It was a beautiful day and her skirt was hitched above her knees to let the sun warm them. For once her hands didn’t worry her hems or her hair or wring themselves together in distress. She appeared relaxed and happy, sitting on our picnic blanket, her face turned toward the sky.
“Let me braid your hair, Nellie.” Her hazel eyes were green today, to match her dress, and when the sun caught them, they were like deep emeralds. I wondered if mine did the same.
She smiled, in her gentle way, “Ok, Ethel.”
I nudged over on the blanket, positioned myself behind my sister and began running my fingers though her hair to work through the tangles made by the wind. She tilted her head back and sighed as I began braiding.
Her hair was golden with hints of fiery red, which caught the sunlight and mesmerized me with their boldness. I wondered if Nellie might have been less reserved if her hair had been as bold as her highlights. Perhaps she would have been braver, less nervous… Perhaps people wouldn’t assume her quiet nature was a sign of a simple mind.
“Nellie, does it bother you, the way they treat you?”
“Other people, your teachers in school… Mother and Father.”
“It makes me nervous. That’s why I don’t talk.”
“You talk to me.”
“Because you’re my sister, Ethel… And you don’t act like I’m stupid.”
Her face clouded for a moment. “How do you know?” she whispered.
“Because you are smart. We talk about all sorts of things and you help me figure out my problems all the time.”
“Mother says my illness affected my brain.” It had been hard enough to hear her when she whispered, this time she was barely audible. It was clear this was biggest fear and shame.
“Look at me.” Nellie, her hair now falling in a perfect plait down her back turned her body to face me, her eyes filled with tears. “You are not stupid and your brain is just fine. Mother doesn’t know everything.”
“But, Ethel, she…”
“She doesn’t. I promise.” Nellie didn’t look at all convinced, so I reached in my pocket and pulled out my darkest secret.
“Ethel… You… You…”
“Shhhh. They’re Mother’s pearls. I borrowed them for the NCO dance last night. She has no idea. I snuck them in my pocket and put them on after I got there.”
Nellie’s eyes were wide. “She’ll kill you.”
“She won’t. I’ll slip them back intro her jewelry box when she goes to do the shopping today but for now…” I reached out and set them on top of Nellie’s head like a crown. “I dub thee ‘The Smartest Girl at Our Picnic.'” Nellie giggled and her cheeks turned pink.
“Thank you, Madame.” She bowed slightly from the waist.
We fell onto silence for a while and I watched the as the pink drain slowly from her cheeks. Eventually, Nellie spoke into it tentatively, “Ethel, are you and Roger getting married soon?”
“Yes. He says he will be asking me before he goes overseas.”
“Oh.” For a short syllable, her “oh” might have been the most heartbreaking sound I had ever heard.
“I already told Roger you’ll be moving in with us and he agreed. I told him I would never go without you.”
“Oh, Ethel!” Suddenly all I could see was green as Nellie engulfed me in an enthusiastic hug.
“You’ll say yes then?” I managed to choke out through my tears.
“Yes! Of course! I would rather live with you than Mother and Father any time.”
“Then it’s settled.” I smiled, taking in her disheveled appearance, including Mother’s pearls hanging lopsidedly from her left ear. She pulled them off and handed them back to me.
“I don’t need these anymore.”
“I know. You didn’t really need them anyway. You were always enough on your own.”