The Battle of Philadelphia
I learned just about all I needed to know about love — and war — from my oldest sister. Which is to say that there is not much difference between the two. In her honor, upon this day, I hereby declare Valentine’s Day to be V-Day.
All is fair in love and war, and all can be unfair too.
She was nearly twenty years my senior, and was somewhat a victim of her “generation”, since she was a lone wolf within a very small age group that invented The Couple, The Social Couple, in particular. Her coupling was a private matter, not a public one. She tended to do things, by and large, on her own, alone. Her manner of being ensured this woman would never be yoked, bridled or otherwise tamed by a man.
You can lead a headstrong horse to water, but you cannot make her drink. Neither can you expect a lone wolf to join a pack, especially one of lesser wolves. And Dear Oldest Sis was quite the lone wolf. She was also a stellar instructor to her littlest sis, the Solitary Commander-in-Training.
I learned from this much older woman that a Lone Wolf Woman ought not to get married. A Lone Wolf Man can do it, and even get away with it, provided that Wifey is willing to play along and not let him know that she is playing on her terms, not his. It’s a messy mess, that one, but lone wolves among men are lauded and applauded. Among women, however, they catch all kinds of flak. Ergo the always sincere attempts by Oldest Sis at connubial bliss.
She did not consider herself beautiful, but I always thought she resembled the very young Elizabeth Taylor. Perhaps Liz was her role model, at least in terms of doomed marriages. There were only a couple of marriages, and they were indeed doomed, for this female who was more in love with love than with any man.
The marital territory consisted of formalized war zones. Her illicit affairs were much more civilized, even loving. Her first marriage was brief, and was followed by a love life that taught this much-younger adolescent sister lessons well beyond her ability, at that time, to fully comprehend. One of her younger sisters (who then would have been one of my older sisters) could not figure out what Oldest Sis had that she didn’t, to attract so many males who pretty much fawned over her and no one else. After enjoying almost a decade of being fawned over, and being “free” to roam the romance zone, this bold and seasoned campaigner then wed a second time.
That blitzkrieg of amour would be shown the door to a real crusade of being put in lock-up, in her own bastille in Philadelphia, PA, as part of the unholy war that she called a marriage. There would be no truce, no winner, just losers all-around in this second significant contact. Methinks the rules of engagement had not been clearly defined, if at all declared, by each combattant in that second conjugal fray. The climax of that military conflict I shall call “the Battle of Philadelphia.”
The Battle of Philadelphia took place sometime during the early part of 1983. It might have even been in February. I’d traveled to the Northeast from California that past December for a Christmas visit, and had just flown back to Sacramento, and to my job as a technical writer/editor at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Word soon reached me from her Green-Eyed Younger Sister that Oldest Sis was in jail in Philadelphia, where she had been living with Her 2nd Husband in a townhouse.
The 2nd Husband had discovered his Wife — my Oldest Sis — and His Brother, together, under the covers, watching TV, one dark and stormy night, in the bedroom of the Philly Townhouse that would never be known as Home Sweet Home. The 2nd Husband had come into the house, entered the bedroom, surveyed the scene, unplugged the TV and walked out of the house with it. He claimed the TV belonged to him. Dear Oldest Sis retaliated by taking out all of the carpeting in the townhouse that she had bought and paid for and had installed with her $$$$.
I am not sure what role Brother-Lover played at this point, but 2nd Husband had the Purloining Wife arrested for Grand-Theft-Carpet, the pinching of his personal property — High-Pile-Rug all throughout the Townhouse.
The Brother-Lover, for whatever reason, was not bailing his mistress out of jail. He was probably broke, in more ways than one. No one in The Family of Origin was gonna bail the Carpet Burglar out of the slammer in the City of Brotherly Love. I, youngest of 8, bailed out My Dear Oldest Sis.
The amount of money was not exorbitant, but the money was not the point. The point was that my oldest sister was the one who had kept that marital money boat afloat, picking up the tabs that her slacker husband let her pick up. To be jailed for protecting her self-made assets was the lowest sort of blow that this guy had yet come to, and there had been more than a few scoundrel scenarios.
I did not justify or condone the questionable morality of a woman who fundamentally could not pair up love & marriage. That defect on her part might not have entirely been her fault. But to be tossed into the gaol for engaging in a counter-attack upon her material property — I had to emancipate Dear Oldest Sister from the consequences of her own botched battle. The Loser Husband had not held up his end of the marriage bargain, and this feisty female fought back in the most effective (or only) way she knew.
She was a very strong woman who most likely did not need a man around the house, except for home repairs, and she capably handled many of those chores. The society of her era had schooled her in all of the ways that a woman needs a husband, and none of the ways that a man needs a wife. With only half of the battle plan drawn up, she lacked a lot of crucial intelligence about the “enemy.” I won’t fault her for faulty reconnaissance due to the many times when she confused a “friendly” with the enemy, and vice versa.
She was a non-conformist before non-conformity was cool, a maverick amongst an age group of traditionalists. She was one of those children who grew up during World War II and later kept the social fabric intact, or mended it, before the next generation, the spoiled-brat Boomers, came along to shred that social fabric. She was not one of the phoney-baloney-beatniks, but was the genuine article. She was a woman who marched to the beat of her own drum — long before it became ad fodder and poster schtick for that newer demographic, the blob of passive conformists who could not function outside of group-cosmos.
She loved bowling, roller-skating, ice-skating, dancing, knitting, and sewing. She did not merely sew clothes. She created them. I suppose her largest creation was four royal-blue satin bridesmaid dresses for her first wedding, along with a powder blue junior bridesmaid dress for me. I think the job took her two months to complete. I wonder to this day if that first wedding was the pretext to perform all of that sewing.
She loved ironing while listening to the radio. Every time that Child-me walked past Sis and the ironing board, she’d take a break from her Niagara spray starching and whirl me around a time or two to the strains of “A Portrait of My Love” by Steve Lawrence. She was over the moon about Eydie Gormé, her favorite songstress, whom she took after, in many ways, sans the stable sweetheart.
She thrilled over watching sappy old movies, most of them with male movie stars I didn’t “go for”. Her favorites were Gregory Peck and Bill Holden. Yes, she and Bill were on a first-name basis. Oh, and Richard Widmark. I never figured out the appeal of that one, but she and I definitely agreed on the masculine allure of Glenn Ford!
She also raved about Dina Merrill, whom she said I mirrored, and thereafter nicknamed me “De-de.” Almost as an afterthought, she added that I was named after Debra Paget — at the insistence of another of my older sisters.
She reveled in using Dippity-Do to pin-curl her hair, and mine, except my hair took to the gooey stuff like it was steroids. When she used the Tonette Children’s Home Perm on my young tresses, I ended up looking like Bozo the Clown!
She loved Christmas, and she made sure that I went with her on Christmas Eve to pick out the biggest and roundest Scotch pine that was on sale at the Tree Lot. That errand came after we bought cold cuts at her favorite deli, and stopped to do some laundry at the corner laundromat. And, oh, yes, there were a few friends she had to pop in to meet at the Dutch House Tavern in Fair Lawn. We would then finally go home to her apartment and decorate the tree in the domestic world that she’d created, one that a husband never fit into, although there was one paramour whose life aligned with hers for decades.
That domestic domain was decorated with knotty pine “Early American” furniture, white hobnail lamps, elegant textiles. billowing curtains, soft pillows, soft touches. It was a private, intimate sphere filled with fascination and fun and sadness and “love” that never worked out right, though not for her lack of trying.
She was honest, perhaps too honest, with men who did not always return the kindness. She did not overtly confront any man, until after that wedding ring was slipped on the little finger. Then the Lone Wolf in her came to the fore, and the Docile Dear disappeared. There was not a bait-and-switch involved in those legally-sanctioned assignations. She did not play coy to nab the boy, or bat the eyes to catch the guy. She genuinely liked the man to take the lead, and take the lead he did, right up until the Honeymoon Phase ended. The husband thereafter took a back seat to her sassy confident self, even if he was driving the car, especially if he was driving the car.
Having been in the back seat of that vehicle, when she and Hubby were in the front seat, I can truthfully say that the sense of becoming dependent on someone else, for anything, but especially for money, is something this naturally sure-footed female could not abide. I never saw her wear a pair of pants until the mid-1980s (and even then it was a leather pair for motorcycle-riding), principally because, to her, wearing the dress or skirt in any situation meant that she was the Queen in Command.
She didn’t want control; she wanted to be in charge of the prevailing winds of her energy, and she had energy galore. For whatever reason, after she became a self-supporting woman by her early twenties, working as a secretary, she believed that marriage would somehow enhance her self-governing sovereign world. It never did.
Decades in advance of the 2-Person-Household-Income, and the Power Couple, my Oldest Sis handily won the battle for autonomy after the Wedding Vows were exchanged. Her life did not change one iota once she was a Spousal Unit. What did change was the ability for the weaker spousal unit, the supposed Other Half, to accept that he was less than half of what he had been before this wedded state of affairs. The crux of that problem was that Dear Sis could not bear being told what to do. And the man to whom she had legally consigned herself in wifedom specialized in telling her what to do.
I always thought my oldest sister was trying to be someone she was not; and the Hubby-to-Be gladly accepted Mythical Bride. He might have been more shocked than anyone else at the covert inner fortitude of this woman who mastered any skill, talent, job, task or domain she set out to conquer, save that of Nuptial Harmony.
She was never able to figure out a way to remain the Independent Woman that she innately was, and always had been — within the construct of a marriage that all too quickly felt like a compound, or a confine. And that talent, or strength of will, to sustain and nourish a fundamentally self-reliant and autonomous self has plagued many a married woman, right up until today. I can still recall gal-pals whose personalities seemed to have altered, for the worse, after the Wedding Night. I can’t help but think that their helpmates needed a lot of help in trying to figure out what went wrong with their mates. Their marriages evolved into battles, even wars, for which those passive-aggressive men had not enlisted!
My favorite and inspirational quip of a quote from this high-spirited woman of independence was:
She never did apologize for being who she was, but neither die she fully fulfill who she was. She was born twixt yesterday and tomorrow, during a day whose light shone briefly, but brilliantly, in a place and time that slipped by her, but which I grasped as a child. I have held onto those magical moments of illumination, hoping to realize them more abundantly within my own place and time.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of that second marital campaign was the dismal reality that Dear Oldest Sis had tried, yet again, to be someone she was not; and she predictably went down the same path she’d traveled during her other conjugal attempt to fit her square peg into a round hole. This time involved jail time. And The Divorce.
She did not ever attempt matrimony again, or marry her lover because she drew a very distinct line between The Man You Marry and The Man You Love. When I decided to embark upon matrimony, she was thrilled and delighted with my choice. Upon meeting him, she developed an instant crush. From that point on, she and I became estranged, as my life moved toward my future, and her journey on this earth began to near its lamentable end during the fall of 2008.
She did not glory in the glory of love, or exalt in the power of love, but she’d known enough true love to light her way to Paradise. I began to write the draft of THE DAWN in September 2008, mourning her demise. I understand now that she was with me, in spirit, during the realizations of the characters of Camille Richarde, Guillaume de Vallon, and Arthur Boucher Carmichael. Her guiding light was with me every step of the way during the translations of all of those chapters, 110 of them, into the draft of L’AUBE.
Those provinces of fiction that I spun, from so many souvenirs, so many joys and so many sorrows, were lovingly nurtured, and directed, way back when, by Dear Oldest Sis. As a very young woman, working at Scott, Foresman and Company, she brought home to five-year-old Debra overstock books, including My Little Pictionary. From those precious and eternal moments of my childhood, my little pictionary grew to encompass and inspire my Big Novel, The Dawn. The pictionary nonetheless remains among my most vibrant primers, for life, for art, even for love!
I was often called “a little minx” by Dear Oldest Sis. When the time came for this little minx to find true love, she headed West. I took the Philadelphia freedom that Dear Oldest Sis had lost, and turned it into California dreaming, an audacious step that was a key part of my hunt for a Son of Liberty.
I’d learned this one vital fact about love and marriage, and about men and women that had always eluded the quick mind, and yearning heart, of my romantically-inclined sister: the woman, not the man, does the choosing. I then set out to get me one of those rugged Western heroes. I do believe I roped me a good’un — a real keeper!