About A Gift For My Sister
Ann Pearlman’s novel, A Gift For My Sister, won first place in General Fiction for the year 2013.
It is a fast paced, riveting page turner that poses the larger questions of where did I come from, how did I become me, and how do we form a family. Set in a backdrop as vast as a continent, and diverse as plush beach condos, inner city Detroit, and exhilarating rap concerts, it’s a tale told by two fatherless daughters struggling with family curses, eccentric luck, and the complicated multiculturalism that is hallmark of our era.
Sky, obedient and cautious, has worked hard to build her dream life. In her ideal job as a lawyer and married to handsome Troy, they live with their three-year-old daughter, Rachel, in a house on the beach. Younger sister, Tara, rebellious and impetuous, has fallen in love with the irresistible Aaron, become pregnant in high school, and embarked on a rollercoaster life as a musician. But when tragedy besets Sky, her world is turned upside down. Amazingly, Tara and Aaron and their rap crew, instead of facing a future destined to be foolhardy and risky, are on the brink of fame. With this astonishing reversal of fortune, Tara offers to help Sky start over and move home. On the road trip tensions between the two sisters erupt, loyalties are tested and long hidden secrets revealed. The journey they embark on forces each woman to take a walk in the other’s shoes and examine what sisterhood, and family means to them.
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A Gift for My Sister won the First Place General Fiction Award (tied) for 2013 by Sharp Writ Book Award bestowed in March, 2014.
“Pearlman’s poignant novel examines the complicated relationship between two sisters (first introduced in The Christmas Cookie Club) going through tumultuous times in their lives. Sky is still recovering from the sudden death of her best friend Mia when her husband Troy falls ill. He succumbs to a staph infection, leaving Sky and their daughter Rachel on their own, struggling to cope with the tragedies. The night before his death, Tara—Sky’s sister—promises Troy that she’ll take care of Sky. Tara has always felt like an outsider in her family, and uses those feelings of alienation to inform her passion: music. Although her band is on tour, Tara makes time for her sister, and together they embark on a journey from California to Michigan with Tara’s band mates never far behind. Pearlman’s narrative is executed smartly, with complex social issues (e.g., unemployment) woven in seamlessly. Her main characters are fully developed, and Tara is crafted particularly well. This is a story about love, loss, embracing second chances, and finding courage to move forward in spite of life’s most difficult moments.”—Publisher’s Weekly
“Themes of belonging and fairness run through this complicated family story. .. This is a fast-paced novel, full of a varied cast of characters. There are no easy answers but lots of soul searching and heart- racing action.”— BOOKLIST, Elizabeth Dickie
“Pearlman (The Christmas Cookie Club, 2010, etc.) offers another warm tale of sisters rescuing each other…The conflicts here are big—abandonment, grief, race, the unfairness of fate. “– KIRKUS REVIEW
“Ann Pearlman tells an effortless story. You’re halfway through the book before you even know you’re hooked. And then you really are hooked – the characters could be your own friends, sisters, nieces…or at least the young women who live just down the street.The challenges and fears they face and the questions they ask are issues to which we can all easily relate. The writing reminds us about the cost of self-indulgence and the importance of family – whether chosen or by birthright.
“This is a writer who makes me consider my own failings. And, yes, maybe even my strengths. A sweet and sour tale that makes a quick and honest read. Easily devoured in one sitting, this little book even includes some tasty recipes at the back – the lowdown on meals and treats that appeared in the story.-Julianna Kerr, The Cairns Post, Australia
“In this imaginative story, A GIFT FOR MY SISTER, two half sisters learn how lovingly human the other is through incidents that would seem to drive them apart…the characters in A GIFT FOR MY SISTER are very well developed… I would recommend this book to any reader seeking a story where audacity and courage force two very different women to uncover their inner souls and continue on. – Regis Schilken, Seattle PI.
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On the Verge
Every day we walk a razor thin line between the ordinary and the tragic.
That thought bolts me awake.
3:42. The green numbers on my clock blare. The rest of the room is dark. The numbers are a beacon in the black. Why do I wake at the same exact time every morning? 3:42. As though Mia’s death implanted an internal alarm.
Troy is curled around his folded hands.
No sounds come from Rachel’s room.
The air conditioning snaps on.
Some of us tiptoe anxious about chasms on either side of the path we walk and some of us skip along ignoring them. And me? I thought if I walked a direct line with a firm destination in view, fulfilling each goal along the way, I’d be safe. Having a safety net was my plan to thwart lurking misfortunes.
I felt as though it was my father’s fault for dying. What else does a child think when parents seem all powerful?
My father’s death came at me from out of the blue like a peculiar and deadly snap of the fingers. One day he pulled me high on the swing, his arms stretched so I was above his head, singing “Fly, Sky. Fly,” and pushed hard so I could reach for a cloud with my toes. I saw the glint of the sun on his hair, the flash of red and yellow leaves in trees blurred by my speed. Or have I nourished it so much, this last memory of my still-healthy father, that I added the trees I know so well from the park, when all there was, really, was the sight of the sky and the feel of the wind licking me as I soared?
The next day, he entered the hospital.
A week later, he was dead.
I was seven.
He was thirty-four.
Mom tried to explain that he was around me, and loving me. I watched her tongue tap her teeth and her lips move, but it didn’t make sense then.
It still doesn’t.
I was the only child in my class whose father was dead. The other kids ignored me as though it were contagious. I was the only kid I knew with a dead father until my freshman year of high school. Then, a kid’s dad died from a heart attack. He was absent from my algebra class for a week, which had the other kids whispering, and when he returned, he laughed at a joke as though things were ordinary. I knew that game because even as a seven year old I had played it. If you pretend things are ordinary, maybe for a few minutes they will be. And sometimes, sometimes, and this is both scary and exhilarating, it works.
And for a few minutes you forget you have a dead father.
Anyway, I digress. I don’t know why I think about him every morning. I guess because his death was a startling change that twirled my life so it skipped to another path. Some things happen suddenly, and some you know are coming. Like death from cancer after a long battle. But for me, I didn’t even get to prepare myself, I didn’t have the time to be scared. It just happened.
I wonder how my life would have been different if my father lived.
Number one way: Tara wouldn’t be my sister.
I’d probably have a different sister. Or a brother.
Tara was an embarrassing kid and then a rebellious teenager. She was so different than me. I guess that partly comes from having different fathers.
But what I really wonder about is Troy. I met Troy in eighth grade and we’ve been inseparable ever since. I read somewhere that girls without fathers are often sexual early and promiscuous to fill a yearning for a man in their lives. I guess I was sexual early, but I’ve only been with one man. Troy. My best friend, soul mate, husband, and finally, at last, father of my baby.
I say at last because Troy and I, so perfect for each other, are actually even genetic matches. As a result, each conception has a fifty percent chance of a deadly genetic disease, which led to three miscarriages and a stillbirth. A lot of deaths. I would have traded everything for a healthy baby. Just please God, give me a healthy baby. Please. I begged as if you can make bargains with the future. I imagined parts of me I’d exchange, aspects of my life I’d cast away.
My pleas were answered. And I hadn’t lost anything. Because then, finally, there was Rachel in spite of it all. Rachel with my father’s grey eyes as though a piece of him was a part of her. I look in her eyes and see him loving and watching me. Just like Mom promised. His eyes and the rasp of his beard are my most vivid memories and sometimes, just sometimes, Troy’s face feels almost the same, but more gentle.
Count your blessings. Troy turns toward me, pulling me to him, spooning me. I turn to him and, in the vague light from the window, I see his eyes shift and know he’s dreaming. Soon, I’ll hear the creak of Rachel’s springs as she stands in her crib, holds onto the rails and begins bouncing and calling, Mommymommymommymommy. Daddydaddydaddydaddy.
Since Mia died, I wake up early and try to make sense of it. The digital green lights flash on the clock. The house is quiet, as though I can figure out the answer to some question I haven’t asked in Troy and Rachel’s systematic breathing.
I’m okay. Troy’s okay. Rachel’s okay. I’m sad. That’s all. Life is unfair. So unfair.
But everyone knows that.
Lawyers especially. That’s what we try to do, that’s our mission. To make life fair. To even the playing field. To redress grievances.
This is what happened: Mia was my closest girl friend, my BFF. We met in a tort study group at law school. She tried to get pregnant and I tried not to have dead babies. We struggled over case law and fertility and trained for a breast cancer marathon together. Troy and I and she and Marc, her husband, went camping in the Rocky Mountains, and gambling in Las Vegas. We talked about opening up a law firm together. Then she took drugs to stimulate ovulation and developed a cyst. While they were removing the cyst, she had a reaction to the anesthetic and went into a coma. She was brain dead. We watched appliances force air, drip fluids and nutrients into her arms.
Four days later, Marc unplugged her equipment. We held each other’s hands and cried.
There was an eerie silence when the machines stopped their breathing.
A lazy echo in the room. Then Mia was no more.
Twenty six and dead.
That’s worse than thirty four.
That was two and a half weeks ago.
Since then, I wake up with a bolt and try to figure it all out.
Why does my life revolve around tragedy when I have so many blessings? Rachel. Troy. A job that I love. A boss who allows me to work part time until Rachel is in preschool full time.
When genetic testing results on Rachel were okay, I asked Mia, “You’re not going to be so sad about this for yourself that we won’t be friends anymore, are you?”
We had just finished running five miles on the beach, I was already slow from the extra weight of the pregnancy, and we were both breathless, and she said, “I wish it were me, but if not me, I’m glad it’s you.” It was California winter. Not quite so many flowers. The impatiens sparse and pale. We had run along the beach, the breeze keeping us cool and now were walking through a marina that reflected the cloudless sky and a few palm trees.
“We can share her. You can come over anytime for a baby fix.”
“I’ll catch up to you. In a few months, these new drugs will work and we’ll be pushing strollers while we run.” I thought, Tara’s baby is six months older than Rachel, Mia’s might be six months younger. I like symmetry. That was more than two years ago.
It didn’t work out that way.
A week ago, Rachel jumped in a swimming pool for the first time and I reached for the phone to call Mia.
Then I remembered she was dead, and my arm fell limply to my side. I saw a woman in Nordstroms with hair streaked like hers and I called, “Mia.” And then blushed, embarrassed.
I miss her selfishly. I miss that she’s not here for me.
But, mostly, I just miss her. It’s as though I’m her missing her life. I try to explain it but even Troy looks at me blankly. I feel sad like I know Mia would feel at not getting to live the rest of her own life. But she doesn’t know. She doesn’t even know she died. I mourn Mia as though I’m Mia mourning her own life. There. Does that say it? I mourn the loss of her years with Marc, the unborn babies, the fascinating cases she’ll never try, the great books she never read, the glorious food she didn’t get to eat, the places she never visited, the love not made. All of it.
My thoughts ramble and always come back to this point. How unfair it is for her.
And then I fall asleep.
“Mommymommymommymommy,” Rachel calls.
Rachel’s arms are stretched for me to pick her up, she jumps up and down in her crib, her mouth open, laughing at the sight of me. I feel the sweetness of baby warmth as I inhale her aroma. Her hair, so silky and fine, tickles my cheek.
I hug her tight to me, so tight, as though I can squeeze extra life into her and protect her from all harm.
“I love you, Mommy,” she says. “Eat granola?”
“Sure. With cherries and walnuts in it.”
I stand her on her changing table and unbutton the crotch of her PJs. “Think you’re old enough for big girl panties? Like Mommy wears? Want to try them?”
“Just like Mommy.” We’ve been preparing for this day, and she’s gone in her potty a few times.
“Yeah.” Her eyes widen and I reach down to the shelf and grab the pull-ups that have been waiting for her. I put them on her and lift her from the changing table.
“Okay. Let’s see you pull them down.” I know she can do this and she does.
“See, Mommy, no problem.”
“Okay, so when you have to go, tell Mommy and I’ll help you. Or just go on your own.”
She always wakes up starved. I carry her potty to the dining room with us. She walks down the stairs one foot at a time, holding onto the railing. Rachel thinks about each step before she makes it. Jumping into the swimming pool into my waiting arms was uncharacteristic of her, as she is usually so cautious.
“You’re my little mermaid,” I said, laughing.
I make my own granola, roasting oatmeal with flax seed, wheat germ, sunflower seeds drizzled with honey, or maple syrup, and cinnamon, mixed with water. Sometimes I add almond extract. Sometimes I add vanilla. I stir it every 10 minutes for 40 minutes while it roasts at 300. Before I eat it, I toss in fruits and nuts. I add chopped walnuts and cherries to Rachel’s bowl and then milk. On mine, I sprinkle slivered crystallized ginger and almonds.
I’m almost out of cherries and almonds. I add them to the grocery list in my iphone notes. The note says: dish detergent, eggs, coffee, fabric softener, olive oil, cherries, almonds.
I hear Troy taking a shower.
Rachel delicately picks out the cherries and walnuts, one at a time. She places one in her mouth, concentrating as she consumes the flavor.
I take the opportunity to run upstairs and steal a few minutes with Troy. He’s just out of the shower, drying off. He looks up, surprised to see me.
I grab another towel from the rack and begin dabbing his back, slicked with water coursing around the bumps in his spine. When his back is dry, I stand on my tiptoes to kiss his shoulder. He turns me around and holds me close, his body warm and moist against me. The steamed mirror exposes a foggy image of us pressed together. Me in blue shorts, and a yellow tee shirt, and his pinkish, beige length, the brown of his hair, like Rachel’s, fragments of colors blurred by condensation. He’s all one beautiful length and I fill with warmth every time I see him.
He gives me a kiss, slow and serious, enjoying the texture of my tongue and my lips. “I’ll be home early tonight,” he promises.
“I’ll be here,” I laugh.
I pull back to look at him, his face as dear and familiar as my own, as though he’s my mirror, another version of me. I kiss his nose. One of his ears misses a piece at the tip, and his other ear has it. As though each ear is a puzzle of pieces that have been split. Rachel has that, too. I touch his ears, and circle the shell of each of them, like a nautilus. I shake my head slowly, aware having him in my life has been a miracle.
“Ah, darling,” he says, and his eyes close. “Maybe tonight you could get a baby sitter and we can just check into a motel. We can have the whole evening together.”
“On this short notice?” I laugh.
“You’ve been so sad and preoccupied since Mia’s death.” He wraps his arms tightly around me.
“Still can’t sleep.” And then I notice a pimple, swollen and red, on his shoulder. “Hey. That looks painful.” I point at it with my index finger.
He turns his head to see it, “It is. Been putting cortisone on it, but…” He shakes his head and shrugs.
“Might be turning into a boil. You want me to lance it?”
“Done that twice. I’ve had it for about two weeks.” He turns his head toward the shoulder and glances at it in the mirror.
I lean closer. It’s red with a pale yellowish top. Smaller bumps cluster around the edges, and the flesh around it is almost purple. “Since Mia’s death?” I guess I haven’t been paying attention. “Looks like a rash. Is it itchy?”
He shakes his head. “It used to look like a spider bite before I lanced it.”
“How ‘bout some antibiotic cream and a band-aid?”
“Tried that. And hydrogen peroxide, and iodine and mercurochrome.”
I pull out a tube of triple antibiotic cream, twist off the lid. I wonder why he didn’t say anything. I guess he hasn’t wanted to bother me.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal. Just a pimple or insect bite.” He shrugs. “When’s everyone coming?”
“Next week. Mom and Allie arrive on Wednesday.” I wash my hands.
“And when’s the concert?”
“Saturday. Sissy, Aaron’s mom, is coming Friday. Don’t know when exactly Aaron and Tara and the rest of the band arrive.”
“Crew. Rap bands are crews.” He shakes his head, watching as I peal the paper protecting the band-aid. “Imagine skinny hyper Tara a rap star.”
“You still think of her as five. You’re not fourteen anymore either. But they’re not stars. This is just their first national tour.” I smooth down the adhesive strips and rub the band-aid flat.
“At least the pimple-boil-insect bite is covered.”
“Larry says they’re on their way.” Larry is the entertainment attorney Troy and I introduced to Aaron. “That number seven single makes them practically stars. It’s amazing that Tara and Aaron have pulled this off. Who’d have thought they’d still be together?”
The tenderness in his voice and his thrill at her success bothers me. “She used to have a crush on you.”
“She helped me woo you.” He rubs the mist from the mirror and combs his hair.
“Woo me? She wouldn’t get off your lap whenever you came over. You were the only thing that distracted her from her obsession with music.”
He pats the top of his head to get the few strands of his cowlick to lie flat. “That was because she wanted everything her older sister had. Besides, I didn’t have the guts to ask you to sit on my lap. I hoped you might follow her lead. And eventually you did.” He laughs.
Troy has forgotten what a difficult teenager Tara was, or maybe just forgiven her. Troy and I were just starting law school when Mom called late one night. It was 3 am in Ann Arbor. “I don’t know where your sister is,” she said without even saying hello or asking how I was. “I’ve been frantic. I’ve called her cell a hundred times and it goes to voice mail. Texted over and over and over. I’m standing by the front door looking out the window at every car that passes, hoping it’ll stop and she’ll get out.”
“She’s probably just at a party, hanging out with her friends.”
“Probably getting high or drunk.” Mom finished my thought. “I tell myself that but I can’t stop thinking about all the terrible things that could happen: She could have run away, or be in a car accident, in some hospital. Or worse. Dead. She could be drunk at a fraternity party. What if she gets gang raped.”
“You know Tara. This is just Tara being Tara.” I heard Mom’s quick intake of air.
“She does what she wants with no concern for anyone but herself. Just like her father. Like he’s come back to haunt me.”
I didn’t know what to say. But part of me was smugly pleased when Mom criticized Tara or her father.
“She’s never been out this late without calling, even if it’s with some lame excuse.”
“Mom. She’s probably just partying.”
But Mom couldn’t stop. “I tell her, ‘Call and let me know where you are, that you’re okay. You have a cell phone,’ but she doesn’t even do that.”
And then Tara walked in the door. “Mom. What are you doing up?” I heard her ask.
“Where the hell were you?”
“I was worried.” Mom stretched out worried so that Tara could sense her anxiety.
“I was fine.” I could almost see Tara shrug.
“Why didn’t you call?”
“I’m out of minutes, Mom. Why didn’t you pay attention to my bill?”
Tara’s voice was crisp. She wasn’t screaming or angry. She was indifferent. That was it. A chilling cold indifference.
“I’m tired. Think I’ll go to bed,” Tara’s voice got softer as she walked away from Mom.
“Well, she’s home,” Mom said to me.
“I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“She’s just being a kid,” Troy said that night, learning against the headboard reading a syllabus. “Tara works hard on her music. A nerd with a wild streak. She’ll be okay. You watch.”
By the time Tara was seventeen, she was pregnant. Piled on top of that was her boyfriend’s prison time, for dealing drugs, their crazy dreams of rap stardom, and her refusal to get married. Now, four and a half years later, Aaron, Levy, and Sissy are part of our family. Mom and Sissy are friends. And in an ironic twist of fate, my wayward sister is on the road to being famous.
“Your T shirt seam may be irritating that pimple. The band-aid should help.”
“Hey. You want to play doctor with me?” Troy jokes, his cowlick stuck down for now.
“Mooooommmyyyyyyy,” Rachel yells. “All gone!”
“Tonight.” I wink and then take off down the stairs, to find Rachel’s cereal bowl tipped over on the tray and the milk dribbling to the floor.
“Okay. Help me mop this up.” I pull her from the highchair and hand her a paper towel. She squeezes milk and bits of granola on the floor and tries to make finger paintings in the mess. I quickly wipe away the mess, and hand her some spray cleaner which she spritzs joyfully. Everything is fun to her.
Troy comes down soon after. “There’s some granola,” I offer.
“No time.” He pours coffee and milk in a commuter cup and smears peanut butter and jelly on bread. “Gotta hit the traffic,” he checks his watch, grabs his laptop, and kisses Rachel and me. At the door he turns, points a finger at me, and says, “Tonight.” Turns to Rachel, “I’ll see both of my beautiful ladies tonight.”
The door kisses the jam as it swings shut.
The sun slants in through a window and throws a rectangle on Rachel’s hair turning it into blazing spun gold.
I pick her up and swing her around. “The floor is clean and it’s a beautiful day made just for us.”
I can get through each day. It’s the nights and early mornings that are hard. Maybe I’ve turned a corner. Maybe I’ve figured something out, but I don’t know exactly what. The answers I look for each morning at 3:42 flicker in my head as if I know it, but can’t recognize them.
“Hey. You wanna go to the potty?” I carry Rachel to her potty, and watch while she pulls down her pants and sits down.
I hand her a book and turn on the faucet. Don’t know why, but Mom always did that and it seemed to encourage me to go.
Rachel’s eyes get big. “I did it. I pee-peed in the potty!!!”
She laughs, her little white teeth shining like pearls.
She stands up and points, her pull-ups sliding to her ankles. “I did it.”
“You sure did.” I say with disbelief. I take out the container to pour the urine down the toilet.
“You’re going to throw it away? Throw my pee-pee away?” Rachel’s eyes are wide, her mouth open in bald horror. How could I throw her amazing achievement away when just a moment ago we’d been so happy with it?
“We’ll save it and show Daddy. Then you can put it in the toilet, how’s that?”
Her smile returns.
Later that afternoon, before Troy gets home, before we have a chance to eat dinner, and talk about our day over a glass of wine, or sit on our balcony and watch the sea lap the sand, or finish the flirting that we started that morning, the telephone rings. It’s Stuart, my mentor and one of the partners at my firm.
“Hey, I went over that case law for the Hanson case. Got decisions that’ll buoy up our arguments,” I tell him before he even says hello.
“Sky.” His patient voice carries that tinge of bad news. My mind skitters to what it could be. We’re being sued for malpractice? On one of the cases I worked on? Another member of the firm died?
“Sky, I have some, ah, unfortunate news.”
“What?” I start pacing with the phone pressed to my ear. Sesame Street is on the TV and Rachel sits on the floor teaching a line of stuffed animals.
“As you know our billable hours have decreased and, really, I guess, we were able to let you work part-time because we didn’t have much work, and now, well, we don’t even have that. So we have to let you go.” He pauses.
I know that they—the partners—are billing those hours for themselves, even though my fees are less than theirs.
“Please be reassured…”
I resent his formality, selfishly creating distance so firing me is less painful for him.
“When things change we’ll contact you and, if you’re still available, we would love to have you back. I’ll help you find a position with another firm, though I wouldn’t relish you being our competition.” He forces a chuckle. “We’re going to miss you.” And then his voice warms, “I will miss you.”
His words seem to echo. I replay them in my mind as soon as he says them. We have to let you go. Please be reassured. Another position. I’m trying to integrate them. “I loved the work. And I love working with you.” I shouldn’t have said that.
He sighs. “This is difficult for me, for all of us.”
For a minute there’s silence on the phone while I consider my options. Maybe I should start my own firm. If Mia were still alive, I would. Maybe Troy and I could start a firm, but we need the consistent paycheck and benefits that come with his job.
“When do you think you could clear out your desk? We’d all like to take you out to lunch, too.”
I don’t know if that would feel nice or like rubbing salt in my wound. “I don’t know. I’ll have to get back to you.” Maybe I’ll go get my things tonight, while everyone is asleep. I know they will have already changed the passwords on my computer and made sure their client list is unavailable to me.
If I can’t trust Stuart, who can I trust?
“Well. Let me know. And I’ll help you anyway I can, Sky. You’ve been invaluable to the firm.”
Not so invaluable, I think. Even if you do a great job, work weekends and evenings to meet deadlines, you’re expendable. Even though Stuart gave me wonderful ratings on work evaluations. And accompanied that A+ rating with maximum merit salary increases. But I guess at the end of the day, I wasn’t all that important.
Now what? Another thing in my life just ended, out of the blue.
I’m walking along an abyss that threatens tragedy every day.
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