I anticipated the arrival of my bosoms with the same excitement I felt for the coming of the Mississippi State Fair. I suspect that all little girls wish to grow up to be pretty, even if they have been raised by academics, which I was not. I was raised in the deep south to believe that pretty and popular were coins of gold.
By all accounts I was due a Rubenesque figure, with luscious curves and bosoms that could only be contained by a custom made brassiere. I looked forward to the day that my buxom mother would take me to the expensive lingerie store where the old women, with glasses hanging from chains and liver marks on their fingers, had measured my two voluptuous sisters, had run knobby fingers over their bosoms (much to my complete embarrassment), and had fitted them into the perfect bras that lifted and separated all the curves beneath their sweaters. I waited my turn to join this exalted, privileged, and beautiful family.
What happened instead was Twiggy. Flat was in. Bosoms were out.
When my bosoms arrived they were as attractive to me as holiday hams.
In junior high school I planned to become a cheerleader like my wildly popular sisters. The problem was I thought you were born cheerleader. I didn’t know that you needed to try out to become cheerleader, and to try out you needed to make good grades—good grades for a girl in Mississippi being a C average. During the frenzy of becoming a teenager, with the spin the bottle games, sleep-overs, and notes passed during class, I fell short of a C average by a quarter of a point. I spoke to Mr. Smith, who had an inappropriate crush on one of my friends, and he kindly offered to let me redo a report and bring my grade up so that I could try out for cheerleader and put my life on track. Strangely, I accepted his offer, but since I had no idea how to improve my report, I turned it in again, unchanged. Mr. Smith declined to help me out any further.
It was three years before I tried again to become a cheerleader. I worked my grades up to an acceptable C average. This time I would make sure I got a place on the squad. Six months before tryouts I created my cheer, and practiced it everyday for at least 30 minutes. It was mildly athletic, since I could flip and cartwheel, but once the dance part began it was ALL girly and cute. I made my sisters coach me. They taught me to snap the pom-poms and twirl my skirt. AND most of all the smile, smile, smile. Which is what I remember most about school, walking down the hall smiling at smiles. The key was being cheerful and friendly and happy in life, in the halls, and as a cheerleader.
When THE DAY came, I was prepared. I had made my grades, I had practiced my routine under the careful eye of my sisters, and I was all smiles. Many little girls bounced out onto the gymnasium floor at Murrah High School, in front of a select group of teachers and the current cheerleading squad. The girls who qualified in this round would have a chance to bounce out at a mock pep-rally where the student body would vote. I wasn’t worried about qualifying. I was from a cheerleading family.
I waited my turn, smiling. I smiled at the other contestants, I smiled at the faculty judges, who refused to meet my eyes. I smiled at the current cheerleading squad, who smiled into the space between us.
Then Mrs. Boutwell called: Bel Alexander.
I rose up on my toes and ran, cartwheeling and flipping to the taped X on the floor. It was going so well. I squared myself off in front of the judges. With poise and energy I called out, “Hi my name is Bel Alexander and I’m going to do Two Bits.”
Both arms levitated then slapped down on my thighs, which was the universal gesture cheerleaders used to start the cheer. I yelled, “O-Kay, hit it.”
And I froze.
I gave them nothing but an enormous smile, which I managed to keep on my face, even as the tears filled my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. One by one the judges winced and looked away until I collapsed and ran from the gym in horror. My sisters were cheerleaders. I was supposed to be a cheerleader. That was my legacy. What would become of me?
Not long after that, the schools were desegregated, I dropped out and hitchhiked away to a world where girls with bosoms burned their bras.
As it turned out the legacy I failed to fulfill, itself failed on every level. My sisters tried to maintain the height of success they had achieved in high school. Clinton had been elected to Miss Murrah High School, which was the highest honor given to a popular girl. That summer before entering a prestigious girls’ college, she became pregnant, or so she told me years later. Who knows the truth in my family. Maybe she had a baby, maybe she did not. I wasn’t there. I only know that I was told she withdrew from Converse College and went away to Albuquerque, New Mexico because she had, what my mother called, “a little bit of TB.” This strain on her health was to be expected from a girl as active and successful as my sister—Miss Murrah High School—had been.
When she returned the following spring, not long after my own birthday, she had changed. Not in a way that I could identify or understand. Looking back I think that she was traumatized, puffy and wild. She’d always been brash, but this new wildness was eating her alive. She also had stretch marks, which I asked about one day when she was dressing. “Oh these,” she said. “it happens when you lose weight.” I also noticed my mother repeatedly suggesting Clint wear a girdle. Mother led me to believe that all of life’s problems might be corrected with a girdle.
Some time later, when I thought I might be pregnant, Clinton told me that she, herself, had had a baby. Odd that I was completely shocked, but not at all surprised by this news. I think when you live with a lie in your family, you know—on some level—you know something is amiss. Apparently she had ignored the symptoms (little things like missing your period, throwing up in the morning, and growing a small melon on your belly) until it was too late to get an abortion, which was illegal at that time anyway, but my mother, (an anti-abortionist I might add) demanded that the OB-GYN give her one. It wasn’t possible. Six months is a little late, even on the illegal circuit. Clinton told me about the home for unwed mothers where she went, and how she woke up one night to confront a burglar leaning over her bed. I have always wondered what kind of burglar breaks into a home for unwed mothers. She told me that giving up that child had left a black hole in her heart that could never be filled, but that she couldn’t keep the child because she had no money. What would she do? Work in a drug store? (The irony of what she did for money. . .oh I can’t say it. I really can’t. She will sue me. I will win, but legal fees are steep.) She told me that she had written the adoption agency and begged for information about her son. In return she got a form letter: we are sorry, blah, blah, blah. But out fell a photograph of a young boy blowing out candles on his birthday cake. The photograph had been torn in half, so you could only see him and a part of what must have been his sister’s arm around his shoulder. It was sweet. Clinton named him Benjamin, and never had another child. At first she told me that it was a “virgin birth.” Somehow the sperm had jumped during heavy petting. Later she told me the father was the captain of her football team, her long time boyfriend. Even later she told me that it was our father—recovered memories were in the newspapers at that time and she got one for herself. The problem was, she said, our father had molested all of us but we wouldn’t know it because forgetting is the nature of forgotten memories. I didn’t believe her, but still. This evil thing happened, but you can never know it because it is buried in your brain. The thought of forgotten memories bothered me. How could I know anything about anything? By this time I was a lawyer. I tracked down her old boyfriend, the football star, and asked him point blank if they had sex. Of course, he said. Regular sex, I asked. Oh yeah, he said.
But right after Clinton gave birth to her child, she continued to lead a marching band in her head, through the state university (where she was mysteriously cut from sorority rush) and out into the world as a Stewardess for Pan American. When she saw the world, I saw the world because Pan Am gave free tickets to immediate family. She ran and ran and ran, and I so enjoyed trying to keep up with her adventures, her intellect, her wit. I’m not sure what I would have done with myself had my sister not thrown back the curtain on the wider world. She even introduced me to the man I would marry.
She quit the airlines and went to law school (but could never quite manage to keep a job), she became an investment advisor (but could never quite manage to keep a job). She was incredibly intelligent and articulate and optimistic (but could never quite manage to keep a job). Whatever she started was “the best thing in the world, with the best people in the world doing the best work in the world.” Shortly after, it would all fall apart and she would cat-fight and bring law suits. She did not fulfill her promise, and that was the worst part of her life. She had disappointed herself. If only the world hadn’t told her at the age of twelve that she was so damned special, she might have enjoyed the ride a little more.
My middle sister, Fidelia, was adorable in the way that Goldie Hawn was adorable. You saw Fidelia, you smiled. She spoke, you laughed. People are still telling Fidelia Alexander stories, even though she died in 1997. As a cheerleader, she dated the captain of her football team, an enormous boy who later became an insurance salesman. (And a Born Again Christian, who traveled to Russia to spread the Word of the Lord.) They broke up and it might have had something to do with a pregnancy, not Fidelia’s. He married and had a child. But early in his marriage he continued to see my sister, or so I heard. I know my mother drove herself up to Oxford, Mississippi one day and found this boy on the sidewalk. She threw her arms around him, and since my mother was five feet tall, and the boy was at least ten feet tall, I can only imagine her nose went straight into his belly button. She said, “You know I love you sweet boy, but you will quit messing with my daughter or I will shoot you.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said.
Not long after that, Fidelia left the state to scoop ice cream in Estes Park, Colorado where she swore her scooping arm developed the muscles of Pop-Eye. She never returned to the Chi Omegas at college. She became a full-blown hippy. You could smell her patchouli oil a mile off. She wandered off to Europe. I used one of Clinton’s free airline tickets to fly into Stuttgart Germany to see her. She met me at the gate, when you could still do such things in the airport, and hurried me through baggage. “I’m expecting guests for dinner,” Fidelia said.
We took the bus to what looked like a park at the edge of town and hiked out into the Black Forest where she lived—under a tree. She had not mentioned this. I put my suitcase in her little tent and sat on a log as she cooked some beans. We chatted as if we were in a cozy house, catching up on family and friends. Fidelia had begun making and selling jewelry, which was turned out to be bent wire with beads.
Sure enough, as evening wore on, several friends wandered out of the darkness for dinner. They sat around the campfire on logs, ate beans, and dropped acid. Fidelia dropped a lot of acid in Europe.
One day back in the States, I was home alone and got an official call from the American Embassy in Spain, where she had moved. “Is this the family of Fidelia Wharton Alexander?” the overseas voice asked. I dreaded the next sentence. She would be dead, I knew. I was home alone and disaster was coming through the phone lines. She wasn’t dead, however, she had been busted. I wrote down the information and relayed it to my parents, who spent a great deal of money getting her out of Spain.
Back in Mississippi, she moved to a commune outside of town where she drove a little red Volkswagon named Fritz, had a spotted dog named Moonshine, and baked pies for her neighbors, many of whom belonged to the Klan, she said. I can still see her traipsing across the fields, blueberry pies in hand, for the wife of the beagle of the Klan.
Fidelia developed a relentless hatred for our mother and then a relentless hatred for reality. She did drugs and dealt drugs. She got busted again. She shoplifted and got busted again. She wrecked cars and lost her license and was arrested, always charming the policemen and the judges with her excuses and stories. (How was I to know which side of the street I’m supposed to park on, I lived in Europe.) She was an expensive child, on so many levels.
She joined a cult led by a fat fifteen year old Indian boy, and traveled the world with his merry madness. (You knew Fidelia’s life had drifted badly when the family considered joining a cult as a step up—anything was better than being an acid-head.) She married a nice man she met in the cult, but it didn’t last. They left the cult and tried their hand at real life, but real life didn’t take. I went to visit them once in Denver and the husband was dumbstruck when I walked down the street and got a job at a restaurant named Spuds (its only food item was potatoes) and invited myself to live with them. They seemed happy until Fidelia got mad at his mother and broke every dish they had against the wall. I cut my visit short and wandered away.
Fidelia became a person who may or may not have been robbed, burgled, beaten up, kidnapped, sodomized, molested and raped by many many people. There was even a story she told about her Egyptian husband (he was news to us) who had shackled her in Cairo. A boyfriend called me once from Atlanta to say that Fidelia had been drugged and raped and wouldn’t I come take care of her. “It’s not me that she wants taking care of her,” I said. “It is you. Did you happen to have just broken up with her?” He thinks I am the most heartless person on earth. But he walked away, too.
One day she discovered small claims court. The money flowed in from slip and falls, accidents at work, and wrongful terminations. She sued strangers, employers, professors, schools, friends, lovers and family. People basically paid her to go away.
While on a ski trip, I got a call that Fidelia had cancer. As with my other sister, I had quit believing anything she said. This was the third Fidelia Cancer Call I had gotten during my life. None of them were true, so I didn’t believe this one either. Unfortunately, she did have advanced stage 4 ovarian cancer and wasn’t expected to lived a month. Of course, she had the strength of mind and body to live another six years, but not without creating a living hell for anyone who loved her.
“Come live with me,” I said when she was first diagnosed.
“No,” she said.
“Let me come take care of you during this operation,” I begged. I’m not painting myself as a saint here. It is not particularly heroic to try to care for a dying sibling, especially a cute and funny one.
“No,” she said and when I continued to ask she said, “Can’t you people respect my dying wishes.”
Well, yes, yes we people could, I thought. I asked what I could do for her? What would make her happy? It was decided that I would go to Texas the following summer when she had recovered from surgery and we would spend some time together.
I did this and it was one of the hardest months of my life. My toddler sat in fire ants every single day.
Later, after she had sued our family, and told everyone in Mississippi that we were stealing her money and leaving her to die in the ditch, she screamed at me. “You didn’t even come to see me in the hospital. Instead you came and imposed on me for a whole month, while I was sick.” (When Fidelia died, by the way, she had several hundred thousand dollars in the bank. Nobody knew where it came from.)
I tried not to care what she or anybody else thought of me. (I can kind of fake that sometimes.)
Somebody asked me if I ever expected to reconcile with Fidelia and I said, “Maybe, when she is bedridden and unable to hurt me.”
And that is exactly the way it went. Fidelia moved herself in with a wonderful christian family in Texas, who couldn’t say no. They delighted in her, as most people had during her life. Still, she became a skeleton and took to hallucinating. When I arrived at the Keith Ranch to see her, she was, in fact, bedridden and could no longer hurt me, physically. She took my face in both hands and said ‘You are like a song that was never sung.”
The night she died, I sat by her bed. Not knowing, of course that she was about to die, I tried to go to my bed across the room. Her hand clawed my wrist, keeping me there. When I put my heavy head down beside her, she lifted my chin and made me look at her. She could barely move, but a tiny voice trickled out. “Help me—help me—help me.”
“Tell me what to do,” I said. “And I will do it.”
That was the moment she died. No motion, no stress, no death rattle. Something very subtle in her open eyes changed. It had taken every bit of strength my sister had to hang on as long as she did. When Fidelia died, she simply stopped living.
I’m sure, had she lived, it would have been one of her greatest stories. You won’t believe what my idiot sister said when I was dying—she asked me the dying sister what to do!!! Fidelia loved to tell stories about stupid people floundering around in life.
There was an extremely strong smell in the room when she died. Rich, sweet, floral, unlike anything I had ever smelled before. There were no flowers in the house. Only the next day (after the coroner had rolled Fidelia in a blanket and carried her away) did I learn that not everyone in the house smelled it. Four of us were practically overpowered by the aroma, three others hadn’t smelled a thing, and couldn’t imagine what we were talking about. It was a mystery to us all. Years later, I smelled something faintly similar. It was lilies, the flower of death, the flower of saints. I have heard that a strong smell of lily, when opening the coffin of a long dead person, helps prove (along with some papal miracles) that the person was a saint. All the saints I’ve read about sound crazy, so I wonder if my sister, both of my sisters actually, might be saints. God knows I’m not. I am so plain compared to them.
When I think of what became of my family, I feel like Carrie bursting out of the gymnasium doors with fires exploding behind her, walking out, covered in blood, arms outstretched, going somewhere else, anywhere else. I didn’t plan it this way.
I sometimes still wish I had been elected cheerleader, even knowing how little it helped my sisters. I might have handled it differently. In the heat of popularity I might have kept my feet on the ground. I might have kept the glow going well into adulthood. I might have been able to save my sisters. But now I will never know because I was never pretty or popular, not like them, but my life has opened up beautifully. Even so, who wants the door to close in your face, the ground to slip away beneath your feet, right when it is your turn? What young girl doesn’t want to be pretty and popular and loved?
About the author:
Corabel Shofner is equal parts wife, mother, attorney, and author. She graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University with a degree in English literature, and was in the top ten percent of her class at Vanderbilt University School of Law. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Willow Review, Habersham Review, Hawai’i Review, Sou’wester, South Carolina Review, South Dakota Review, and Xavier Review.