Monday, December 22, 2008

Snow Sisters

(week of Dec 14 - 20)

During dinner dishes last Sunday I read out loud Snow White & Rose Red

“Oh!” said one daughter, “this has always been one of my favorites!”

“Mine, too!” said the other. Which I knew. Which is why I’d chosen that picture book as part of a holiday break from Marc Aronson’s very good, but too-often interrupted Real Revolution (A Global History of American Independence) which I think we’re all ready to be done with because we've had to go back so often and pick up the thread of the story - what a waste of a great book!

My daughters’ delight in Snow White & Rose Red had always mystified me. The two girls in the story do nothing but mind their mother. Okay, they also let a talking bear into their little house, beat the snow off his pelt and then when spring comes, innocently help a bad-tempered gnome steal away the bear’s fortune in repeated episodes until the bear re-appears and kills the gnome which frees the bear from enchantment (so why didn't he do that years ago?) and the bear changes back into a prince who has a similarly princely brother – and they all four live happily ever after.

But they're mostly passive from beginning to end. It’s a particularly unsatisfying fairy tale (though the pictures are lovely – by Gennady Spirin).

This time, a new disappointment in my older daughter’s voice: “Nothing happens,” she says at the end of the story, some of the magic this tale has had for her obviously dribbling away.

In the past I had wondered if it's the sisterliness of the story that my two girls found so enchanting:

The two sisters loved each other so dearly that they always walked hand in hand whenever they went out together, and when Snow White said, “We will never desert one another,” Rose Red would answer, “No, not as long as we live,” and their mother would add, “Whatever one gets she shall share with the other.”
I realized earlier this week – when my younger daughter was trying to convince me to rent (again!) White Christmas, one of the most abysmally boring holiday movies ever made, and her clincher was to break out in a song from the show –
Sisters, sisters,
There never were such devoted sisters
. . .
Caring, sharing
Every little thing that we are wearing
When a certain gentleman arrived from Rome -
She wore the dress and I stayed home!

- I realized that “being a sister” is in some ways as integral to her idea of herself as “being oldest” has always been to me. My sisters are much younger than I am, with a good bunch of brothers between. Growing up, it was “me and the boys," too often, "me vs. the boys," or "me in charge of the boys."

One of the great joys of college roommates and later women friends has been discovering sisterhood – sisters related by affection only, as well as the biological ones that have at last grown up to be nearly the same age as me. I love being a sister among sisters - but I learned how to be one largely from watching my two younger sisters with each other.

And from watching my own daughters.

This week it snowed and snowed and snowed. In our part of the country there are few snowplows, so though there’re nothing like the depths we’d see growing up in Wisconsin or  Ohio, here the day-to-day comes to a sudden halt. School is cancelled. My husband works from home. We can’t get down the hill (or at any rate, back up) without chains for the car. And so we’re stranded. Which means – sensibly - we have more company than ever.

Since my two girls were young they’ve planned parties at the drop of a hat – a doll’s fair, a Valentine’s Pink Party for a houseful of girls, Last Day of School, Middle of the Summer, birthday parties for themselves and their brother.

All they need from me were supplies and permission. Back then, this entailed curtsying and simpering: "Hi, Majesty, we are your maidens,” before getting down to business: “So, may we have ice cream and four friends each over tomorrow?"

Now that my oldest drives, just the capital investment and: "Okay, Mom?"

Before I always thought a party was a more complicated thing – something to be dreaded over, worried over, games to be planned, favors to be bought, invitations to be chosen, written, mailed out and the too probable humiliation of no one coming.

Not for them. Maybe because they always have each other, guarding each other’s back, maybe because they’ve inherited their dad’s open-hearted nature, they throw the door open with glee.

Monday, Wednesday, Thursday they invited their generous dozen every day to come sled down the hill, in varying combinations for ultimate compatibility (which they know how to determine - another mysterious gift!). 

They call around, then walk the 1km down to the corner and wait for their friends to park at the foot of the hill or be dropped off by parents, then all troop back up the hill.

It’s like stepping into an old-fashioned novel to hear from the other room all their laughing voices, the games of charades and piano playing, or to watch them flying down the hill with friends over and over, groups sneaking up behind another group with their hands full of snowballs.

My younger baking daughter comes in to make cookies when the games go on too long. Girls giggle in the hallway. Boys josh each other taking off boots by the front door. We keep spiced cider warm on the stove and the kettle full of hot water for cocoa.

An ovenful of potatoes, many cans of chili, a big bowl of shredded cheese and a frying pan of soft, golden sweet onions fill the red-cheeked hordes one day.

Boboli bread pizzas – built to individual specs – keep them going another day.

Their friends are all very polite to me – patient with my girls’ younger brother – kind to each other – ready to let themselves play and find fun. And they stay until dark - because “sledding by moonlight is so great.”

“Thank you!” my daughters come wrap their arms around me when the last group leaves, “thanks for letting us have everyone over!” And then they walk off down the hall to their room, arms around each other's waists, planning the next day already.

"So what do you think the appeal of that fairy tale used to be?" I ask my oldest daughter this Sunday night when she brings over a bowl of the leftover Spiced Sweet-Potato Soup we made together the day before, as I write at the computer, as she sits herself down across the table.

"I don't know. The pictures?" and her younger sister looks up from over her older sister's shoulder - their hair mingling, the younger's hand resting on her sister's shoulder.

And I wonder suddenly - why not? why insist on characters that change and break away?  why this irrepressible hankering after “things happening”? – revolutions and independence? I’m starting to feel the charm of that old story myself, which ends:

Their old mother lived peacefully in the palace with her two daughters for many years. She brought her two rose trees with her, and they grew in front of her window, and every year they bore her the finest roses, both white and red.

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