My sister, Heidi, was born in the spring along with bunny rabbits and robins, daffodils and daisies. As a child, she was the very incarnation of Easter and of morning. She was the storybook Heidi with hair like spun sunshine and a round, merrily freckled face with happy, sea-green eyes.
And truly, the memory of Heidi that is most indelibly printed in my mind is of an afternoon the week before Easter when she was three. She is standing on top of the cedar wood chest in Mother’s bedroom in our wonderful, turn-of-the-century house on First Street in Ft. Myers, Florida. Kneeling before the chest, her mouth tight on a half dozen pins, Mother is pinning the hem on Heidi’s Easter dress. The dotted Swiss skirt of the dress, which flares above the baby’s plump, dimpled knees, is as transparent as the wings of a dragonfly. Heidi’s hair, too, backlit by the light at the window behind her, shines pure white, like a halo.
The room is quiet. With a murmur and a touch of her finger on the baby girl’s chubby leg, Mother turns her an inch to her left and takes another pin from her mouth.
Though our parents loved their four children equally, Heidi was special to them both. Daddy called her his “sunshine girl.” (I, on the other hand, was “Stormy.” You might as well know that.) When Heidi was an infant, she would not go to sleep unless Daddy played his harmonica for her. She also had to have in her fists his big red and silver harmonica. When he began to play, she would lose consciousness almost instantaneously.
Daddy found her vastly amusing. He enjoyed her more than any of his other children. Especially when, as a teenager, she opened her letters to him with, “Hi, Pal.” He died on her birthday, April 8, 1976.
Mother worried more about Heidi than about any of us. When Heidi was a baby, Mother had this recurring nightmare in which she is driving a car with her four children in it and the car suddenly plunges over a cliff or off a bridge into deep water and she manages to save all of her children except Heidi. Again and again in her dreams Mother takes this ride, gripping the steering wheel of the car in chill terror as the car soars off the road into empty space and after a long fall, smashes into the water. And again, beneath rushing black water, she gropes frantically for her children and catching hold of a wrist or an ankle or some hair she drags them one by one to the surface, only to discover that Heidi is not among them. Night after night she lies in a cold sweat, treading the water in which Heidi is lost forever and ever and ever.
Awakening suddenly from this dream, Mother would have to lie quietly for a moment until her heart beat slowed, until she could breathe again. If it were morning, she would get up and go into the nursery and Heidi would be standing in her crib, waiting for her. As soon as she saw her mother, the bright little bells in Heidi’s eyes would begin to ring merrily and she would cry, “Good morgin’, Mama.”
Mother did not understand why she had this recurring dream for the first two years of Heidi’s life. Nor did she understand why Heidi, who was so joyful and eager in the morning, cried herself to sleep every night. Every night, when she put Heidi to bed, Mother would hear the child whimpering. Tiptoeing into Heidi’s room, she would lean over the crib and speak softly to her.
“What’s the matter, darling? Are you all right?”
“Why are you crying, Heidi? What’s the matter?”
“Are you afraid?”
“Well, Mother’s right here, darling. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
For a few minutes, Mother would toy with Heidi’s fluffy hair, running her nails lightly around her ears, down her soft arms and tiny fingers and then bending over the crib, she would kiss Heidi’s moist forehead and say, “Are you all right now? Are you going to be afraid?”
“All right then. Go to sleep now.”
Tiptoeing out of the room, Mother would pause at the door for a moment and listen. And there it would be again—the sniffling and soft whimpering.
Mother is 91 now and frail. She lives in Heidi’s care. Now Heidi checks on her mother, stealing sometimes to the doorway of her bedroom at night to stand for a moment, listening.