The Traveling Sisterhood of the Stinky Feet
At the end of October, my sister and niece (my nephew’s wife) came to visit for the first time in a long while. I hadn’t seen Fran, my sister, in over six years, my niece Jodi in over eighteen years. They all live in Colorado now. I’m in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC. Since I live alone, in a relatively small place (1,000 square feet), with no room or set up for overnight guests, I booked Fran and Jodi into a lovely new BnB that my landlord owns just a short walk up the hill from my place. It was perfect.
I’d had some apprehension about this visit. My sister and I were not always on the same page. There were things I would never understand about her, and things she would never understand about me. We were at our best when we were working together on a specific project, like when we talked about our respective creative work, or when I built her art website, or when she and I worked with my brother-in-law to publish a family memoir — Morris The Cat’s Nine Lives — that he’d written about my father. I edited the text and designed the book. My sister got all the photos together for me to scan and edit in Photoshop. Peace mostly prevailed.
Regular conversational interaction over the phone between me and my sister could often be a challenge. Old family issues and patterns could surface. I admit that I was happy that my niece was coming, not only because I was looking forward to reconnecting with Jodi, but also because her joyful presence might help us stay out of reactive mode, which I, myself, sincerely intended to do. I was a very different me from when we had last visited, and I supposed, hoped, that my sister, too, had moved beyond the need for bringing up any of the old triggers. I was past potentially hurtful arguments, and past the need to be “right.” I now often practiced the I don’t know.
How It Began
An Uber dropped Fran and Jodi off at the BnB at about 7 PM where I picked them up and brought them down to my place. It was dinnertime, but since their body clocks were two hours earlier and I wasn’t hungry, we sat and talked and laughed and began to catch up with each other. All of a sudden, I detected an odor a little like smelly feet. I didn’t know what could be causing it.
“Something smells sort of like dirty feet,” I joked.
My sister pulled off one of her socks and smelled it. “Not me,” she said, laughing. Jodi, who was sitting on the floor cross legged, bent down and smelled her feet. “Not me,” she said. I took off a slipper sock and smelled it. “Not me,” I said. Everyone tried to identify the smell. Jodi said it was sort of musty. Fran said it didn’t smell like feet to her, but she didn’t know what it smelled like. I said it was subtle, but unpleasant. I went around sniffing things, unable to figure out where it was coming from. My sister told us about my brother-in-law’s yucky slippers that he wouldn’t throw out and how she began replacing them herself with a new pair of the same ones every year.
Soon we all got hungry. My sister Fran, the queen of sourdough bread, had brought two she’d made fresh that morning, carried from Colorado – one loaf and one boule. She and I went about slicing the bread and putting it into the freezer. We left out several pieces of the loaf that we’d heat to crusty for dinner that night. We’d share more of the loaf during our visit. The boule I’d have all for myself.
I finished preparing a large salad of organic crunchy greens, Wild Wonders tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives, with sliced organic chicken breast on top, and a Balsamic Vinaigrette I made with Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil, balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, fresh garlic and raw unfiltered local Sourwood honey. It was yum.
At dinner, Fran said, “We need to have some kind of theme, like The Traveling something of the…what was it?
“You mean The Traveling Pants?” I said.
Jodi chimed in. “How about Traveling Sisters of Smelly Feet?”
Even though we laughed a lot together, we each had our particular brand of humor. Jodi was Bridesmaids. My sister was Under The Tuscan Sun. I was Shakespeare in Love.
We kept throwing out ideas. I edited and honed. “Smelly isn’t exactly right. How about stinky?” I said. “It’s funnier.”
Fran said, “Traveling Sisters of Stinky Feet.”
I said, “I think it has to be The Traveling Sisterhood of the Stinky Feet.”
“The Traveling Sisterhood of the Stinky Feet!” We each tested it out loud. We had a winner.
A few minutes later, Fran says she’s looking up how to say it in Italian. She and my brother-in-law had lived in Siena, Italy for almost two years. “La sorellanza itinerante dei piedi puzzolenti” she shouted.
Not to be outdone, I go to my laptop and look up the French. “La sororité itinérante des pieds puants,” I read. “I’m going to run it backwards,” I add. I’ll bet you pussolenti means smelly, not stinky,” I tease. “In French,” I say, “it actually translates as stinky. Ha.”
My sister is up for the challenge. “I bet the Italian also means stinky,” she says.
She looks it up. I had already looked it up. “It means smelly” I say. I joke that the French is the better translation. Neither of us can actually speak these languages that we love, although I’m a little better at French than she is at Italian.
Fran again yells it out in Italian. Yelling is her normal voice. It’s disconcerting. The only time she speaks to me in a comfortable decibel range is when she drops into therapist mode. That’s the sign that she’s in her “helper” identity, which to me means her “fixer” identity. In my world, I’ve learned it’s best not to offer advice that isn’t asked for. The other person cannot hear it. When my sister gets into that mode, in my best moments I just listen, then do whatever I know is best for me.
My sister says that yelling was the only way she could make herself heard in our family where everyone always yelled over each other. I do not yell. I have not yelled in decades. In fact, sometimes my voice is too soft and others can’t hear me. I have “voice” issues, clearing my throat, coughing, losing my voice. Much for me to contemplate here, I think.
We finally discovered that the smell was coming from the air conditioning vents. It got better, but I made a note to call Joey, my landlord, and see about getting the filter changed.
What We Did
We only had two full days plus one evening and one morning, not a lot of time. Mostly we visited, talked, cracked up — that’s New York for laughing hysterically. We drove around Asheville, but went to lunch in Weaverville, the quaint little town just north of where I live. We ate, visited a gallery where a friend had her art, and then ambled down the street to the Well-Bred Bakery to take home goodies for dessert — amazing carrot cake, flourless chocolate torte, petite éclairs, raspberry and apricot rugelach. I ate the leftovers for days.
Before dinner, Jodi showed me how to test to see if honey was the real thing. You put a spoon of honey on a plate and cover it with water. You gently swirl the water around and around, and if a honeycomb pattern appears, it’s the real deal. It was pretty neat.
The first evening we played May I?, a card game we all loved that had seven progressively more difficult rounds to complete. It seemed that whenever my sister dealt, she wound up with unbelievable cards and won in about five seconds. It happened three times! She even took a photo of the cards she drew and texted it home to my brother-in-law, telling him the story. We called her “cheater.” We called her “trickster.” She yelled at us, said she didn’t do it on purpose, said we all saw how thoroughly she shuffled the cards. We didn’t let her deal any more hands. Ha.
On the second evening we decided to watch a film. My sister saw that I still happened to have one of her all-time favorites on DVD, The American President from 1995. It starred a very young Michael Douglas and Annette Benning. I’d seen it several times over the decades. At the end, my sister said it still made her feel hopeful. I said it just depressed me. Jodi, being only fifty-four to Fran’s seventy-three and my seventy-six said she had never heard of it and after watching it, was not at all impressed.
My Sister’s Sourdough Boule
I can’t believe I’m posting this. That’s Frank as Groucho to my right, and one of several mysterious aliens that showed up that night on my left.
What My Sister And I Learned About Each Other
For some reason, we began talking about the time my second husband and I had moved from The Bronx to Woodstock, NY in 1972 and had a bunch of friends come up for a party and Fran drove up with the guy she was dating. I told her when I was cleaning out my office closet these last months, I saw a picture from then. I brought out an album that had an old, rather dark image of Fran and Steve in the gathering of mostly stoned, interracial, lesbian, bi-sexual, and international Bronx friends who had come to Woodstock to visit us.
There was also an assortment of other seventies photos from when I and my then partner, who, years later would briefly become my third husband, had lived in Fort Lauderdale, FL. During that time we had had several theme parties — A New Year’s Eve toga party, a New Friends and Old Lovers Valentine’s Day party, an amazing Halloween costume party. I was dressed as a French “women of the evening” in a frosted blond wig I actually wore on occasion back then, a gold sequined beret, and a very short bra slip I had dyed red and worn over a black bikini bottom. Frank, my partner, was an impressive Groucho Marx.
In another section of the album were photos of a cross country trip I took in 1979 with my Florida friend Annette who was moving to San Francisco to marry a guy a lot younger than she. Over the years we waited seemingly forever for him to turn thirty. Annette and I had been invited to stay in L.A. for a week with her longtime friend Tom, who had written for the TV soap, General Hospital, for five years. When we were there, he had just begun writing for Days Of Our Lives. In the album, there were photos of Tom and his then partner and some actor friends who came for dinner, and the gorgeous pool patio, and the Yamaha grand piano in the living room, and the large poster of Robert F. Kennedy in Tom’s office.
“I always think of you surrounded by people,” my sister said.
I was surprised by that. I didn’t think of myself that way, although there was some degree of truth in it. For many years, in Florida, and then in Chapel Hill and Asheville NC, I had been part of different metaphysical and then more spiritually focused groups that were like family. For nine summers beginning in 1998, I also attended a two week writers critiquing workshop and retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Little Switzerland, NC, where I found my family of kindred creative spirits. In Asheville at that time, I also belonged to a closed poetry group for ten years, and a closed prose critiquing group for six years.
But my life in the last decade or so was a far cry from those earlier days. For many reasons, I stopped going to the July writers workshop. Eventually, my Muses disappeared, friends moved away, groups disbanded, and life continued to change for me. And then the pandemic came, along with some physical and emotional challenges, and the illness and death of my ex-husband who I wound up having to take care of. For years, I pretty much stayed curled in my cave. I just started coming up for air this past February.
“Did you think anything else about me that I don’t know?” I asked Fran.
“I thought you were really smart,” she said.
“Why did you think I was smart?”
“Because you read books all the time, and to me that made you smart.”
This surprised me even more. I might have been great at grade school spelling tests, and in junior high, I got 100% in ceramics, mostly because my teacher blew up my vase in the kiln. But anything after that seemed a struggle. My best friend got skipped a grade in junior high, which made all my high school friends a year ahead of me. I managed to graduate from high school six months early, which was still six months after them. I never had a prom, and I chose not to go to my high school graduation.
My time at Hunter College was a struggle, mostly because I was an emotional mess, back in my “shrink’s” office due to issues with my father at the time. I did manage to graduate with a BA in English Literature, but not with any particular accolades or even retained knowledge. The only A’s I got were in Modern Dance, French Literature (in French), and an elective on Ethnology of Asia, which wound up being graded only with Pass/Fail. So there. It’s taken me a very long time to begin to think of myself as, not smart, but somewhat intelligent. Throughout my life, I’ve explored subjects that interested me. I know a little about a lot of things. At this point, however, wisdom is more important to me than knowledge, and that’s something I continue to cultivate.
“No one ever knew this,” my sister continued. “I didn’t even know it until I was in my forties, but although I was never actually diagnosed, I had a learning disability. It was very difficult for me to comprehend and retain what I read, and I had to find ways to compensate. I worked extremely hard.
I was a little shocked. I would never have imagined that Fran had a learning disability. She got skipped a grade in school. She had a Masters of Social Work, and had became a licensed Psychotherapist opening her own practice in New Hampshire. It made me think about my sister with new admiration.
I also learned that she had severe car anxiety when she wasn’t driving, and that she was terrified of steep mountain roads, and roads with no guardrails at the edge.
And I learned something new about myself. In our family there was an event called “the crinoline story.” A crinoline is a petticoat. It needs to be understand that my sister and I fought endlessly, about everything. We were never like friends, and hardly ever helped each other out. I had always remembered the story as something terrible happening to my crinoline, and my sister, uncharacteristically feeling sorry for me, going out and buying me a new one with her own money.
I turns out, however, that I remembered it backwards. It had been my sister’s crinoline that had had the mishap, and I who had gone out and bought her a new one with my own money. That was something worth knowing, I thought.
Another Significant Thing
One evening, Fran picked up my Yamaha guitar in the stand next to my Yamaha digital piano. The instruments looked impressive sitting along the living room wall. One would think I could actually play. But the truth is I can’t. Nocturne Op. 9 No.2 transposed from E-Flat Major into G is an embarrassment to both me and Chopin.
My sister asked me if I remembered teaching her how to play the Phil Ochs song, Changes, on her guitar way back in maybe the seventies. I told her I didn’t remember her ever having a guitar, and I also didn’t remember listening to Phil Ochs or knowing any of his songs. I asked her where I taught it to her. Fran said I taught her the song at my apartment in New Rochelle when I was married to my second husband, Myles. I didn’t remember her ever visiting me in that apartment.
She said, “I cleaned your toilet.”
“You cleaned my toilet?” I had absolutely no memory of it. “Why would you do that?”
“Because…” she hesitated, “that’s what I did in those days. I needed to “fix” things. I thought it needed doing, so I did it.”
Fran tried to find the chords to Changes on my guitar, but her nails were long and manicured and it didn’t work. She started singing the words. It took me a good while, but I started to actually remember that I had played that song. It was a revelation. We looked it up on YouTube. I didn’t recall much of the past, especially family-related things. I didn’t feel the same connection to family that Fran did. But I did remember playing the song.
All three of us stood around my MacBook Air listening and singing along to Changes. We got to the stanza that goes:
Your tears will be trembling, now we’re somewhere else
One last cup of wine we will pour
And I’ll kiss you one more time
And leave you on the rolling river shores
Suddenly, my sister dissolved into tears. “If you die before me,” she said, “I want you to know that this song, this stanza will be my connection with you…when you’re somewhere else. I want you to know that.”
By now I was crying too, especially thinking of being dead while my sister, the only one left from my parental family, is right there in the room mourning me with this song. My sister needs to have a symbol to connect with someone close that passes. For our mother, Fran’s symbol was a rainbow. I never saw rainbows after Mother passed, and I’d begun to think she wasn’t checking in with me. Then a while later, in the back of a closet, I found a small needlepoint pillow that she had given me. It had a rainbow across the top and underneath it said, Believe In Your Dreams. It lives on my piano bench.
The time came to say goodbye. It had been a great visit. I showed Jodi how to give a heart hug, where our arms are wrapped so that more of the left sides of our chests where are hearts live are together. We both looked at each other and chanted, “The Traveling Sisterhood of the Stinky Feet.” My sister and I heart hugged, staying together for a long time. I don’t think we’d ever hugged like that before. It was real and spoke of everything unspoken. I held back tears. The girls needed to get outside to their waiting Uber. I watched the SUV drive off. I turned toward the kitchen and saw that Fran and Jodi had left their dining room chairs pulled back diagonally from the table. I walked over and slowly pushed each into place. Then I cried. For a long time, and about many things.