A Prequel to My Sister’s
By Donna Talarico
I called my mom from the yearbook office phone—being on the staff had its advantages, including dialing home without the need to find a quarter or wait in line at the payphone—and told her I’d be driving around with Laura to sell ads as part of my official duties of cataloging the 1995-1996 academic year. Laura was a junior, one of my best friends, not even on yearbook staff, and not old enough to have a license; but her dad allowed us to use his old powder blue Chevy Celebrity station wagon as long as I drove and neither of us got in trouble.
“Not today,” Mom said, letting out a drag. I could tell she was smoking, and probably holding the phone between her cheek and shoulder while doing dishes, all with a lit cigarette. It was like she had three hands, always.
“Why?” I asked. I was never told no. Like ever. Especially now that she was busy with the kids.
Christopher and Brittney were still in diapers, and they shared the middle room in a small cabin-like house we moved into right after the owner died (we’d kept all his things, even the spaghetti in the cabinet), shortly after we moved back to Pennsylvania from four years in Oklahoma—where they’d been born and I’d lost my virginity.
“Just not today,” she repeated. “Take the bus home.”
My school district was big. It’s vast and rural and woodsy here in the Poconos, and it takes me almost an hour on windy backgrounds to get to school on Bus 31—only about 35 minutes, though, if I catch a ride with Wayne, who has a black pick-up truck and good radio. Laura lives in another direction, and I have an unofficial-permanent pass to ride her bus. (I lived with her for a few months when we first moved back to PA because there wasn’t room for me at my step-dad’s parents’ house. And the bus driver liked me.) The plan was to take the bus to Laura’s, get the Celebrity, and then drive up and down Route 940 to visit restaurants and video stores and ski rental shops to talk the owners into buying a full page ad—or, please just at least half, sir—to support the Cardinals.
I twirled the tan cord around and around while taking stock of the closet I was in; we call it the yearbook office, but this is actually a storage room that happened to have a phone jack, so Mr. Jeffries (or maybe the yearbook advisor before him) equipped it with an extra school desk, chair, and telephone. We worked on the yearbook in an actual classroom, in the basement, next to the graphics arts room, woodshop, and ceramics studio. I would sometimes get a pass out of class to come to this office-closet to do official yearbook business; I’d bop into Jeffries’ English class and I didn’t even need to say anything; he’d just take the yearbook key off the main ring and hand it to me and continue talking about Chaucer or whatever he was teaching that day. Laura joked that I was in love with Jeffries and that we’d do it, right here against this desk. [Maybe I had a mild, mild crush, and maybe I fantasized about it once or twice, but only after she put the idea in my head.]
What could be SO important that I couldn’t go to Laura’s after school? I thought. And then I finished that thought by thinking aloud, “What? Did you get me a computer or something?”
“Just. Come. HOME.”
My uncle Matt—my mom’s little brother and one of the twins [Melissa is the other]—was at the house when I got home. Came all the way from outside Philly. He was in business school and was getting rid of an old computer, so my mom bought it (promised to pay him one day?) as a surprise for me.
I was happy, but also I felt terrible. I’d ruined the surprise. I didn’t know if I was smart or psychic, but somehow I knew.
I knew that my mom knew my deepest desire was to write and that I longed for a computer more than anything in this world. I knew that deep down my mom wanted to make me happy if she could. So I knew that if she was telling me to come home after school that it must be something big. And the only thing big enough, special enough, to me, would have been the miracle of a home computer.
Things had settled down and I was in my room playing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I was in heaven.
“Donna got a ’puter,” Chrissy kept saying, and it was adorable as the time he shoved a pea up his nose and started to cry.
I still called them “the kids” long after they were out of diapers and big enough to microwave themselves hot dogs for dinner.
“How are the kids?” I’d ask my mom every time I called, which I know wasn’t often enough. I was out of the house at 18, never to look back. It wasn’t her, exactly. It was her choice in men. I was old enough to know better before I should have been old enough to know better. That’s why I had multiple after-school jobs, and seasonal ones, too, because the Poconos was a tourist area and there was always work at the ski resorts in the winter. [That’s how I met Wayne, with the truck.] If I was awake, I did not want to be in that house. Not ever.
So I remember them in diapers, maybe training pants. And they remember me as the older kid with the ’puter.
If I’m being honest, when I asked my mom, “How are the kids?” I already always knew the answer, especially as they became tweens. And if I’m being really, really honest, I was asking my mom because I wanted her to say it out loud. And hear herself saying it. I wanted to be right.
That procreating with a monster meant these poor kids’ lives were doomed.
When I was working on my MFA thesis in 2009, even though it’s almost two decades since that first IBM interrupted my afternoon of official sales calls, I still thought of it as the ’puter. Still do. And when I think of the ’puter, and the tiny voice that said it, I want to cry.
My thesis has been in today’s digital equivalent of a drawer for more than 10 years. It’s not that I’m NOT writing, but I write so much in my day job and read and edit so much in my passion project literary journal that sometimes my creativity is drained. My emotional energy, spent. When people ask about my memoir-in-progress, I remind myself that I can’t even call it a work-in-progress because, progress it doesn’t. But I was once told it still counts as writing when you’re constantly thinking about your story, working it out in your head.
I could also be fooling myself. It might not be lack of time or lack of energy — or not JUST lack of time or lack of energy. It could also be that when you’re writing about your own life, it’s a never-ending story. But it — that “it” being a specific piece of that story, a story within a still-evolving story — has to stop and start somewhere. And, sometimes, I feel that I don’t yet know my destination.
I haven’t seen my sister since my cousin Adam’s funeral. He’s OUR cousin, I know. But “my” always comes out. Just like my mom never referred to “Grandma” as “grandma” when talking about her; instead, she’d say things like, “My mom grew up in Jersey….” or “My mom is coming over today.”
Adam, only 39, died not long after his dad; our Uncle Paul. Which was not long after our mom, my (adoptive) father, my cat, my same-age aunt Theresa—and just before “our mom’s mom.”
It was a rough couple of years.
Then my (our) brother Christopher Then their (not our) dad.
“I have nightmares that Britt kills me,” I tell my other childhood best friend, Jasmine. “Like, they’re crazy vivid.”
“That’s some shit,” Jasmine says. We’re talking about my gradual approach to getting back in touch with my sister. Jasmine lost her dad many years before I’d experienced the loss of the parent, before that few years of terrible family losses; at the time, I know, in my heart of hearts, I was not there for her like I should have been. It’s true what they say: you’d don’t know the gravity of losing a parent until you do. I want to be a better friend to her, forever and ever.
This is why you need distance when you’re writing a memoir. I’d added an epilogue because it seemed important at the time, but it didn’t belong in my story, at least not in this way.
But, at the time, when I called my mom and asked, “How are the kids?” I found out that one of the kids would be having one of their own.
I told you so, was what I wanted to say. But instead, I asked the due date.
Later that night, I lamented how it was so unfair that these two kids shared their DNA with a monster, while also realizing that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and, now, neither would this baby, and this tortured my conscience. Then, a thought came to me. I’d lost my virginity to a much older man at about the same age my sister and brother are now; it’s just that no one had to ever know about it because I did not become pregnant.
A few months later, as I left work early to rush 45 minutes in one direction to pick up my brother from Red Rock Job Corps., where he was living/working/learning at the time, to race to Lehigh Valley Medical Center an hour in the other direction to meet my mom and sister (and new niece or nephew), the adrenaline told me, this THIS is the end of your book.
We come from a family of halves. My mom has a half-sister and a much older half-brother, but they are still my real aunts and uncles. So I promised my mom that I’d consider Chrissy and Britt my “real” siblings, even though we had different dads. Even though HE was their dad.
In my late 30s, as I became distant—and grew ashamed of their actions—I started referring to them as half-siblings in conversations with newer acquaintances, people I’d just met. I wanted to ensure 1) that people knew that half of them came from something I have zero part of and 2) that nothing was their fault, really.
All I knew about my sister was via her public Facebook posts. I was usually scared to look; but sometimes I would, especially on days on which I had dreamt or night-mared about her the evening before. In 2021, the content of her posts began to change significantly. I accepted her lingering Friend request.
I run a literary magazine and one of the essays we published in the March/April 2021 issue hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Empathy poured out for my sister, instead of my anger toward her father and resentment for my mother’s choices. These thoughts were overwhelming and definitely something I’d need to talk with someone professionally about, to sort through all of these memories and grudges and emotions—and grief for the years with her I’d lost, and for those with our mother and brother neither of us would get again.
But, in that moment, I knew those feelings were the start of something big, something healing. I suddenly saw my sister as a whole person, her own person. I reflected back to the time I thought I had an epilogue to my story (I’d still need 10 years to figure out what I was actually writing and why). I also thought about superheroes and supervillains and origin stories and the rising popularity of prequels in Hollywood/Streamingwood—when the beginnings help us better understand the end.
It’s not that I no longer have a story to tell. It’s just that—that little diapered girl I left behind when I packed up my ’puter and headed off to college and then to forever—I want to know what happened to her.
This is more than a realization that Britt has a book in her, one that might pick up where mine left off. Rather, this metaphor of the prequel is helping me understand that she’s not a bit character in my story, but a main character in her own. A survivor.
She is my sister. She has a story. And I can’t wait to learn it—and learn from it.
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant in higher education, and she also is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its annual conference, HippoCamp. She writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in graduate creative writing programs, including Wilkes University and Rosemont College, as well as at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.