It was always something with Mama.
“The Bear family eats too much junk food!”
“The Bear family watches too much TV!”
“The Bear family never picks up after themselves!”
No matter the fleeting problem of the hour, Mama would lay waste, armed with a trash bag and a smug sense of purpose, making some grand pronouncement about how our lives needed to change and immediately. How she’d shriek and scream about how we, as children, were deeply flawed.
Reprehensible. Shameful. Then she’d unplug the TV, or sweep up all our toys on the ground into a trash bag, or load a trash bag with all the junk food in the kitchen, which we’d only rarely eaten, as Mama had made it well known that the Beary Snacks and Bear-E-Os were “Mama’s special bad-day treats.”
Invariably, in the middle of it all, Papa would hear the yelling from down in his woodworking shop, and, taking a good hour to steel himself with liquid courage for one more showdown with the monstrous, sneering and intimidating shell of the woman he’d married, would calmly come in and offer up a solution that didn’t involve shrieking, insulting the character of his children, throwing away all of the Beary Yums or losing out on TV for a week. Something sensible, reasonable and obvious, like offering to build a shelf so our messy room could have some storage, or merely suggesting that we buy less junk food.
Then Mama would calm down and act as if everything was fine. We’d all go to our bedrooms and lie awake for hours, shaking. Papa would go back down to his shop, but really down to The Honey Pot, and Mama would quietly rustle around in the kitchen, seeing if she maybe hadn’t thrown away all of the Grizzly-Dee-Lites.
* * * * * * *
I am often asked if “Sister Bear” is my real name. The truth is that I was never given a name.
What kind of parent doesn’t name their child? It’s so necessary, even compulsory, that few even consider its importance. Mama couldn’t be bothered. I was born in the woods of Bear Country in an upstairs bedroom in a hollowed-out tree, so it wasn’t like she needed one for a birth certificate, but still. A name symbolizes so much.
She never even came up with a nickname, or some kind of term of enbearment. Just “Sister,” which is damaging to a girl’s sense of worth and identity, that her only excuse for a name is contingent on that of a man, in this case, my brother, Brother. He may have had it even worse — before I was born, our parents just called him “small bear.” After I was born, he was suddenly “Brother” and I was “Sister.” Only in retrospect can I see how disturbing it is to name your offspring “Brother” and “Sister.”
* * * * * * *
Maybe she had an OCD-related fear of something happening to the hundreds of jars of rotting honey she kept in the basement. Maybe she was embarrassed that she had to walk with a cane by the time she was 30. Maybe she was ashamed of being morbidly obearse. Whatever the reason, my mother only left the treehouse once or twice a year. I now recognize that most of these problems — the brain damage, the weight, the neuropathy — had something to do with undiagnosed and uncontrolled diabeartes.
Not only did she rarely leave the house, but when she actually got out of bed she never got dressed. She wore that same blue-with-white-polka-dots housecoat and matching floppy nightcap all day, all night, every day, every night, for decades. On the extremely rare occasions that she did leave the treehouse — to get more honey or to force the family on a walk (“The Bear family needs to get some exercise!”) — she still wouldn’t change, dressing up that stained, crusty, putrid smock by trading out her sleeping cap for a straw hat with a feather in it. As if that would fool the Bear Country gossips.
* * * * * * *
I realized that my situation was not normal around the time pubearty began, and that my only solution was to get out as soon as possible. Rapid changes to my body let me in on a shocking truth that had been hidden since my birth from everyone. Including me.
I wasn’t actually a girl.
Even then, at 11 years old, I knew instinctively that this had something to do with Mama. When I confronted Papa about it, he simply said he didn’t want to talk about it, then choked back a couple of sobs, then hightailed it out of there, right back to his shop (or The Honey Pot).
I tried to ask Mama about it, waiting until I could score her on one of her good days, which meant less of a chance that she’d accuse me of having a bad case of “the gimmes.” I grew impatient, and, expecting a grand pronouncement that “the Bear family is too impatient!” I asked her anyway.
“Mama, why did you pretend I was a girl?” I asked her, bearly above a whisper. She rocked in her chair, pretending to knit a scarf but really just wiggling the needles around in a pile of yarn.
“Mama Bear needs little girl cub. Mama needs girl cub. Girl cub. Girl,” she said distantly, over and over.
From clues ascertained from old pictures and what Brother can remember, I’ve been able to piece together a few scant details of my birth. She went into labor while she was alone. Papa was out chopping wood with Brother to make him a big-boy bed, as his old one would be needed for me. I believe that this afforded her the opportunity to deliver me, check my gender, and, when it wasn’t what she wanted, slap a pink bow on my head and name me Sister. And that was that.
The night I figured it all out, I couldn’t sleep; I was angry and confused and trying to process everything. While lying there, awake, praying Mama wouldn’t come in and proclaim that “the Bear family asks too many loaded questions!” I heard Papa clomp in. After some shouting, I heard a door slam. And then, according to Brother, he took the roadster into town to buy a pack of beargarettes. That was the last time anyone in Bear Country ever saw him.
If you’re out there, Papa, I’d love to see you again. Lizzy Bruin and I have three cubs now. They’d like to meet their grandfather and give him a great big bear hug.