Jenne

Jenne

She was the closest I had to a sister. Our families kept the keys to the other family’s house, shot off fireworks, traded watching and/or driving kids as needed, shared Christmas Eve dinners, watched football games, and had nights filled with Nerf Wars (the kids) and card games (the adults). We lived just across the street from one another—our lives were so interwoven that we all knew we had a second set of parents looking out for us—even when we’d prefer we didn’t.

Our brothers were the same age so as soon as her family moved to town, the boys started shooting hoops together, playing backyard baseball, and, in general, terrorizing the kid-free neighbors with the perfect lawns who didn’t appreciate all the balls and Frisbees that flew across property lines.

She was younger than I was by four years but I never really minded playing with her. I remember our post-swim stops at Mahula’s, especially the time she got the cotton candy stuck in her still-wet hair. Wherever our brothers played sports—football, basketball, and baseball—we went along, especially looking forward to the post-game ice creams and other treats. Eventually we found our own sports—she, softball, and me, track—so we didn’t always have to trail around in their always moving footsteps.

When I left for college, the year after our brothers left, I lost track of the near-daily interactions but not of the long distance news and the get-togethers that still happened when I came home on breaks. She grew up, too, leaving for college the year I left home for good to find my way in the adult world. I always thought I would see her again.

I had hoped to make it back for the weekend before the usual Christmas Eve celebration since I would only need that one day off to go home for four days. My boss denied my request, saying I hadn’t been at the company long enough. Instead I watched my co-workers get drunk while they listened to Madonna. I wasn’t in Kansas—OK, Nebraska—any longer, was I?

My father’s phone call woke me the following Saturday. Jenne was dead, killed in a car accident while home from college on Christmas Break.

I didn’t ask to take New Year’s Eve off—I told work I had experienced a death in what was pretty much my family. I wasn’t going to sit at work, watching co-workers get drunk while a father and mother and brother buried our Jenne. I took off in my hardly road-worthy ’62 Rambler, daring the bitter cold to stop me—which it did not. While home, the voluminous trunk served as a stand-in freezer for the outpouring of food a grieving community kept delivering.

At all the gatherings at the home of the heartbroken family, I kept expecting her to walk in and say, “What are you all doing here? I’m not dead.”

But, of course, she was and still is these thirty years later. We’re left to wonder who she would have grown up to be and what kind of a middle-aged woman she would be right now. Over the years I think of her at strange times. When I’m typing—because she was good at typing and I am not. When I started having grownup friends who were born the same year she was. When I see—now rare, of course—a Mustang of the type she drove—the one with the wheel that was knocked away from the force. When a kid with wet hair is eating cotton candy.

After some time had passed, her mom wanted me to take some of her fairly unworn shoes. I did, but I couldn’t really bring myself to wear them after all. I finally realized: I couldn’t fill her shoes. No one could.

Dearest Jenne—sometimes I still can’t believe that’s all you got of life and all we got of you. So much has changed in this world since you left us, but I will never stop remembering what it meant to have you as my little sister from across the street.

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