My big sister, Susan Louise Anderson Muntean, died March 6th. She was a decade older than me, born in 1947 in Williston, North Dakota. We shared the same mom but different fathers. Sis was fine boned and small in body with a blazing spirit, an enormous sense of humor, and a HUGE temper. One did not ever want to get on her bad side because Sis cast a long shadow for a tiny woman.
These are some of the things I remember about my sister:
I recall our mom saying once, "Susie was the prettiest little girl. Blond hair, big blue eyes, and a sunny smile. She knew it too. She thought she could charm the birds out of the trees." My sister was a classically beautiful blonde, petite with long hair--never shorter than shoulder length--nice legs, and a lovely figure. Men flocked to Sis like bees to honey.
|Sis aged 10 with me, 1957.
I turned four in 1961 and it was about that time when skin tight jeans and long, straight hair was all the rage. Sis had a summer job and she bought herself several pairs of new Levis which were nearly too small for her. She managed to work herself into them by lying down on the bed, sucking in her stomach until it nearly touched her back bone, and doing up the buttons. Then she filled the bathtub with steaming hot water, laid down in it with her new Levi's on, and let them soak until they shrunk right to her body. She got out and wore them until they dried. It was a little sister-big sister conspiracy. She bribed me with Tootsie Roll pops not to tell mom, who would've been pissed.
|Sis about age fourteen.
Sis hated doing chores. She ran the sink full of scalding hot water, then sat in the living room with a Photplay magazine reading about the stars while the water cooled off. Hours later the water was cold, the dishes were still dirty, and Sis was in trouble. Susan also took turns with our older sister in babysitting me--another chore she didn't like. For awhile on her nights (our mom worked nights cleaning airplanes out at Anchorage Airport, when it was a simple Quonset hut), Susan would either get her date to pay or she would use some of her own money and take me to a place called The Kitty Drop. It was about five blocks from where we lived and it was a place working parents left their kids. I remember it was dark and full of cribs. I was put into a crib and left there to cry myself to sleep until Sis came back for me. When mom found out what was going on, Sis got into deep trouble. From then on when it was her turn to babysit, Susan would take me with her on her nights out, clearly not telling Mom what she was doing. I remember going to a teenage dance place called the Cinnamon Cinder. It was just a dingy hall with folding chairs around the walls and bands playing music. The alcohol-free dance club for teenagers opened in 1962. Owned by KRLA disc jockey Bob Eubanks, the club spawned a TV show, a national chain of teen clubs and a hit record by the same name as the club. A year or so later after Sis got her driving license and Mom managed to buy her an old 1950 brown, cloth-top convertible, Sis would make me up a bed on the back seat with my pillow and a blanket, and we would cruise downtown. I remember the traffic lights changing color, and Sis playing music on the Radio: Sugar Shack by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, The Beach Boys singing Surfin' USA, Blue Velvet and Blue on Blue crooned by Bobby Vinton, My Boyfriend's Back by The Angels, Peter Paul & Mary singing Puff the Magic Dragon and Blowin' in the Wind, The Four Seasons demanding in harmony that we "Walk Like a Man, Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers, Sam Cook telling us all about Havin' a Party, Be My Baby crooned the Ronettes, and Nat King Cole singing Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer.
I recall too when KENI radio broadcast from the roof of the Bun Drive-in on Northern Lights Blvd. The Varsity Show with Ron Moore as host was all the rage with Anchorage teens. Sis used to plunk me down on a red leather spinning stool inside the Bun at the curved Formica counter, order me a small burger, fries and a Pepsi, and tell me to stay there until she came back. Susan would disappear up the stairs to the roof and dance to the music. I remember sneaking up and watching her do the Mashed Potato, The Cross Fire and The Pony. Sis was the best dancer there and the prettiest too and the music was fab: The Loco-Motion by Little Eva, Do The Mashed Potatoes by The Fabulous Echoes, and Bony Maroni by Larry Williams. Sis introduced me to Rick and Roll when it was all the new rage. I recall waking up on Halloween morning in 1962 to the radio playing on the bedside table between our beds. As we lie there in the October dark a funny new song debuted: The Monster Mash. We listened fascinated, laughing together at the lyrics. We used to walk everywhere throughout Spenard which was originally a 160 acre homestead of a man name Joe Spenard. Our tiny home was located 2.3 miles south of the city of Anchorage. Across the street from where we lived was a wall of solid forest that ran seven miles east to the foothills of the Chugach mountains and eleven miles north from Merrill Field air strip, South to Rabbit Creek Road. We used to walk up to the new Caribou Ward's department store on the corner of Spenard Road and Northern Lights Boulevard. Next door was a Woolworth's and it had a cafe inside. A couple times a month either mom or Sis would walk with me to Woolworth's and I would get a cup of Campbell's vegetable soup and an orange sherbet ice cream cone. I was about two or three at the time.
I recall spying on Sis and her boyfriend Tom when he brought her home from dates and they stood kissing on the porch and how utterly heartbroken Susan was when Tom was drafted and left for Viet Nam. She pledged to wait for him, but it was far better to be gone from our house than caught in it when Mom and our step-father Bill were drinking and fighting, which could be any and all nights of the week and all day on a weekend, and Sis was soon caught up in Spenard night life. I didn't realize until I was a young woman myself, that Sis was fair game for beatings along with our Mom, but not me. For some reason we will never know, Bill wouldn't beat a child. He might grab you up by your ankle, peel off his thin leather belt and whip you all over until you were crying so hard you stuttered for hours afterward, but he saved his fists and steel toed boots for women, which was any female in his house that bled every month.
As soon as Susan could drive she was gone most of the time. Occasionally when our parents had friends over for a party, Sis would stay and have a beer with them until things got out of hand; then she slipped quietly out the door and was gone, my eyes following, wishing I could go with her instead of being left behind in hell.
I know some of the things that happened to my lovely sister out late at night roaming the streets of Anchorage at age fourteen, fifteen and sixteen, when she should have been home in bed asleep, had our home been a happy, loving place. I won't divulge those stories because they are hers--not mine--but I do know they are not pretty. Alaska has always attracted male predators and the ratio has always been eight men to every woman in Anchorage. I recall having to walk the gauntlet of perverts trolling low and slow in their cars, fondling their tackle in anticipation during the endless sunny days of summer when all the neighborhood kids walked a mile and a half to go swimming at Lake Spenard. I remember Sis telling me, "No matter what, you never ever go up to their cars when they call you. Do you understand me?" She would give my skinny little body a good shake to underscore the importance of her words.
|Cousin Joanne with Mom, 1970's.
I recall listening to Susan and our cousin Joanne Plimpton Reinnikka reminiscing over coffee one afternoon when we were all old enough to have children of our own. Joanne and Sis were thick as thieves, very close but they didn't see each other often because Joanne lived way across town from us. To know Cousin Joanne was to love her. She had sparkling brown eyes, dark hair, and a ten-thousand watt smile, and when Jojo laughed the world came along for the ride. Sis said, "Joanne do you recall that winter evening when we put Jackie on your sled and we were pulling her down the street behind us as we chattered like magpies? We had stayed out sledding too long and it was getting dark."
"Oh Susan, I remember thinking the sled felt awfully light to pull and we turned around laughing and there was Jackie all bundled up in her baby suit half a block back in the middle of street waving her arms and legs in the snow! We were so lucky no cars had come along. God was really watching over us."
"Oh Joanne--when I think of it now my heart goes to my throat, but we were just silly little girls out playing in the snow, laughing and having fun. We didn't realize how dangerous things were at that moment."
|Sis and me, aged 27 and 17, 1975.
Susan married when I was twelve and she gave birth to my niece Brandy the day after my 13th birthday. I was mesmerized by "our" baby and I loved babysitting for Sis. She is my favorite niece and I loved spending time with her and her mom. Sis trained as my childbirth coach for my first pregnancy.
As the years passed our lives grew apart, but we still managed to make some fabulous, funny memories--ones that I alone am left to remember now. I am so glad I visited Sis last May. We hadn't seen each other for twenty five years--not since our Mom's memorial service. Sis led a hard life due to alcoholism and prescription drug addiction. There were so many things in her childhood if one can even call it that--which left deep trauma in her soul; so many demons chasing her through the snow.
When I was four, we lived on Doorbrandt Street in a wonky little gray house. I loved it because for the first time I could recollect our Mom seemed happy. She would sing as she put groceries away: "Today is the day they give babies away with a half a pound of cheese--absolutely free-a half a pound of cheese!" Mom baked on her days off and she and Bill were still in the new stage of their relationship, not married but co-habitating. Mom had managed to divorce my alcoholic father and I think she believed then, that her life had a slim chance of being happy. Bill decided one late winter weekend that we were going winter camping. I don't remember any other details about that weekend which is strange for me, because I am our family's collective memory and I have memories that stretch back to when I was six months old according to my Mom. What I do remember is that Sis didn't want to go camping with us. At fourteen she would rather stay home where it was warm, and watch TV. Bill talked Mom into letting Susan stay on her own. I remember Mom turning on the porch light and how it created illuminated pools of warm yellow light across the shadowed snow berms and black night. I can close my eyes and hear Mom telling Sis to be sure and lock the door behind her, while she grabbed my arm because there was a huge chunk of ice built up on the threshold to the door. Then we turned, got in the VW bug and drove away.
Mom and Sis thought the door was shut tight and locked but the ice on the threshold was just enough to keep the door from locking. Susan fell asleep on the couch in her cotton nightgown. She woke in the dark with a man's hands around her throat, choking her. He had women's stocking pulled over his head, distorting his features. Susan fought for her life, managed to break the man's hold, jump over the back of the couch and was out the door in a heartbeat, running barefoot down Doorbrandt street at 3:00 AM in minus 10 degree weather, looking for a house with a porch light on, looking behind her to see if the man was chasing her. She pounded on doors until someone woke and answered. We moved out of the little grey house shortly afterward, to the house on McKinley Ave. where life grew bitter and angry; a twisted seed watered with alcohol and violence, punctuated with knives and guns, our Mom calling for help whenever Bill beat her.
Sis had never had any form of counseling for the terrible trauma she survived. Back in 1961 no one even heard of mental health or trauma counseling or knew that such events could cause PTSD. Sis always maintained that her attacker was someone she knew. She couldn't see his face but she knew his voice. He was never found and Susan spent a lifetime living in Anchorage, fearing he would return. She could never again bear to be alone at night and she began drinking to shut down her fear.
I also knew Sis had never talked with anyone about how horrible our childhood was. People back then simply didn't discuss such things, and certainly not when the abuser threatened to make sure you wouldn't wake up in the morning if you told anyone what went on in our house. So part of my visit last summer was to bring up our childhood and open Pandora's box. I wanted to give my sister the gift of acknowledgement: recognition of the facts as we remembered them individually and together, and permission to speak about those terrible things, to weep, get angry, and be sad and let it out. Susan carried that awful burden from age five to age seventy two and I wanted to find some way to help her lighten the burden.
It was good, our visit. We did all of the above, revisiting some of our favorite memories together too. We were so lucky to live in Spenard when we did--before "civilization" arrived, cut down the forests, paved everything over, Anchorage swallowed up Spenard, and flat-landers from the lower forty eight states moved up in the many thousands to escape their suburban nightmares and turned Anchorage into the same soulless urban landscape they left behind.
We both love Led Zeppelin and we put on their music and danced, two old ladies feeling the weight of decades falling away, young and beautiful again for the length of a song. We also made new memories with plans for a few more. We went shopping together and I introduced her to Lush. We played Gin Rummy in the evenings, while listening to a host of good rock and roll which I made for her from my computer music library. I met her best friend Kim and her husband. We all had dinner together, reminiscing about having moms who were school lunch ladies, and the Good Friday Quake in 1964, and growing up in Spenard. Susan and I went for walks and talked about a world of ideas, laughing like crazy, sarcastic old women do when they have seen it all. I am so grateful to have countless wonderful memories of Sis that make me smile through my tears. I've never laughed harder in my life than with Sis and Les. I carry them both in my heart.
Susan was going to come down to Gresham in June to visit for a few weeks. I called her a week before she died and we talked for over an hour, singing The Witch Doctor song to each other and laughing like giddy girls; "Ooh-eee-ooh-ah-ah-ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang!" We were planning to visit the ocean together. We wanted to rent a yurt and camp out with my daughter Sparky, my daughter-in-law Kelli, and my foster daughter Mary. We planned to smoke a bowl, eat some good grub, do a bit of hiking, lots of laughing, and enjoy the seashore...but it was not to be. I only hope Sis' death was quick, painless, and her spirit has risen with joy to find a place far better than we knew in this world.