Thursday, June 26, 2008

How did sisters speak in the olden times?

"Every time I see him, I must look like a startled doe by coachlight. I'm surprised, nay, shocked, at the way the mere sight of," Julia complained, only relaxing her terse, clipped tones as she carefully decided on "affects" as her verb of choice. From the tone of her voice, I knew that she could have easily replaced that particular word with "elates," "thrills," or "exhilarates" to describe the phenomenon. However, Julia was practicing her signature restraint. "I consider myself to be a woman of densest moral fiber and most solid constitution, Helen," she said. Something about her is dense, all right. I sat in the living room crocheting a lace doily, trying not to smirk. I pictured her getting weak in the knees when the object of her affection, a small young man whose life appeared to be a series of quick, efficient motions, passed by her classroom door. "And I'm supposed to be a role model for all those girls! It simply will not do to have me...swooning...whenever the new headmaster walks into the room."

"Julia," I said, looking up from my work. She shuddered. I loved saying my sister's name because she appeared to hate it so viscerally. (Whenever it was announced in public, she would ask the heavens why our parents couldn't have given her a slightly less Roman-sounding name. I think she may have decided to work in the boarding school because everyone there was obliged to call her Miss Chase.) "Why don't you just go out with him? Isn't there a barn-raising on Friday?"

"Helen!" she snapped. "Don't you understand? I am not the sort of woman who 'goes to barn-raisings' with gentlemen. Specifically not with gentlemen who are my superiors at work. That would be unseemly, and on the whole, undesirable."

"What's better," I posed the question: "An evening of companionship and possibly even some fun? Or being afraid of running into him every day for the rest of your tenure?"

"You don't understand. Not at all," she sighed loudly, collapsing into a rocking chair. For such an uptight priss, Julia certainly had a way of becoming melodramatic. Normally, when I tell a story about my life with my sister, it invariably ends up as a semi-tragic version of The Taming of the Shrew, in which the concerned father will not allow his younger daughter to marry until the older one is married first. Nobody dies at the ends of my stories, but nobody actually gets married, either. But after many stories of the kind, I'd sort of given up on ever even being pursued. All the eligible gentlemen had heard the legend of Julia Chase, and feared that the little sister would be just like her, but worse for having had to skulk around their house like a scullery maid to avoid her temper. Or so the boys said, according to my friend Emma. These rumors were, of course, much exaggerated versions of the truth.

Truthfully, I'd recently taken up crocheting. I found that the small, repetitive motions of it soothed me, particularly when Julia got it in her head to talk about emotions, relationships, or anything else she didn't really understand. Even now, my hands and fingers moved deftly, around and through, making lace while my sister was speaking of being in love. As smart as she was, and well-trained in the arts of nursing, Julia was still entirely unable to diagnose this particular ailment in herself. I smiled, knowing full well that she would skewer my logic if I even attempted to explain it to her. No, she and this headmaster of hers were going to have to figure it all out themselves. With my next stitch, I sent up a prayer for Julia to figure it out sooner, rather than later. From my crochet hook to God's ears, or something.

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