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My first best friend

If you're under 10 don't read this, for, though I'm loath to admit it, what's to come is comparable to telling a youngster not to stick beans up his nose.m On the other hand, dear reader, if you've abandoned the innocence of childhood like those tired toys we've all eventually left behind, read on. For perhaps as I share with you the earliest memories of my big sister, you'll catch a whiff of that long-forgotten joy -- a time when you hadn't yet learned how to be "grown up."

Sister was my first, really my best, teacher; for she had a full year, eight days, and two hours' more experience than I had at being a child. That's a lot when you're only a little boy of 4 or 5. most of the year it didn't bother me at all. I'd willingly allow myself to be cajoled into her schemes by her gleerful hints of secrets rewards or dire predictions of what happens to those who break the code of "the birthday girl." You see, for most of each year -- save for those measly eight days and two hours -- Sister's birthday was yet to come and mine was to follow. That meant, she logically explained to me, she was to be waited on hand and foot and catered to without question. I would comply, silently anticipating the day when her birthday had come and gone and it would at last be my turn to luxuriate in the joys of being "the birthday boy." But it didn't work out quite the way I expected. The morning after Sister's birthday I tested my newly won status.

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"Sister, I'm 'the birthday boy.' Fix me some toast."

She didn't even look up from her paper dolls as she casually remarked that "the birthday boy/girl" pact only applied when you were one year apart; and since shem was now technically two years older than I and would be for the eight days until my birthday had come and gone and she was once more "the birthday girl," it was Im who should be fixing herm the toast.

"Want jelly on it?" I queried as I complacently trotted off to meet the rigors of my calling.

Why, you ask, would I allow myself to be taken in by such reasoning? And not just once, either. All through my childhood from birthday to birthday. Answer? To me Sister could do no wrong. There was no one smarter. No one braver. No one. I worshiped her and to this very day I know that she also worshiped me. Of course, I don't see why she shouldn't have. After all, I was her only sibling and, consequently the only one in our intimate family little enought to make her feel like an adult. It was a reciprocal agreement, to say the least.

We each had our own friends and, as I recall, lots of them. But no one could match Sister's ingenuity for sheer entertainment. Not only was she on intimate terms with Santa Claus and Mary Poppins (the three of them evidently had long conferences the minute I'd gone to sleep), but she also knew all there was to know about outer space and how to tell the difference between male dogs and female dogs (females have curly hair). And she knew more about late night entertainment than Carson and Cavett put together.

And as for those treasured times we shared when sleep refused to come . . .! We'd tell each other stories. We'd make up songs -- whole musical extravaganzas replete with bed sheet costumes and mattress tap dances -- all performed in giggling whispers, for we were well aware of the consequences should our nocturnal games be discovered.

And there were the daytime games, too! Like refugee. Every child plays it, though there are a number of variations. Experts agree it's generally played on a rainy day. You gather all your most precious possessions - dolls, toy tool set, play money, etc. -- and you cram them into a corner of your bedroom, along with every blanket and pillow in the house and any unfortunate pet you might happen to have. Then you and your Sister burrow under this linen and toy haystack and stay there for at least eight hours pretending to hide from the Japanese or Nazis or VC or any other enemy that happens to be in vogue at the time.

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And then there's "bridge." It took me years to discover that Sister and I didn't play it quite the same way as the adults did. Our version went something like this: you push your two beds to within a foot of each other. Then, as you lie with legs on one bed and arms, head and torso on the other, Sister tightropes on top of you back and forth until you yell for mercy. After that it would be her turn to "play the dummy," and it's to her credit she never once shirked her duty. We'd stroll on top of each other tirelessly feeling very urbane and sophisticated, actually delighted that we were playing a game our mother and her friends enjoyed!

Games are one thing; the milliseconds we shared were another. There were millions of those fleeting instants which are most often forgotten but somehow in their totality evoke the stuff of which a happy past is made. When I'm waiting for a taxi or draining time before an appointment, I often search my memory for them:

Like the time Sister and I asked, "Momma, am I Capricorn or am I Jewish?"

"Oops! You missed a spot. Hand me the spray can, will you, Sister?"

"Can I borrow a dime?" "Only if you eat it." "OK."

And then it happened. I think she was 11. It was the first time I saw my sister hold another boy's hand. I was never so hurt and disappointed in my whole life. In that hair- splitting second I somehow knew that the magical childhood we shared had ended. Oh, there were still moments, of course, but for all intents and purposes it was over.

We grew up and grew apart; and there was a time we had a fight and didn't speak for three years. But no man who's had my sister for a bridge partner could ever stop loving her.

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