An Outrageous Request

She was bad, I was good—so went family myth. Ruth and I were the two children of an odd family, Europeans in the tropics, Baptists in a Catholic country. Brazilian classmates called us “Germanoids” because we stood out in the crowd like two blond wheat stalks. In church, we occupied the dubiously privileged position of pastor's daughters, two “young lilies of a Christian home,” as the deacons called us. We grew up embedded in the black and white world of Baptist fundamentalism.

Monica and Ruth
Monica (left) and Ruth, circa 1943

Ruth was chosen as the vessel of evil in this black and white world. Ah, Mother sighed, "She is angry, noisy, possessed! What a burden for a mother!" When I came along five years later, a quiet baby who mostly slept and occasionally smiled, I wriggled into the slot reserved for goodness and virtue. Ruth soon gave up trying to be good--she could not win Mother's approval no matter what. Meanwhile, I lapped up Mother's erratic love, and didn't dare be bad.

My sister never forgave my arrival into a home of scarce and finite love. Out of adult sight, the two of us fought like two snarling puppies, and when I went sobbing to Mother after a beating, she comforted me, wrung her hands, lamented Ruth's evil nature, and did nothing. I desperately wanted Ruth's love and approval, while she gleefully pointed out my faults and defects. Not easily discouraged, I looked to my big sister to lead me by the hand and provide mothering. Yet to her I was “The Tail,” a useless appendage of her older group of friends.

We exchanged few letters after I left Brazil to live in the States, and those we wrote were mostly soliloquies. Mine told of the American Wonderland, hers cursed Brazil, “land of disorder and misery.” I bragged about my cushy, well-traveled life; she didn't have money for the dentist because her husband's import business gobbled up all spare change. I defended our parents; Ruth bragged of shutting Mother entirely out of her life. Thirty years passed. My sister developed odd habits such as making bonfires of the few reminders of our childhood. She withdrew from social contact, including mine. On one of my visits to Brazil , she refused to get together until the day before I left. She didn't want to be upset, they told me.

So, to me it was nothing short of a miracle when, one fine day, a letter from Ruth showed up in my mailbox in California. She announced her intention to come up to visit me and my companion Mark. I could barely contain my joy. What a reunion, after thirty years! So much to show her! What a chance to see my adopted country through her eyes! How much could we cram into a short time? She wrote that she wanted to stay a while—a long trip deserves a long stay. “Sure,” I wrote back. “However long you'd like! Our house is yours.” I envisioned a two-week visit; Ruth would be our guest for four months.

She emerged from the arrivals gate at LAX after a twelve hour delay, a small, pudgy woman in a tired leisure suit, her thin brown hair tied into a ponytail with a rubber band. She carried a scuffed leather purse and a gym bag stuffed with a few articles of clothing, her complete wardrobe for a stay of months. Not your typical international traveler; Miami customs held and grilled her for hours as a possible drug runner.

At first, we enjoyed each other like teenagers. I treated her to shopping sprees for new clothes and a new hairstyle with the best hairdresser in town. We visited Hearst Castle, San Francisco, Sequoia Park; we walked the Golden Gate Bridge and camped out in Kings Canyon . She gamely trekked the Sierra wilderness with me. She participated in our life—birthday parties, restaurants, visits to my grown children. She joined in on the spiritual study meetings at my house and struggled with the English of my New Age literature.

New Army Pass
Ruth and Monica, New Army Pass

The novelty of her presence wore off for me, however, and by the end of summer I muttered to myself, she is like an aging parent. She looks to me for every need. Not only that, I end up paying her way wherever we go. Playing the tour guide and showing off my superior lifestyle soon lost its appeal. My mind now held a startling new thought: the beautiful sister I worshipped as a child was now a dependent old woman with little to offer. I'd rather travel, sightsee, and backpack with almost anyone else on the planet.

At the end of three months, her husband Klaus arrived, ostensibly to visit, probably to reclaim his wife. He stayed for two weeks. In the company of her mate of three decades, Ruth changed. The few sparks of life turned to cinders. I felt a stab of pain to see my sister mechanically obey her husband's orders. She looked like a Gumby rubber toy. She now paced the backyard alone, lost in thought, while Klaus took her place in my study groups. What could be going on in her head? I would soon find out.

As we sat across the table sipping our coffee, she blurted: “Don't you think you are false and hypocritical and grasping?”

I was stunned: “What? What did you say?”

She repeated her question. I had heard it the first time, anyway. Guilt flooded me. I should have done a better job of concealing my resentments. I struggled to retain control, to steady my voice and send my pounding heart back down where it belonged. She can't be getting to me. After all, I am supposed to be Enlightened. I stammered, “Me? I . . . I don't think so.”

“Oh yes, Monica. You can't see yourself, but it's written all over you.”

Well, I had to agree that it's hard to know oneself. But suppose I really was false and a hypocrite? I had, after all, tried to be friendly while harboring resentments. The sudden attack was like a shower that runs hot and cold at the same time. Drawing on my best pop psychology, I asked her to elaborate:

“Just what do you mean, I am false and hypocritical?”

“You are becoming more and more like your mother, nose buried in greasy spiritual books. It's horrifying to watch.”

“Me, like Mother? Hardly,” I replied hotly. “No way, nohow.” Getting hold of myself, I reflected her feelings:

“You still angry at Mother?”

“Yes I am! I wish I had killed her,” Ruth answered with sudden fervor. “I wish I had killed her while I had the chance. I really think I should have killed her. Now she is dead and I can't do it.”

This was getting increasingly weird and at the same time oddly familiar. But what a relief to deflect the attack to Mother! Who was the bad guy here, Ruth, Mother, or I? I clutched Reason to my chest: “If you had killed her, you would be rotting in a Brazilian jail now. A Brazilian jail.”

“At least I wouldn't be lugging this hate around all my life.”

“But she would be dead, and you would be suffering.”

“Better than to hold it inside. Believe me, I really think I should have done it.”

A target identified, we ended our brief exchange. Ruth had proved herself the Bad One again, I could feel righteous and holy, and status quo was reinstated. Their visit was about to end anyway. When they left a couple of days later, Ruth said good-bye in tears.

Mark and I finally had the house to ourselves again. Overlooking the attack as only one of Ruth's many peculiarities, I patted myself on the back for having completed, fairly successfully, an important chapter in my life. A month passed before a thick yellow and green airmail envelope appeared in the mailbox. Ah, I thought—a thank-you letter, it's about time. What I read was this:

. . . During my months of meditation, sitting alone on the porch, my Holy Spirit led me to many interesting ideas and useful conclusions. By the Devil himself, the prince of darkness, you are the ultimate plague: you are false, evil, unstable, self-centered, infantile, unpredictable, perverse. You are so evil that you wreck everything in your surroundings: people, animals, plants, even inanimate objects. . . You are the essence of evil, unconscionable, destructive--to use a figure of speech, you remind me of a battlefield after the war. You stand amid ruins, rubble, and corpses. You stand victorious amidst the destruction you wrought. . . Speaking of Mark, where on earth did you find him? In a basket of thrift shop discards? Him and your daughter's nigger, they make a good pair. What a dull little idiot, he is neither stink nor perfume. Or did he become this way out of contact with you?

She wrote in this vein, in tight handwriting, four pages, on both sides of the paper, all the way to the edges. She hit my vulnerable spots with surgical precision. I was mentally unbalanced, in need of hospitalization with shock therapy, preferably supplemented with regular beatings. In conclusion, she added:

. . . Weeeell, now for a request. You know my birthday is coming up. I would like a bunch of money, like five hundred dollars. Let's see if this works. Generally, you like to give only what's left over, or those things you are tired of. It would do you good to give what you dearly love. It would help your purification, and it would relieve the arthritis in your fingers. . . Try not to get mad at this letter. Your gratuitous temper tantrums don't help anyone, and they are bad for your health. Affectionately, Ruth.

This letter—and the four that followed in the same vein—threw me into a morass of anxiety and guilt. I wrote several replies that ended up in the trash, angry letters, forgiving ones, haughty rationalizations, even her own letter back with the names changed. Eventually, I sent the least angry reply I could muster:

Thank you for your powerful letter expressing what seems real to you. . . I am sorry to hear that your stay here was spoiled by preoccupation with wrongs and thoughts of evil. You were our guest, and we did what we could to make you comfortable. . . we felt irritated too, with your long stays in the bathroom and such. But in all, I know of few families that could house a relative for four months, in a small place, and get along so smoothly. . . I have a vision of happiness for you and Klaus—a warm house with lots of love, laughter, music, good food. . . Loosen up a bit. . . You don't need to fix me! I am fifty years old, it's probably too late anyway.

She wrote back, “. . . Don't bother answering me. You say, do, and write idiocies, nothing useful. I won't even open any more of your letters . . .” I believe her. After this exchange, I could see no no evidence that she'd read anything I had to say, plus she had a past record of burning things.

I obsessed: how did my sister's visit go so completely wrong? What should I have done differently? Should I have been more open and truthful instead of trying to be a perfect hostess? Underneath it all, there lurked the painful secret worry: was I really all that she said I was?

Several months went by. Her condemnation felt like a deep scab I couldn't stop scratching. Clearly, my requirement for peace of mind was for her to change her mind about me, which she wasn't about to do, considering that she didn't even read what I had to say. Having reached the end of my emotional rope, I sat down with the Course in Miracles, my 1200-page spiritual manual. As I often do when my head needs a jump start, I stated my problem, asked for advice, then opened the book at random.

What I read was: “If a brother makes an outrageous request of you, do it--not because it matters, but because it does NOT matter.” Oh no! Anything but that! Her request of a birthday gift, on the heels of four pages of insults, was clearly outrageous. Nobody in his right mind would dream of honoring it. How did the book zero in with such uncanny precision? It now sat closed on my lap. Its blue and gold cover shimmered, I thought, with eerie satisfaction.

From this point on, my problem shifted. I no longer obsessed about the truth or falsity of my sister's accusations, but instead argued with the book: “You don't really mean that to be taken literally, do you? Wasn't it just a figure of speech?” and, “Surely that was meant for a less extreme situation. You have no idea how she insulted me.”

I tried to reason with it: “I already spent a couple thousand on her. Why should I throw more money away?” Not too proud to haggle, I thought, “Maybe I can send her two-fifty or so.”

I was also ashamed: “I'll look like the fool of the century.”

And finally, “I don't have to do what the book says. Forget it.”

But I had asked. The book had spoken. Eventually I clenched my teeth, wrote a check for $500 and a brief note, marched to the corner, and dropped the envelope in the mail slot. I did it quickly, lest I talk myself out of it once again.

They say miracles happen, and I know they do. No, the check didn't fly back out of the mailbox—as I found out, God's answer does not usually come in a predictable form. I felt no loving feelings, heard no choir of angels praising my holiness. Instead, I felt raw, red anger. The letter had barely hit the bottom of the mailbox that my pent-up anger boiled up. How dare she poison pen the two of us! How dare she insult me and the rest of my family! What a preposterously shabby way to treat those who'd treated her like a queen for four months!

God's miracle of the release of anger set in motion a number of changes in my life, some welcome, some painful. I made a major retreat into taking better care of myself, and I gave up on self-sacrifice. The inner image of my sister as someone I should imitate, please and impress faded from my consciousness. Looking through our correspondence of the years before her visit, the venom was right there for all to see, but I had ignored it or glossed it over. How could I have been so blind?

My anger faded with passing months. I promptly opened every bank statement, but my check had not been negotiated. Eventually, I felt curious enough to place a call to Brazil :

“Hi, Ruth, it's me. How are you?”

“Monica, it's you! I'm fine, and so is Klaus.”

We exchanged polite chitchat for a few minutes. Then she apparently remembered to be angry. She dove headfirst into attack:

“You know, you are really false and mendacious, an exploiter of innocent people. . .”

I interrupted her: “I don't want to hear this. You can stop now.”

She sounded startled: “You . . . you don't want to hear it?”

“I don't need to hear this, Ruth. You can keep it to yourself.”

“See what I mean? You don't want to hear the truth. Then you should at least compensate me for damages. I added up my pain and suffering when we were growing up. It's eight thousand dollars you owe me. You can deposit the money in my name in the States. Open an account in a bank that won't break, so I can spend it when I travel again.”

This was the delicious moment I had been waiting for:

“But I sent you money. I sent you the five hundred dollars you asked for. The check was in my last letter.”

She sounded startled: “Check? What check?”

“What did you do with my letters?”

“I burn all your letters without opening them,” she replied with evident pride.

“Then you burned the money I sent you. You can't have wanted it all that much.”

The check was never cashed, so I guess she was telling the truth. She burned it.

Fifteen years have passed since Ruth's visit. I have heard no more from her, nor did she open her house to me when I visited Brazil on several occasions. To my pleasant surprise, I really didn't yearn to see her either. My beloved and admired sister had receded into her rightful position: out of six billion who walk the earth, one who chooses not to forgive me for the faults she sees in herself.

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