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The understanding sister

Crossing the divide between good and evil


I can't pinpoint the exact time when my sister, Kim, got right with God, except to say that maybe she always was. It's true that she never seemed to go through that phase where she did drugs and fucked around like her other sisters -- me, admittedly, and my older sister, Cheryl, not so admittedly -- but it's not like Kim carried a Bible around and spouted Scripture, either.

For one, if she did that my mother might have parked a rollaway bed on the balcony and demanded she live out there until it was time for her to attend college. It was tough enough, I know, for my atheist mother while we were young, when my dad would belt one too many Budweisers and break open the hefty children's Bible we still kept hidden in the bottom drawer of the big room divider. He'd insist we gather around and then read to us from it in his James Earl Jones voice. My mother would attempt to save us by distracting him after a few minutes with the sound of air escaping from another can of opened beer, and it usually worked, but sometimes not. Sometimes he would go on and on, hyperpronouncing the "d" in "God" so the word sounded like it had two syllables: Gow-duh!

But maybe some of the Bible stuff got through to us. Personally, I can't say it really manifested itself any further than the fact that as a child I was terrified little devils would take an elevator to the underside of my coffin after I died, grab my dead heathen ass and perform cunnilingus on me for all of eternity. Looking back, that hardly paints a picture of hell, but what did I know except that, as a 7-year-old, I somehow got it in my head that Satan's minions spent a lot of time performing oral sex on people. As I got older, my fears became less fun and more sophisticated, and I began to dread the day Rapture happened and my good sister would get sucked up to heaven and leave me alone with the pagan flotsam that comprised the rest of my family.

Because try as I might -- and truthfully, I didn't try that hard -- I was never as good as my good sister. She seemed to have been born with an abundance of intelligence and integrity, and maybe we're all born with this, I don't know, and maybe it's a matter of simply keeping it intact, as if that were so simple, but whatever it is my sister had it and I didn't. Don't get me wrong, I never agonized about this beyond the thought that, if there were to be the big prophesized divide one day between good and evil, Kim would be on one side of it and I'd be on the other, and I'd miss her.

So, you know, over the years -- and it's really hard for me to admit this -- I've actually, I swear this is true, taken steps to become a better person. Not tons of steps. Like I don't give handouts to junkies who knock on my door, and I still flip off the crack addict who pretends to collect donations for the deaf at the intersection near my house, and I'm still completely open to the idea of copious premarital sex, but I've willingly gone to church a few times over the past few years -- seriously, I did -- though I had to discontinue that when my favorite pastor left to open a coffeehouse in Decatur.

I thought about going with my sister to hers, but she lives eight hours away and I've met her pastor when I attended a church play in which my niece played a part, and this was a man who looked like he would pronounce "God" with two syllables. Plus, the only Bible I own was given to me by Grant, who had inscribed across the front, in big letters outlined in red-and-yellow oil paint, "Nothing Harder Than a Preacher's Dick," and Kim's congregation doesn't look to be the kind to appreciate that kind of humor.

Kim herself, though, doesn't judge. When we were kids, I was the runt of the family, and she was bigger than me even though I was older than her. My other siblings routinely used me as a kid-shaped kickball, and Kim could have easily followed suit. Instead she kept to herself and read, or played cards with her stuffed animals, or interacted with her other imaginary acquaintances, which I'm sure were kinder than her siblings, including me. Usually after I'd sustained a losing battle of some kind, I'd drag my crying, scratched and pummeled hide to sit outside Kim's bedroom and listen to her talk to her stuffed animals, sweetly teaching them what our mother taught us, like how to double down on a 10 when the dealer is showing a six, among other nuggets of wisdom.

These days I still think about the divide between good and bad that I thought separated us, and I've come a long way since I used to sit, defeated, outside little sister's door just to hear her voice. For one, I realize I switched to her side not because I always thought I was a bad person and needed to change, but because she always thought I was a good person and never asked me to.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of two acclaimed books. Sign up for her writing seminars at

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