in the water too long, so you won’t be able to recognize her.”
Unrecognizable, except for the artificial nails.
We weren’t considered family, so there were no reserved seats for us. We sat in the back of the room on the white wooden folding chairs like all of the other mourners.
I heard Granny say that Rose Ann had planned her own funeral. New terms were thrown around while I struggled to make sense of them. Closed casket, planned funeral. I saw two songs listed on the program that made me believe what Granny said was true: “The Rose” and “You Light Up My Life.” The words of those songs could have been written by me to her. I hoped she had felt the same way about me.
My fear that Rose Ann was gone forever had come true. I tried to take it all in, this one last time I would have to remember her. We passed by the greyhound race tracks and jai alai courts on the way to the cemetery. It was a beautiful, peaceful place, with green grass and palm trees, but the thought of Rose Ann being put into the ground was too much for me to bear.
“Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed,” the words of “The Rose” were sung by a faceless voice. “Some say love, it is a razor that leaves your soul to bleed. Some say love, it is a hunger, an endless, aching need. I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed.”
After the funeral, Rose Ann’s mother’s invited us to her house and suggested that the children — me, Renae, and the other stepsiblings — go to Rose Ann’s room to pick out some mementos. At first I resisted, but I was curious to see her room, her things. Ironically, Rose Ann’s bedroom was in a converted garage. It was as if everywhere she went an exception had to be made. She was no one’s first choice or concern.
The stepsiblings were already there in her walk-in closet, rummaging through her belongings. I stared at them, horrified. I knew I was the outsider, but I also knew that she couldn’t possibly have meant as much to them as she did to me. I would have traded all of her beautiful jewelry and clothes to have her alive. They seemed more interested in pillaging. They grabbed clothes by the handfuls, picking them up, dropping them on the floor, and stepping on them to get to something else. I waited in the corner for them to leave. They never did.
I sat down on Rose Ann’s bed wishing I was alone so I could cry myself to sleep as I would do later on my own bed at home. I noticed a diary on the nightstand. She had more than one — there was another on the dresser. I opened it and then closed it. I wanted to read it, but was afraid of what it might say. Our best memories of people need to remain pure and intact, not clouded by the everyday realities of their lives. I hesitated, feeling protective of what she may have written, wanting to hide it from the others, but I put the diary back on the table.
In the corner of the room was a statue of an elephant, her favorite animal. A stuffed one was on her bed, the only childish thing that remained.
I made my way to the closet where I hunted for any trace of her scent. She had some nice things — fur coats and sequined evening gowns that had replaced the faded denim bell-bottoms. The clothes now dangled from one end of a hanger or lay tossed on the floor. I wanted to smell her musk one more time, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It made her death seem less real, like the person I knew and loved had disappeared a long time ago.
I walked over to her dresser, tracing my finger over her brush and mirror. I could hear her say, “It’s okay. You can use it.”
“No, I want to brush your hair,” I said.
I looked through the jewelry box where her silver hoop earrings and bangles, leather bracelets and hair clips, and turquoise rings had been replaced by fancier rhinestones and diamonds. It seemed to be a pattern here — the down to earth Rose Ann that I knew had been replaced by the beauty contestant. Nothing I found in that room seemed like it belonged, except for the elephants. Maybe we had it all wrong. Maybe she had just run away from home like I had wanted to do so many times.
I opened one of the drawers of her jewelry box and finally found a memento to take home — a little pouch made for holding jewelry. It was blue velvet with a heart sewn onto it. There was nothing inside.