Today is my sister Roz’s birthday. Every year, when we’d talk on the phone or see each other on her birthday, I’d comment that we could always count on a beautiful day. As I write, the grey clouds are receding, revealing blue sky and the promise of a pleasant spring day.
Roz died unexpectedly in July 2012, during a heat wave. Like many others who struggled with job loss and diminished income, lack of health care, and the absence of a safety net to help her through a rough patch in her life, her death was preventable. Roz talked about her struggles with the family yet often refused our help. My parents helped financially when they could and her siblings, and her son and his family, were there for her when she’d open her door to us. Like many who suffer hard times, shame was her companion and she often turned us away. She died because she couldn’t afford to turn on her air conditioning those humid, sweltering, summer days before the 4th of July. She died because she didn’t have the money to fill the prescriptions for her hypertension, diabetes and depression. She died because her safety net services ran out. She died alone.
This post is my tribute to her. Roz was special to many people in many ways. To me, she was my first friend.
Whenever I tell stories from my earliest memories, most are introduced by the words “Roz and I.” Yes, Rosalyn Ann Lenzke was born May 4th, 1952, two years after me. My first memory is from the age of two-and-a-half or three. I remember laying on a blanket on the floor of my parents’ rented house at 1739 Racine Street in Racine, Wisconsin with my baby sister Roz, while she gummed a Zwieback (German, twice-baked teething biscuit). I was not pleased that this interloper was still living in my home. I thought by now she’d be gone like the other relatives who would come and visit, often bringing food or gifts, but eventually return to their own homes until the next holiday or Sunday dinner. This creature was clearly staying. She didn’t do much either besides cry, drink milk, burp and spit up; eat oatmeal, coo, and sleep, garnering much of the attention which was once solely mine. Roz couldn’t talk, but she had already mastered a whimpering pout and could cry at will to gain my parents’ attention.
In my scheming mind I thought if I could convince my parents that she was fussy and required too much work, perhaps they would return her; give her back to wherever babies came from. My very first memory is grabbing the Zwieback from her saliva-soaked and cookie-coated hands. The biscuit was softened where she sucked on it, and if I had known the word then, I would have described the feeling with its gritty and wet texture as gross, yet the action yielded the desired result, Roz would begin to wail and before I heard my parents footsteps reach the room, I returned it to her sloppy hands, while I wiped mine on the blanket removing the evidence of my deed. I mimicked a loving and concerned look as I hugged her, suggesting that as her big sister I was trying to comfort her. I remember asking if they could return her because she was fussy and couldn’t do anything fun. I failed in my first and only deceptive attempt to rid my life of Roz. She stayed and I’m glad. Roz became my first friend.
As young children under the age of five, our outside boundaries were strictly defined, the sidewalk in front of our house and the backyard shared with our neighbors who lived behind us whose house faced the alley. On either side of the backyard, chicken-wire fences with wooden poles coated in tar completed the demarcation of our free-running range. Inside the house, we could travel freely with permission, always in earshot of our parents, except for the basement which was off-limits. Our nameless black cat lived there, whose sole purpose in life was mouse control until she met her fate and became a victim of a rat. All I can remember of the incident was my father discovering her and describing her as stiff as a board.
Though two years separated us in age, our parents dressed us as if we were twins. Mom loved to brush and curl our blonde hair. When it was long enough she would braid it; if we had our way and dressed in pants for play, she’d pull it back into pony tails. Our parents were young and just starting out in life, yet they dressed us in the finest clothes and loved to take our pictures with their Kodak Brownie Camera. When looking back at family photos it’s clear we were loved. Many of our pictures were trimmed to fit in their wallets. One can only imagine how often we were the subject of pride and bragging.
As the eldest, wherever I went, Roz would follow. She became my constant sidekick and shadow. We’d play for hours together, whether make-believe adventures in the backyard or with our toys inside. Our folks would take us to the park, picnic at the zoo, or ride the bus to visit our grandmothers. We’d hold hands, throw our arms around each other, tease, tickle, tackle, and horse around until we were told to behave like little ladies, especially at Grandma Lenzke’s and Flanigan’s downtown apartment. It was full of porcelain and china dolls, figurines which we could easily break. When we were lucky and a little older we’d beg do go outside and run behind their three-story brick apartment building which abutted neighboring ones, creating a zigzag, almost tunnel-like corridor of concrete steps, tight spaces and blind turns, with steaming pipes and radiator vents and windows at our feet where we’d peek into the basement and look at the boiler room. We imagined we were anywhere from New York, to Paris or London and that we were detectives or spies solving crimes or engaging in secret espionage.
At the age of five I was excited about attending Kindergarten. Mom and Roz walked me to school that first day, after a photo shoot in the backyard. I wore a new dress, my curled hair sported color-coordinated bows, and my saddle shoes were polished. One of the pictures featured me waving, “I’m off to school,” another with Roz giving me a kiss good-bye. Unfortunately, the practice kiss didn’t foretell the scene that occurred later when we actually said our good-byes. Roz, my faithful sidekick and shadow, was not going to leave me at school without remaining at my side. While other kids cried when their mother’s left them, I was happy to be at school, yet Roz, sobbed, screamed and had to be dragged out of the classroom by my mother who tried to comfort her by explaining I would return home later.
Roz survived this first separation and was happy to see me return home as Mom promised. A year later we moved into our home on Hayes Avenue, the first home my parent’s purchased and where they remain today. We moved into a neighborhood full of kids. Soon Roz and I had many friends, our own age, or a year or two younger or older. Our boundaries increased too, two square blocks, but always in earshot of our parents and we never played inside our friend’s homes without permission from both sets of parents. Roz still remained my best friend, sidekick and confidant, though we each made separate friendships with others and shared friends in common.
Summers, my sister and I became neighborhood impresarios, producing backyard carnivals with the help of our mother. We’d pitch a tent using blankets and quilts over the clothesline in the yard like seasoned roustabouts, set up a table for refreshments Mom made including: Kool-Aid, chocolate chip cookies, fudge brownies, and popcorn. We’d enlist friends from the neighborhood to sell tickets, post signs on telephone poles and within an hour have a backyard full of kids. Word of mouth is how we communicated back then. We lived in the classic, post-war, working- class neighborhood of young families raising their gaggle of four to six kids. It was the baby boom, and our neighborhood was busting at the seams with elementary-aged children looking to find Disneyland and become a Mousketeer in their own backyard. Roz and I would stage a sideshow featuring magic tricks and display weird bugs and furry caterpillars in jelly jars. I was the featured act in our big top, the blanket hoisted tall in the middle of the clotheslines using wooden poles to lift it higher. I performed comedy routines, adaptations from “Mad” or “Cracked” magazines or original stories featuring a character I created, a combination of Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin, named Linda Binda.
Winters, Roz and I would turn our snowy side yard into a four room house, building walls and furniture, packing down the floors until they became icy rinks. Neighbors would drive by to look and the kids would congregate in our backyard in their snow pants and hooded coats with scarves tightly wound around their necks, covering their mouths while their breath escaped through the wool, and mittens and snow boots protecting extremities. We’d play until dark when we were called inside. Mom would always comment on her beautiful girls with their rosy cheeks, ask us if we wanted cocoa, and park us in front of the heat register as she’d stoke the coal furnace.
We welcomed two new siblings into our family and in later years two more. Now that Roz and I had successfully set the pattern of siblings in pairs, the first an “oops” baby and the second a purposefully- planned playmate, Cindy and Rick joined us. When Roz and I became young teens our summer job was to babysit the younger siblings while both our parents worked. We would alternate weeks so when we weren’t responsible for watching Cindy and Rick, we could make plans with our friends and still enjoy our summer vacation. As it turned out we often remained together as a team. We helped Mom in the kitchen too. I became the prep cook and would often get the dinner started, Roz, the family baker. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s and 40s before I baked on a regular basis.
My parents would sometimes go out to dinner or the neighborhood bar on a Saturday night and Roz and I would be in charge. We’d pool our allowance and one of us would make a run to the grocery store for treats. Over the years we developed very specific preferences. I became the Baby Ruth candy bar girl, Roz, Butterfingers, I preferred Almond Joy, Roz , Mounds, I liked the frozen coconut cream pies, Roz, chocolate, and on and on. Occasionally we shared, yet it took years before I made choices that were her preferences.
Roz almost caught up to me in school. She vowed to never be left behind again. She was by far the smartest kid in the family.
She skipped third grade entirely and was advanced in many of her subjects. Though she was two years younger than I, we found ourselves in the same middle school algebra class and yes, she got the better grade. As we entered our early teens, I physically matured early, while Roz grew tall and lean and earned the nickname, “Brother Roz,” by her close friends.
Roz and I remained best friends for many years at least until high school when we started to go our separate ways. We always supported each other and we even shared a boyfriend, no, not at the same time. Like many hand me downs, Ron Booth was one of them. When I said no to his engagement proposal when he enlisted in the service during the Viet Nam war and then broke up with him while he was in basic training, he returned home unannounced with a medical discharge. Roz hid him in the closet in our bedroom. When I came home from high school he jumped out. I left the house in a huff, mad at the both of them, yet later their romance bloomed, at least for awhile.
We had one more separation growing up that was difficult for Roz. I wasn’t aware until a couple of years after I left home as a young adult and learned, that like Kindergarten so many years earlier she felt abandoned when I left. I thought she must have had a difficult time letting go of me because all of her memories until then included me. Then I remembered; the first memory of my life included her too.
Roz always liked to say that we never had a fight. I think that was, in the end, her way of saying she always forgave me for my infractions, shortcomings and abandonment. Years later, I did want to start a fight with her, simply to get her attention. Sometimes she made me angry, mostly because she was stubborn, self-assured, and in later years, independent. She knew how to give generously to others, but not how to receive for herself. In recent years she could have used help from her family and loved ones, especially from her big sister, her first friend.