Lizzie and Mary

“Sisters, sisters,

There were never such devoted sisters…

Two different faces, but in tight places

We think and act as one…” …..Lyrics from “Sisters, Sisters” by Irving Berlin

 

“Mary! Please stop playing! I’m trying to sleep!” Liz called from upstairs.

“No! I have to practice,” Mary said, plunking the piano keys.

“Mary! Come on, stop!”

Mary concentrated on the chords of “The Blue Danube” and ignored her sister.

‘MARY!” Liz shouted.

She’s not the boss of me, Mary thought. I’m not stopping.

Liz, wearing pajamas and a kerchief tied around her head to cover her pin curls, stomped down the stairs. “I said stop, Mary! I’m in charge while Ma and Daddy are at the store.”

“Just ‘cause you’re five years older doesn’t mean I have to obey you. I’m supposed to practice.” Mary swayed back and forth as the Strauss Waltz wafted through the room.

Liz’s squinted her eyes and grabbed Mary by the shoulders. “Oh, yeah?“ she snarled, and dragged Mary off the piano bench. Mary grabbed Liz’s arms and pulled her to the floor. Soon they were rolling round on the carpet, grunting, grabbing at each other, and screaming, “Stop! Let me go”. Finally, they broke free of each other. Lizzie stomped back upstairs and slammed the bedroom door. Mary, too shaken to practice anymore, curled up on the couch. Her little brother Jack, who’d witnessed the scene, stared at her.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the black cloud of hostility to pass. This was the only fight these two sisters ever had.

 

My mother Mary admits that she always felt that she was her father’s pet. Not that Liz wasn’t loved. She was. But no one doted on her.

Liz was the first child, born in Neu Banat, a German settlement in Romania. Her little sister Lanie was born two years later. When Lanie was fifteen months old, she died of pneumonia, just months before the family moved to Chicago. My grieving grandmother often told little Lizzie that it was her fault the baby had died, because she’d taken Lanie outside without her coat. Even though she came to know that a little girl of three couldn’t be held responsible, Liz never shed her shroud of guilt.

When Liz was ten, my grandparents gave her a new violin case for her birthday gift. As their gifts tended to be, this one was practical and utilitarian. Still, Grandpa didn’t want five-year-old Mary to feel bad about not getting gift, so he bought her a present, too. Liz, the placid, serious violinist, watched in silence as her pretty little sister Mary cuddled a new doll.

My grandmother took my mother and my uncle back to Europe to visit the family. Grandma said, “If you don’t stay home, no one will go.” So, while Mary and Jack summered with relatives across the Atlantic, kept house for her father, cooking his meals and doing his laundry.

A bookish girl who wore glasses before she ever started school, Liz read voraciously, studied constantly. But, book smarts meant little to my grandparents, who’d only had a sixth grade education back in their home in Romania. Girls didn’t need to be smart; they were just girls. Girls also didn’t need to have things that boys had, like the bicycles or roller skates their younger brother Jack received.

Once, my grandmother relented and bought my aunt Liz a pair of ice skates… size 11. Grandma’s friend Mrs. Bitner counseled my grandmother on the purchase. “Get a big size, because she’s so tall and she’ll grow into them.” My “tall” Aunt Liz eventually reached the height of five feet, three inches, and her feet never exceeded a size seven. Still, she had skates, and gamely glided across the frozen ponds in these clodhoppers.

As for driving a car, that never happened. Liz once asked her dad, “If I get my driver’s license, will you let me drive the car?” His answer: “Well, you could put it in the garage for me.” Neither sister got a driver’s license until they were mothers themselves.

Liz was no complainer, and obeyed her parents at every turn. When she was awarded a full four-year scholarship to Mundelein College, her parents scoffed at the idea. Girls didn’t need to go to college. What for? Liz dutifully attended secretarial school so she could get a job suitable for a woman, her academic diligence and her intelligence untapped.

Liz might have been resentful. She wasn’t, but she tucked away her scholarship letter and kept it all her life.

When Liz began to earn some money, she chose her sister Mary to share in the fun that a little cash could buy. On Saturdays, the girls frequented the local movie theaters like the Davis on Lincoln Avenue. For the admission of thirty-five cents, Liz treated Mary to a double feature, a news reel, a short comedy like “The Three Stooges” and a cartoon. If a Nelson Eddy and Jeanette McDonald film was featured, Liz was sure to be swooning over her heartthrob Nelson as he harmonized with his ladylove.

When the Cubs were in town, Liz treated Mary to games at Wrigley Field, where they cheered for their home team from leftfield bleacher seats , the perfect spot for ogling the handsome leftfielder, Augie Galan.

During the War, when both girls were secretaries in the city, they took the Friday evening train to the family’s summer house in Lake Villa. Compliant even into adulthood, both Mary and Liz did as their parents expected and spent weekends at their lake cottage instead of staying in the city to go out with friends.

Then Liz met a Navy man, Al Rogers from Worcester, Mass. After the war, Liz made the boldest move of her life. She and Al were married and moved to his hometown.

Life marched on.

Mary married my dad in ‘48, and I arrived only nine months after the wedding. By then, Liz had a baby girl, Kathleen, and my cousin Maureen was born just five months after me.

As the Rogers and Dineen families expanded to five kids each, the sisters’ letters traveled back and forth. Phone calls were reserved for deaths or births. Calling just to chat was out of the question for these two housewives. They summarized their daily lives onto two or three sheets of stationery and always ended with “Love and Kisses.”

When the Rogers clan visited Chicago every summer, we all went to my grandmother’s lake house. Liz and Mary companionably washed diapers in the old wringer washer and hung them on the line to dry. They baked hams, boiled hot dogs, washed endless piles of dishes, warned us kids not to go in the lake until an hour had passed after lunch so that we wouldn’t be struck with cramps, heated water on the stove for our nighttime baths, and savored their sister time.

Years passed. Kids got older. Uncle Al became ill and died in 1970, leaving Liz bereft and with two school aged children to raise. Her long summer visits tapered off a bit; after all, she had to go to work.

My mother was widowed in ’85. By 1991, both sisters were retired. Once again, their lives became more entwined.

They took a church-sponsored tour of Germany and Austria. Through letters written back and forth ahead of time, Mary and Liz arranged a visit with a cousin Elizabeth in Munich, who brought along a grandson to translate. My mother and Liz’s German was shaky; Elizabeth’s English nonexistent, but Elizabeth said, “We’re going to talk to each other if we have to use our hands and feet!”

My mother can recall every detail of the trip: her cuckoo clock purchase, a man dressed in lederhosen n the Munich subway station who helped them find their way, the pretty tour guide who wore the same clothes and no deodorant all week, the amount of the tip she left in the restaurant when they dined with the cousin, and the dresser scarf that Liz bought for her with the last of her German currency – my mother paid her back later.

The sisters took turns with summer visits. Mary went East to see Liz for weeks at a time. They tooled around all of New England – Sturbridge Village, Concord, Plymouth, Mystic, and downtown Boston, where my cousin Maureen served my mother her first bagel and lox combo.

On alternate years, Liz came to Chicago, and the twosome toured their old neighborhood, driving past their schools and churches and reminiscing.

For many winters, Mary and Liz got together in Arizona at my sister’s. Once, they travelled to Washington State as guests of my cousin Tom. One summer, they flew to California, rented a car and took in the Redwoods and San Francisco. Liz insisted on locking her suitcase, then lost the key. Her insulin needed refilling. Still, the trip was a success.

This was their final adventure.

In 2001, a few weeks before my daughter’s wedding, Lizzie was hospitalized. We were sure she’d rally by the wedding, but when Liz realized she would not be well enough, she instructed my cousin Maureen to send the check and the card to the newlyweds.

A few days before the wedding, Maureen called. Liz was gone.

“I still want to call her up and talk to her,” my mother said to me last week. It’s been over eighty years since the two Wolf girls tussled over a too-early piano practice.

There are plenty of corny Hallmark cards about sisters. Gift shops sell coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets with “I heart my sister” on them. Mary and Liz never went in for any of that sisterly tchotchke, though. They simply had each other.

Just for the record: There were three other siblings in the Wolf family. Jack was born in 1932, Bob was born in 1939, and Kathryn was born in 1944.

 

 

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