My big sister always manages to say just what I need to hear.
Except when she doesn't.
When we were little girls and our parents split up, she told me it was for the best and that sisters always stick together.
When our baby brother was born blind, she told me it would never matter to anybody except to people who didn't matter.
When I noticed that our family -- our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins by the dozen -- seemed a bit different somehow from other people's kin, she told me flat-out: All families are crazy, and ours, at least, was a lot more fun.
When I got a scholarship to go to college, leaving her at home with three sweet babies and a sour marriage, she told me to study hard, make her proud and remember to shave my legs.
Years later, when my first husband died, she flew from South Carolina to California, took care of my kids and all the casserole dishes and told me to go to bed.
And that summer, on a trip to Mexico, she told me to shut up and sit still while we had our picture made in the flea-bitten arms of a live chimpanzee.
I never know what she's going to say next. I'm never sure how to anticipate it, with happiness or dread. Generally, it's both.
In recent years, when we talk on the phone, we start with a commiseration contest. One of us will list our latest complaint, then the other will try to top it.
It's about 50-50, who wins.
A few days ago, for example, I called to tell her that the cream the dermatologist prescribed to fade a spot on my cheek did not fade a thing. Instead, it turned my whole face redder than the rear end of a turkey. Which, I had to admit, did make the spot a lot less noticeable. Especially after my face began to peel.
"That's nothing," she said. "The cat just mistook my pocketbook for a litter box."
"Oh, no! Did you keep it?"
"The pocketbook or the cat?"
"Whatever," I said, "you win."
Then she told me her really big news. She'd been feeling a bit off (more than her usual) and was scheduled for some tests.
"Bad ones?" I said.
"Is there any other kind?"
"Promise to call me as soon as you get the results?"
"I promise," she said.
She forgot. So I called her house. No answer. Then her cell.
"McFarland's Funeral Home," said an unfamiliar voice.
"I'm sorry," said the voice, "this phone belonged to one of our, um, customers. I'll see if any of the family is still here."
For a moment, it gave me serious pause. But only for a moment. My sister fools some people. But she can't fool me.
"I cannot believe you could be that mean to me," I said.
She laughed like it was funny. If you ask her, she'll try to justify it by saying I once poured Diet Pepsi down her pants. Which, OK, I did. Never mind why. It was years ago. And besides, she had it coming. But getting Diet Pepsi poured down your pants is not the same thing as pretending to your only sister that you're dead. It's not even close.
"So what about your test results?" I said.
Then came the news that made me forget all about, more or less, every bad thing that she has ever said or done to me.
"All fine," she said, "normal."
I choked back an urge to comment on "normal." No explanation of how she's been feeling, but "all fine, normal" sounded pretty good to me.
Suddenly I was feeling a tiny bit guilty for having poured that Diet Pepsi down her pants, even if she absolutely deserved it.
So I made a solemn vow (to myself, not to her) that as long as she stays "all fine, normal," I will never, ever pour another Diet Pepsi down her pants.
It won't be a hard vow to keep. These days I drink Diet Coke.intelligencer
Sharon Randall is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (www.sharonrandall.com).Diana Nelson Jones and "Walkabout" are off today.