Through reworked photographs & letters, we see the hidden branches of Valerie Marie Arvidson’s family tree blossom into vibrant color.
The two sisters were almost twins, or that’s how they were treated. Their surface traits— same mouse-brown hair, same grey-blue eyes— invited slip-ups and switched names. They loved each other deeply with a kind of impossible love made sometimes of meanness and doubt. The way you distrust your own face instead of the mirror that reflects it. Lina hardly ate at dinner, trying for her sister’s slender neck and wrists. But you can’t shrink your bones. Aina always brushed her wavy hair an extra dozen times at night, hoping for Lina’s straighter hair. When they were older, Lina worked more hours at the bakery to seem more diligent and gain favor from their mother. Lina would lend Aina money and clothing, but it kept Aina in debt to her. Though Lina had to wear glasses because she was farsighted, Aina was jealous that she didn’t have the opportunity to wear any fashionable eyewear. Their mother, in an effort to make things better, would often put the girls’ hands together, fitting their fingers into one fist and patting it closed like a ball of pastry or a hair bun. Aina would curl her hand inside of Lina’s and slip it out like a magic trick. A few months after Aina got married, Lina did too. Though Aina always believed it was because Lina was already pregnant.
It was assumed that the sisters would always live close to one another, so when Lina and her husband bought a house right next door to Aina’s family on Winter Street, it was a celebration of their sisterly destiny. Windows looked into windows but nothing was seen. But the clanking of pots and dishes and the closing of doors could all be heard easily across the alleyway. Conversations muted through the walls became a subtle gnawing sound. The children ran and screeched, thumping and chirping like birds. Silhouettes were felt the way shadows or ghosts are felt— present but slipping away. The sisters locked doors but gave each other keys; they put up curtains but passed notes along a clothesline through the bathroom window. Separate but equal, apart but together; it was hard to sleep in these sibling houses. It was hard to make love, to give or receive love. One always feared emitting any sign of real pleasure, so pleasure was rare.
Many nights while Aina tried to sleep, alone in her newlywed bed (her husband out socializing), Lina would be in her bathroom drinking. Aina knew that Lina drank during her pregnancy. She knew when she saw the red and yellow flicker of light in the upstairs window; she knew by the smell of smoke; she could taste the cigarette and booze in her own mouth; she could feel the tight burn of tobacco in her own throat. The drink was always something saccharine and spicy like sherry or port. Many things that brought the sisters closer but also came between them, like drinking, were simply not discussed.
Sitting in the empty tub with the rubber curtain pulled closed, Lina sunk against the cold porcelain, her insomniac eyes beating with a hundred worries about the next day. The bathtub was pastel pink, like the inside of a stomach, she imagined. She counted her breaths in Swedish to calm down, listening to her mother’s lilting voice inside her head, sipping something scarlet, and tickling the cigarette lightly with her tongue. Somewhere children slept in perfect beds under floral sheets, geraniums, delphiniums, asters and bellflowers. Pretty yellow pillows beneath their heavy heads. Ett. Två. Tre. Fyra. Fem. Sex. Sju. Åtta. Nio. Tio.
Self and Sister
Two birch trees. Two sides of a sister. Two white columns. A trail of buttons. Two white snakes curling towards a heart. Dots scissor down the middle. A seam. Down the side. What she wears: A circle. A bangle. A poof at the shoulder. Two slits for pockets. A tennis shoe. A criss-crossed sandal. Or she keeps the time. See through our eyes: a summertime mirror with finger-made words washed out. Sixteen and seventeen. I love you. My hand disappears behind your back. Five foot five and five foot four. Two pairs of shiny stockings. A white wind. White-tailed doe. Two milky mushroom caps budding from the same stalk. Stem splitting and multiplying into buttons, daughters. One cell, two bodies. Tunneling into sand, into snow. From some ancient arctic woodland. Blooming under but a brief space of yellow light. Underneath the tree, one cellar. The inner room. Two statues of one god. A room wholly or partly. A bulb. One hollow, one flesh. Fragile and hardy. Below ground is not a suitable place to live. Inside a chamber of glass. Two cloudy lungs. One inhaling. One exhaling. Linnaea: the twinflower, a family of two heads turning toward you. Two trumpets of softness. One name, two parts. I once was the only one, then water filled my mouth and I found you. Always to double. Always twofold. I hold you, you hold. To double over. Twice over. Two times. Twice as much. Bend in half. Dual. To double check. To double cross. Double back. Double doors. Double bed. To descend the cellar stairs. To rise up but stay still. Imagine me deflating and shifting along the ceiling, against the trees. You told me to stand up with proper posture. To fly away. Never slouch but do surrender. Let’s walk away, into one another. Collapse like lovely ruins into one another.
February 12, 1935
I wrote this but never sent it, so now here it is:
Are you still looking on the blue side? Instead look for the “bright side.” People do. I do. Look for the white on the other side of the blue. There’s something pure to be found in every ugly thing. Don’t let things get to you. Don’t become that way. Anyway, you should know I might be quitting school. Can you help me find work? Maybe something across town. Also: I need my black suitcase. Bring it home from Ma’s on Sunday? Has Ida got a maid still yet? No hurry but could you find out? I guess you could do it if I don’t. It will be all right to stop school early? Better make my mind up. I wish you would borrow me a dollar. Could you buy a house-dress for me? I haven’t got a one even. One with flowers or a nice sleeve? I hate to ask Ma for money. Saturday I’ll dance and have a time like I had last time. Though it makes me anxious. E— wants to go, too. I don’t like him when he won’t let me alone and gets so mad— I hope for more time just dancing with the girls, or with myself, I guess. So long. (Hope you can read this. I am writing sitting on the bed). xxx. “Aina.”
February 14, 1935
Most clothes you wear were mine once, remember. So don’t think too much about asking ‘me’ for dress money. The day may come when I can help you again. I will. But I need some help from you, too. I think you can work for Ida at night. And here are a few lines that are less blue. Whiter strokes, as you always say: A Merry Valentine Day to you! . . . Such a thing. A bit of red ink. A heart shape. I drew a picture on the mirror, you’ll see (with an arrow)! But it’s down to this. It will be hard to find another man like E— I’m telling you. In other words, suit yourself if you want to shame him. What a thing to ignore that kind of man. He should get mad. If you don’t want it—fine. Beatrice said the girls went up to the dance hall again. Lucky having money. I hate it. And of course I can’t afford a skirt. You should give me $1. I’m broke and I work all day. I could use a blouse. You don’t need any more clothes. Please also: another pair of those stockings. Ma will give you the money. It’s fair. Same shade, sun-beige, and the same kind, silk-rayon, double soles, heels and toes, ribbed top. Don’t forget now. You don’t need any candy. Not too much anyway. It’s only fair. Come by soon. Love and write. A True Valentine To You. xxxx. ‘Just Me- Lina’.
April 21, 1935
Dear Lina. I received your note today and I am answering right away. Quite a few things on my mind. I shall try to get them all down. Saturday I went to the dance with the girls again. Didn’t have a good time. A crowd was there and it was raining of course. I couldn’t get away. I thought of you and that time you were there with that boy who wouldn’t let go. When E— came and took me, the girls didn’t come after me. I wish they had. I tried calling you but it was dead. Where were you? Linnie, please don’t say anything. Anything. I take it to heart after all. Don’t come between me and E—. There won’t be much trouble. I do love him. I might enjoy myself next time I go. I’ll see if he won’t find me. And now that school is almost out, I’ll take the job. So if you see, I have it all planned out. I’d like to come over on Sunday and drive to the store together. Prices are quite high and I don’t like asking Ma for money. She won’t listen to me. So—I need a suit. Gloves, hat and shoes. Still you’ll look great with what you have already. Wish I could look as good. I only need 3 dollars. If you can get me these things— or ask Ma to pay the balance for me—Thanks, thanks—a thousand thanks. I know I’m a crook asking for so much. Did you know that last Sunday I felt as blue as ever? No place to go as usual. I thought of you. Did you think of me? Oh and please— Oh, please don’t get glasses. I know you might get them, those silvery ones. Your eyes see far enough. But don’t let me see you. I can’t bear them. I hope they look good. By the way, please buy me a bottle of perfume – just 10 cents – Thank you. Yours as ever, “Aina.”
August 3rd, 1935
Dear Sis, Are you still miss or Mrs.?
I was rather in doubt but I put Miss just the same on the envelope. What’s the big idea anyway. Did Ma tell you I cried when I heard it. I didn’t think you should get married so quick when I just did. I understand the circumstances, however, so what can you do. You could have worn my veil and my gloves, if you had told me. Let me wish you luck anyway—Boy us married people need it. E— and I both send our wishes and I hope you will be as happy as we are. I think I have the best fellow on earth—guess you do too.
I suppose you need a lot of things—I mean towels and tablecloths, etc.—can’t give anything right now but will later on—I mean when our “bit of heaven comes”—which will be soon. Hope you have been feeling all right. It can feel like a merry-go-round, those carousels with horses and mirrors. It’s part of the fun, so to speak. I didn’t really have any trouble though—I guess I was lucky. You will be too. Everything moves so fast. Hold on tight to your money and drink double the milk. Well I haven’t much time to write any more. Please write to me soon, Lina— Tell me everything, the whole story. Sincerely, Aina. I will write again.