In honor of my blog’s new name and look, I thought I would share another story from my sister-filled childhood.
There are some childhood behaviors in which I am pretty sure almost every set of siblings engage. Growing up in a family of all girls, there wasn’t as much of the beating each other to a pulp that my boyfriend and his brother are so familiar with. However, we definitely found cruel ways to torture each other. My older sister jumped out and scared me constantly, even making me wet myself once or twice. I paid her back by stealing from her like it was my job, her clothes, her makeup, and even her money, slyly siphoning a couple dollars in change from a huge jar in her bedroom on an almost daily basis throughout my entire junior high career. She figured it all out, of course, and screamed at me, and threatened me, and even shook me around a little bit, but it never really came to blows. Most sisters don’t really beat the shit out of each other like the boys do, at least my sisters and I never really felt compelled to move beyond the minor smacking and hair-pulling. In retrospect, however, the things we did could have easily caused much more damage than the occasional sibling throwdown.
My mom was a nurse on the maternity ward at the biggest hospital in my hometown. She worked the nightshift and spent most of my adolescence completely sleep-deprived. So, while we were pretty good kids, well-behaved in almost every way, we also knew that there were certain things my mom was completely unaware of. Because we were raised by a single working mother, there were certain expectations of us, and we probably spent more time alone than most kids our age. By the time I was ten, I was completely comfortable cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, etc. My little sister is two years younger, and we basically ran the household together whenever we had to. My mom didn’t really have much of a choice, so we did it. Dr. Spock may balk, but honestly, I think it was good for us in a lot of ways. It made us very independent and very confident in ourselves. I promise, I’m not scarred at all.
Following childbirth, many women are prone to passing out. This was the reason that all of the nurses on the ward where my mom worked had these fabulous inventions called ammonia capsules taped to their nametags or to the shoulders of their uniforms. If you’re unfamiliar, basically, an ammonia capsule is today’s version of smelling salts. It is a white paper capsule wrapped in tightly woven gauze and is about the size of the lid to a Bic pen. All a nurse has to do if a patient loses consciousness is bend it with her fingers until it makes a little snapping noise. It turns pink and gets kind of cold, and the shocking smell it emits, especially when placed right beneath the nose, is enough to send anyone running the other direction, even someone who was recently unconscious.
The ammonia capsules were pure evil. And they were everywhere. Laundry was one of my chores, and when I spied several sets of my mom’s pink scrubs in the hamper, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. I would carefully peel back the tape, remove the ammonia capsule from the soft flowery material of my mom’s scrub top, and then I would tuck it into my hiding place. I had an old coffee mug discreetly hidden behind the huge box of Tide with Bleach, and that is where I kept my booty (and of course when ammonia and bleach are mixed it creates something horrible like toxic nerve gas, so this was really smart on my part) I would wait a couple of weeks until I accumulated eight or ten of them, sometimes coming across some extras lying innocently on my mom’s nightstand, and then I would spend a few quiet evenings in my bedroom plotting my attack, or "doing homework" as I called it.
The best was to wait until my sister was sleeping and then snap one quickly, waving it silently beneath her tiny, freckled nostrils. She would awake with a scream, swinging her arms; I learned quickly to duck at the same time I snapped the capsule. Then I would wait until she fell back to sleep, and I would attack again. Sadly, I think my poor sister spent many of her formative years trying not to fall asleep. While all of the other kids were sleeping ten hours a night through their all-important growth spurts, poor little third-grade Courtney was drinking coffee and reading Stephen King in an effort to keep her eyes open. That may explain why I am over six feet while she stands five inches below.
The sleeping trick was fun, but it was also kind of obvious, plus she was getting really crabby, and I felt like she may be on the edge of telling on me. I had to find a new schtick. I’m proud to say that I tried and succeeded at several variations of the ammonia capsule game.
I was known for my prowess in jumping out from the dark bathroom into the hallway with a freshly snapped capsule as she was walking by. A quick hand to the face, and it was over.
Once, I held a little capsule in my hands and cupped them together. I told her I had caught a butterfly and she absolutely must see it. She bought it, and she actually gagged. I couldn’t have been happier.
Courtney was a smart kid, though, and eventually she caught on to me and found my Cup’o’ Capsules. She got pretty good with the ammonia capsule games herself and we spent two solid years torturing each other with these little medical marvels.
Eventually my mom found out. It was funny, because by the time she caught on, the thrill of the game had totally worn off, and neither of us had touched an ammonia capsule for almost a year. I think she must have found my stale stash collecting dust in the laundry room. She sat us down and proceeded with a very somber lecture about how the ammonia capsules were not toys and were very dangerous, and multiple exposures could cause permanent damage to a person’s nasal passage and even to her brain. She told us she was disappointed in us, and needed to be able to count on us to take care of each other. We apologized to her and promised that we wouldn’t play with the dreaded ammonia capsules ever again. And we kept to our word. Mostly. There was still the occasional ammonia attack as we grew up. I think it’s because nothing we’d encountered before or since could bring such a look of shock and horror and disgust to someone’s face. When you hold the ammonia capsule in your hand, you hold a lot of power.
After my mom’s lecture, and throughout my life I have been plagued with occasional scary thoughts about the damage my sister and I inflicted on each other’s brain function. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the reason I can’t do math and she can’t spell to save her life is very closely related to overexposure to ammonia during childhood. I’d be willing to bet it’s right up there with lead paint, and my college algebra professor would probably second that. Before the ammonia torture, I’m pretty sure we were both MENSA-bound, and now we must settle for this mediocrity that we’re left with, struggling desperately to function in mainstream society.
I’m sure that if Social Services knew what we were up to, my mom could have gotten in a lot of trouble. I mean, her children were chasing each other through the house armed with abrasive chemicals; I think they tend to frown on that. I definitely do not know any other brothers and sisters who did anything that ridiculous as kids, and I'm positive my sister would freak if she caught her two little ones into something like that. But you know what? It is one of my favorite, most hilarious memories of growing up with my sister, and we still laugh about it all the time.
We are so deranged. It must be all of that ammonia.