A tale of two sisters10/2/2013
“1971 sucked. My mom died a month before I turned 6, my granny died in June and my grandpa died in November. It was a sucking year. But look, all those things make you who you are. People are, ‘That’s so terrible.’ If that wouldn’t have happened to me, I wouldn’t be who I am right this second,” says Carla Dawson.
She hushes me with a finger, daring me to challenge her assertion. She’s already lumped me into the “that’s so terrible” group of misguided folks.
Before I can lie and claim innocence, Jackie Robinson, Dawson’s sister, one year older, echoes her sentiments.
“We wouldn’t be the women we are if things didn’t happen in our life the way they did,” she says.
Robinson talks patiently to me on my left. I’ve just been tag-teamed by professionals.
Thrown together at a young age by birth and then by death, the two sisters speak with one voice. Sentences are completed by each other. Ideas are batted back and forth so rapidly I am unsure whom to quote. Affirmations are given continuously by repetition of phrases. Their conversational relationship is the classic call-and-response of a preacher and congregation.
Robinson: “We didn’t like our brother-in-law.”
Dawson: “We didn’t like him.”
Robinson: “He was always hitting our sister. We’d hear them in the middle of the night. Fighting.”
Dawson: “Fighting. Bam! Bam!”
Robinson: “He’d be punching her.”
Dawson: “Choking her. Black eyes.”
Robinson: “The whole nine yards.”
Dawson: “The whole nine yards.”
The motherless Dawson and Robinson were shuffled among family members for a short time until they were taken in by their older sister, who already had two young babies and a husband “who was always beating her up.” The older sister would disappear for long periods, and Dawson and Robinson, still children, were left raising “two littles.” It was a complicated time.
“It got worse and worse,” Dawson says. “A group of girls at school threatened to beat us up. They didn’t like us. We would ignore them; they’d be calling us names. Our brother-in-law saw those girls calling us names: ‘If you let those girls chase you home one more day, if you don’t turn around and stand up for yourself and fight them, you’re going to have to fight me.’ So we were like, ‘Oh great.’ He was always fighting our sister; we don’t want to fight with him. We stop the group of girls the next day and said: ‘We are either going to have to fight, or you’re going to have to leave us alone, because if we don’t fight you and we go home, it’s not going to be good for us.’ So we fought them. We’d never been in a fight. We were all dusted up. We didn’t know how to fight. Next day same old thing. We had to fight them. Meanwhile our older sister was gone more and more and more. It left us with more responsibility. The youngest ‘little’ thought Jackie was the mom.”
Dawson and Robinson pause to look at each other, catching their breath. Their heated telling is visceral. Sweat has broken out on Dawson’s brow.
Any child would be affected by this life Dawson and Robinson were leading. But the violence and lack of supervision was compounded by the older sister and brother-in-law moving them from neighborhood to neighborhood in Des Moines, causing constant disruption of schools and friends. Disaster seemed to loom.
“While we were in middle school, our brother-in-law was fighting our sister just too much. Punching her in the face. Kicking her. Fighting. We decided — one time after she had a black eye, looking all crazy, and he was upstairs in the bathroom — me and Carla were done. We had had it. You know when you’ve had it. I squeezed in behind him. Carla was in the hallway. We both stepped up. We bum-rushed his ass into the shower. We beat the shit out of him. I mean kicking him and everything. We were really really fighting. We were done. We’d had enough,” Robinson preaches.
And Dawson answers for the congregation: “We beat the dog shit out of him. We said, ‘Get the rest of your shit, and get out.’ He never came back again. Never.”
It’s a quiet fall day in Des Moines. The air is crisp. The sun is shining. School is in session. The waiting room at Drake University Student Health Clinic has a smattering of students. A kind-faced woman behind the counter, multitasking with computer and phone, smiles broadly.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, hon,” she says.
Ah, you know you’re in safe hands.
A few miles away is another woman teaching at North High School. She’s bent over quietly talking to a student.
“You have to stop this. You have to handle you. It’s not about your friend. It’s about you handling you,” she says.
The student looks at her with worship. The student leaves, and the teacher fixes me with the same look she gave the student. I’m thinking I might need to shape up.
And at the end of the work day, after countless scenes of helping young people, the two women return home. Their home. A home they share together. A safe home. The home of two sisters. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.