Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Crooked Truth

Jamie's Crooked Truth: The Lost Language of My Sister

My younger sister and I shared a verbal shorthand, as most siblings do -- private jokes, short phrases that represent entire incidents, words that don’t translate. A language only we understood.

“Crowley eyes” was what we called a particularly nasty form of the Stink Eye, perfected by a mean girl at our bus stop named Shirley Crowley.

“Mr. Rogers’ noises” were any kind of loud click-clacking, rustling, or lip-smacking noises in an otherwise silent room. Like the sounds we heard on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” when Mr. Rogers made a craft too close to his microphone. For an awkwardly long time, the only noise coming from our TV was the amplified cutting of paper. From then on, whenever I did something like crunch into an apple in our quiet kitchen, my sister would shout, “Agh! Stop making those Mr. Rogers’ noises!”

If one of us wanted the other to stop talking, we’d said, “Shh! There’s a man sick in Chicopee.” (That’s what Mrs. Sullivan, the dear old lady who lived downstairs, would tell us. It didn’t make sense, but we liked the sound of it.)

Later, in high school, “Project Afro”* was code for racing to the phone before my parents, so we could intercept the principal’s recorded message informing them that I’d skipped school. (*Origin unknown. Maybe our brother had an afro at the time.)

I used to think that the worst part about suddenly losing a sister is not being able to say goodbye. But equally awful are the moments when you pick up a phone to tell her something only she’d get, before remembering there’s nobody to call. The realization that you’re left speaking a lost language.

My sister’s name was Julie, as in Julie Boolie or Julie Boolie Pasta Fazooli. She would have been 39 today. She was under five feet tall and had a laugh as loud as a foghorn; you’d hear her coming before you saw her. She loved to laugh.

But more than anything, Julie loved children’s books. She collected them, even as an adult. Her favorites were by Steven Kellogg, Charlotte Zolotow, and Rosemary Wells. It was Julie’s bookshelf I recalled when I interviewed to be an editorial assistant and the publisher asked me about my favorite books. 

Julie's copy of The Three Funny Friends by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Mary Chalmers

Just before she passed away, Julie and I wrote a silly story together. We wrote it to make ourselves laugh, nothing more. To our surprise, it became published. Though our language might be lost, a piece of her will always remain in that book. (Isn’t that why we write? To trap a bit of our fleeting world with paper and ink?)

I think of my sister every day. With every story I write, I ask myself, “Would Julie like this? Would Julie think this is funny?” And I keep writing until I hear her loud laugh. 

Dedication from Joe and Sparky Get New Wheels


  1. This made me cry. I loved Julie and we shared a funny language too. She was one of a kind & I think of her often. This is beautiful Jamie, Julie would be proud! ! Kisses dear friend!

  2. Thank you, Despina! One day, I'd love to hear about the funny language you shared with Julie. You were a good friend to her. xoxo

  3. I am tearing with your beautiful words as is Dad! You are a beautiful person, Jamie and you have kept Julie alive in all you do, and all you shared! Lots of love- smile when you think of Julie as you were so fortunate to share a "special language"!
    PS- Dad was shocked when he heard about "Project Afro"!

    1. Thank you, Susan! <3
      And tell Dad I'm sorry about Project Afro. :)