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A Story in Five Acts

by John RC Potter
Edited by Kayla Sosa & Blaire Grady
First Act

“You’re in big trouble now!” I shouted out the upstairs bedroom window into the inky black night. At that precise moment when I was feeling very big about it all – telling, more than warning, my oldest sister that she was in for it – the storm window inexplicably dropped with a sudden whoosh. The middle finger of my left hand bore the brunt of the fallen window and the nail was shattered in two, blood gushing from the wound.

There were three of us huddled around the bedroom window that late evening: my sister Jo Ann, who was two years older than me, and my sister Laurie, who was two years older than her. It was the late winter of 1967, the year of Canada’s centenary, which was celebrated across the country. Perhaps more importantly, it was the year that my oldest sister, Cheri, had a turning point in her young life: at fourteen she was discovering boys, exploring her femininity, and uncovering the more troubled side of her personality. She had gone with a group of students to Expo ’67 in Montreal earlier that year, which may or may not have been the catalyst for her rebellious and complicated nature that was always just under the surface.

That evening our father was working late as usual at the gas station he owned in the town of Clinton. In addition, he also farmed; and in fact during his entire life, Dad always had two if not three jobs in order to provide for his large and expanding family. We lived on the family farm off the first side road to the west of town. Our mother had five children by that point, between the ages of fourteen (Cheri) and five (my youngest sister, Barb), with my three oldest sisters having been born within the duration of four years. This was not untypical of farm wives at that time, nor of generations earlier.

Unfortunately, due to Dad’s long hours at work, it fell on Mom’s shoulders to raise and discipline her brood. When Cheri became a young teenager and was increasingly more rebellious and difficult to manage, our mother no doubt despaired. Mom had dealt with bad nerves and sporadic poor mental health for many years, the worst of which had been after my sister, Jo Ann was born, when she was in a deep depression for many months. Since then our mother had mostly good mental health, and even during difficult times, she was first and foremost an attentive, loving and caring mother to all of us. Although each of us had our moments when we tested our mother’s patience, Cheri’s teenage rebellious streak must have been a great trial for her.

On that eventful evening back in the winter of ’67, our oldest sister had gone out with friends after school and not returned. My other sisters and I knew that Mom was both worried and upset because she suspected Cheri was in with a bad crowd. Our mother would have been in communication with Dad at the garage, but he could not leave work and expected that Cheri would soon come home.

As the evening progressed and Cheri had still not come home, our mother became increasingly agitated. It was a school night and Mom told us to go to bed. My three older sisters slept in the large bedroom at the top of the stairs that had two double beds in it (one for Cheri, the other for Laurie and Jo Ann). I had the smaller bedroom just off the large bedroom, with a curtain for a door. Laurie, Jo Ann and I were in our respective beds when we heard the low rumble of a vehicle coming up the road. I jumped out of my bed and ran to join my sisters at their window. The car’s lights were out, but from the sound we knew the vehicle was running.

We opened the bedroom window and peered into the night, trying to see what was happening in the car. We were certain that our sister, Cheri, was in that vehicle. Finally, she emerged from the passenger’s side of the car: in her faux fur mini jacket, tight clothing and go-go boots. I pushed up the window in order to hear what was being said, and it was at that moment I yelled out the window to my sister: “You’re in big trouble now!” Then the window fell and sliced my fingernail open.

I ran downstairs and into the kitchen, and my poor mother, already obviously stressed beyond endurance, heard my tale of what had happened. She guided me to the bathroom and turned on the cold water to run over my bleeding finger with its split-open nail. The bathroom was just off the kitchen, and through the open door my mother and I could see my sister Cheri saunter into the kitchen. Cheri wondered what had happened to me, no doubt in an attempt to divert attention away from herself. My mother was shaking with rage and relief, in one commingled emotion. She had been worried sick that her daughter could well have been abducted or in a difficult situation, although no doubt commonsense told Mom exactly what Cheri was up to during her long absence. My mother, who rarely struck her children, said that Cheri would be getting punished with the belt. I was staring in amazement from the bathroom, the cold water still pouring over my numbed and nearly frozen finger, as my mother chased my sister around the kitchen table. Cheri was actually laughing, which only incensed my mother further. As Mom went to grab Cheri, my sister’s faux fur jacket came off in my mother’s hands. Cheri went running out of the house and into the cold winter night, on a journey that would have many repercussions for the rest of her life.

Second Act

In the late 60s in small towns throughout Canada unwed mothers were a rarity. Normally, when parents discovered that an unwed daughter was pregnant, she went away for several months: this was ostensibly to visit relatives or for some other hastily-devised reason, and then returned home looking the same on the outside but having changed on the inside. The errant daughter would have given birth at some other place, and the baby registered with an adoption agency.

In 1968 my sister, Cheri, turned fifteen. When my parents discovered Cheri was pregnant in the fall, and that the father of her child was no longer on the scene, they insisted that she remain in our home and that they would assist her in raising the baby. As you can imagine, it was the talk of the town of Clinton. It was, in short, a scandal. Cheri was at all times in her life rather a rebel, and in this instance, a real trailblazer. She led the way for other young girls who ended up ‘in the family way’ to continue to live at home, have their babies and raise them in the familial home.

Subsequently, after the late 60s, it was no longer an uncommon occurrence in our community and no doubt across the country. In their decision to have Cheri remain at home during her pregnancy, in their own way my parents were indeed role models. They did the right thing. Although their marriage was not always happy, our parents were united in their deep love for their children, and could forgive them for any mistakes they made in their lives. Their love for us was, at all times and until their deaths years later, unconditional.

After the fall and the rather dramatic disclosure by Cheri to our parents about her pregnancy, at the onset of the winter of 1968 our family life had pretty much settled back into its normal routine. Despite only just having my first birthday in the double digits, I was thrilled to find out I would be an uncle and that there would be a new baby in the house!  My younger sister, Barb, had been born in 1962 and it seemed quite a long time since we had a baby in the house. Aside from the severe postpartum depression that she experienced after the birth of my sister, Jo Ann, the happiest times of my mother’s life were during her pregnancies, and whenever she had a new baby to care for and fuss over. Thus, Cheri’s pregnancy was welcomed by my mother as well as by my father. We knew it would be a baby girl.

Cheri and I would pore over the baby books that our mother had kept when each of her children had been born. In those books a mother could record names and important details, the illnesses of the baby, weight, and so forth. I had always enjoyed the section devoted to an alphabetical list of names that parents could give to a son or daughter. Cheri and I would make lists of possible baby names, and of course the first and middle names had to be just picture-perfect when read out loud or seen written on a piece of paper.

Apparently our parents and sisters were fine with the two of us selecting her names. Cheri favoured naming her Tina. I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in the living room and discussing the advantages and disadvantages of that name. A thought had occurred to me. What if the baby ended up being premature or a physically small child, or conversely, a chubby child? Then she would perhaps be teased by other children, and called ‘Tiny’. I pressed my point with Cheri, who saw the logic in it.

In one of the baby books I saw the name Nina. I suggested it instead because it was similar yet distinctive, with an international flavour to it. Cheri loved it too. I remember reading it was a popular Eastern European name at the time and that intrigued me. I had also read it was a name used by Native Americans and it meant ‘strong’. I mentioned this to Cheri. Even though I was only ten years old, I already knew the as-yet-unborn baby girl would have to be strong in order to cope with the reality of being the daughter of an unwed mother. Ironically, the surname of the absentee father was ‘Strong’. Choosing the middle name was simpler: we both liked the name Louise. She would become Nina Louise Potter; and she was born in April of that year.

I had always been close to my sisters, despite the typical bickering and fighting that is common with siblings. However, during the winter of 1968 and into the spring of 1969, Cheri and I became very close. Her world must have been so limited. I do not recall any of her friends visiting our house, except for my other sister’s friends from the neighbourhood. Cheri really only had her family. My other two older sisters were busy with their teenaged lives. Out of necessity Cheri appreciated her younger brother who took such an interest in the unborn baby. I was a nighthawk as a child (even on school nights) and would sit up with Cheri watching talk shows and old movies. Cheri would often make grilled cheese and onion sandwiches for us to munch on as we watched late night television.

My parents and Cheri knew that due to her young age, not yet sixteen years old, that she would probably require a Cesarean section. She would have the baby at a hospital in London, a one-hour drive to the south. The big day arrived. I can remember being so very excited as I waited at home. Barb and I were left in the care of our older sisters, and all of us were keen to hear the news that the new baby had finally arrived. The next day Mom and Dad took Barb and me to the hospital in London. Our sisters, Laurie and Jo Ann stayed at home. The hospital had its own playground beside the main building. Barb and I played on the equipment there. Mom and Dad told us which floor Cheri’s room was on and to be ready and watching. As Barb and I played on the slide and rocked back and forth on the swings, we watched expectantly upward. She had a day of rest after her C-section and she was able to get out of bed. It was then when we saw Mom and Dad at a window on an upper floor, with Cheri beside them, holding a little baby in her arms. It was such an exciting moment, my first, albeit distant view, of the gorgeous little girl whose presence would brighten all our lives.

Third Act

In retrospect it was probably not realistic to expect that Cheri would be content to live at home as an unwed, teenage mother. When Nina was a baby, Cheri got a job in order to earn wages, but no doubt in reality because she was also overwhelmed with her maternal duties. Our mother was a very young grandmother, thirty-seven at the time, but she readily took on the role as the baby’s main caregiver with Cheri out in the working world. It was inevitable that Cheri would want to have some fun, to have a life. She began to date again. She was often not at home because she was working and enjoying her social life. A few years went by, then one day Cheri simply did not come home. Still in her late teens, she had left to live with an older man (he was in his late twenties or early thirties, as I recall). My parents had never met this man and did not know anything about him, nor where he lived, although they were aware it was somewhere nearby in the vicinity of Clinton.

Cheri could not bear the thought of being a parent and a teenager at the same time. She wanted a future; one without a baby in tow. Our parents knew that Cheri was alive and well, but had done a runner. It must have been heartbreaking for Mom and Dad, as well as for Nina who, even though she was only a toddler, must have known her mother was suddenly no longer there. It was the way Cheri wanted it to be, it was her decision. Cheri later told us that she knew it was the best for her daughter and that my parents could give her a better life. Ultimately Nina’s grandparents became her parents, and my niece became my sister.

After a period of time, Cheri began to communicate and started to come home for visits. She preferred to refer to Nina as her sister from that point onward, and unfortunately, for years to come. Cheri had established a new life with the man she had run away with. He was a successful businessman, and able to give Cheri a comfortable lifestyle. Cheri had a new job and new friends, as well as a sports car, compliments of her partner. Cheri would come to visit us on the farm and when she would get up to go after her visit, invariably Nina – not yet of school age – would stand in front of the kitchen door and try to prevent Cheri from leaving. Again. In a twist of fate, in the mid-1970s Cheri had reconnected with Nina’s absentee father and married him. The marriage was a brief and sometimes dangerous rollercoaster ride. Out of the short and volatile union, the only bright spot was the birth of another daughter, Kristina. Cheri left her dark knight, a volatile and unpredictable man. She went back to work and raised her second daughter on her own, something she was unable to do with her first. Nina continued to be raised by my parents as their daughter. At least in part in order to keep Nina company, when she was only three years old, my parents had their final child, my brother, Jason.

Fourth Act

Cheri’s life took a turn for the better when she met and married a “good guy” from Clinton. Doug was five years younger than Cheri. He had, in fact, been a classmate of mine in high school. Together they had a son, named Jonathan. Years passed by in the proverbial blink of an eye. My mother passed away in 1996 after a three-year losing battle with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. A few years later, my father died just three months after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

I had been a teacher in Canada for several years, but I wanted to fulfill my dream to teach overseas. The year after my mother died, I segued into international education when I accepted my first teaching job abroad in Indonesia. I later moved to Turkey, initially as a teacher but soon undertaking my first leadership post at a school in Istanbul. I later moved to the United Arab Emirates, then back to Turkey.

It was in the spring of 2013 when Cheri, Laurie, and Barb had come to visit me when I was living and working in Izmir. Jo Ann was not fond of the long flight and had decided that it was enough to prevent her from returning to Turkey ever again. It was during the visit that Cheri received a disturbing telephone call: Nina was in the hospital, in critical care. She was very ill with pneumonia, which was further complicated by her weight. Nina had been an adorable, chubby baby and toddler; by school age she had become overweight, and eventually as an adult she was obese. In addition, she struggled with an addiction to opiates.

When Cheri called the hospital in Canada to ask about Nina’s prognosis and to speak with her, the nurse inquired as to Cheri’s relationship with Nina. Cheri responded that she was her sister. The nurse informed Cheri that due to Nina being in critical care, she would not transfer the call to her, only to a parent, husband or partner. Cheri hung up the telephone and turned to look at Barb, Laurie, and me. I stared at her in disbelief and implored Cheri to call the hospital again and inform the nurse that she was in fact Nina’s mother.

Due to Nina’s weight and other health-related issues like high blood pressure and cholesterol for which she took medication, I was not the only one in our family who was worried about her longevity. Cheri’s concern for Nina overrode any hesitation she previously had and she picked up the phone again to the hospital, but this time her call was put through to her daughter. When Cheri spoke with Nina she told her that as her mother how concerned she was about her and that she loved her. Nina had known since childhood that Cheri was her birth mother, but unfortunately my oldest sister had avoided discussing it with her. It was long overdue and perhaps too late. 

Nina recovered from the pneumonia which had hospitalized her. We discovered only months later that she had stopped taking her medications and, as we unfortunately suspected, Nina was still struggling with her addiction to opiates. When I returned to Canada for an annual summer visit that year, I noticed that Nina had gained even more weight and had become extremely obese. It was obvious that any activity was a stress on her. Even breathing and walking had become a chore. I told my sisters that I was extremely worried about her and the strain that her weight must have been exerting on her heart.

They tried to get Nina to go to the doctor, but she always had an excuse. Perhaps she did not want to hear any bad news. During that visit, sitting at home with Nina, I decided to tell her that a year before I had made her twin sons, who were due to start high school that fall, my beneficiaries in my living will. Nina had never married, nor revealed to us the father of her twins. For years Nina had struggled with finding and keeping work; she was always short of funds despite the monthly financial assistance from my sisters and I. I did not want Nina to worry about the future of her sons in case anything happened to her.

Less than a month later, in late August, I received a telephone call from my sister Barb, who was upset and crying. Nina had suddenly passed away in her sleep from a heart attack, at the age of forty-four. On the long flight back from Istanbul I wrote her eulogy, remembering the beautiful little girl whose birth had brightened the lives of our family, particularly mine, all those years ago.

Cheri and Doug became legal guardians for Nina’s teenaged sons. It was a few years after Nina’s passing when one night one of her sons made the fateful decision to go for a joy ride on a country road with a friend. The young teenager driving was going too fast and unfortunately lost control of the car. My nephew was ejected from the car and sustained life-threatening injuries including brain trauma; his friend, the driver, was not injured. News from the hospital was that the injuries were too severe for him to survive. As I flew home from Istanbul, I worried if my nephew would be alive when I reached the hospital. Everyone was praying for a miracle. Fortunately, over a period of months following surgery and physical therapy my nephew was released, though it would be a long road to recovery and the start of a changed life.

Fifth Act

The pandemic affected everyone’s lives. In my case it was the backdrop to my sister Cheri’s bout of poor physical and mental health. She had been diagnosed with polymyalgia rheumatica and was prescribed prednisone. Like people the world over, my siblings and I began to connect via Zoom on a monthly basis. It allowed us to keep in touch and have some laughs; our family has always been known to have a wonderful sense of humour and we enjoyed having fun together. I referred to the virtual conversations as our “Zoom Doom Chats,” which we all laughed about.

It was during the first year of Covid that Cheri’s behaviour changed. She had become increasingly more erratic. Then almost inexplicably Cheri left her husband and moved into an apartment. It was apparently due to the medication that she had to take for her condition, which she was not always consistent in frequency and dosage when administering. After a few months of living on her own, Cheri got back on track with her meds, gave up her apartment, and returned home.

When I had individual chats with my other sisters they too expressed concern about Cheri and her mental health. Cheri had always appeared to be an ‘up person’ and the life of the party; but there was another side to my sister, an unhappy and troubled one. During the pandemic, Cheri’s mood often became darker and it was sometimes evident during our Zoom Doom Chats, although there would be glimpses of her wry sense of humour. In April of 2021, my sister Jo Ann, with whom I had always been very close, passed away suddenly of a heart attack. Her death was a blow to all of us, but I think it was particularly difficult for Cheri due to her own issues. The Zoom Doom Chats had continued, but with one less sibling. However, they were no longer monthly nor as light-hearted as they had been prior to Jo Ann’s death. In March of 2022 I suggested we have a chat when I was on my spring break. Laurie, Barb and I had no idea that would be our last virtual chat with Cheri. In retrospect, it occurred to me that Cheri had seemed somewhat preoccupied. A few days later, after she had said her good-byes to her husband and my nephew as they left for work, Cheri took her own life.

What was she thinking of 
when she went into her bedroom 
with the step-stool and the cord, 
and looked out at the view 
from her closet door?

My remaining siblings and I have discussed this a few times, trying to make sense of something that is unknowable and unfathomable. We will never know. We hope and trust that in death our eldest sister finally found the profound peace that often eluded her in life. 

Family dynamics are unique and yet there can be commonalities between households. Each family has its joyous and happy times, as well as its share of sadness and sorrow. Each family member plays a role in the overall relationship of the whole group. I was a middle child, a bookworm, a dreamer who believed anything was possible, and to never give up hope. I was the glue in the family, and the joker whose role it was to jolly up any proceeding with humour and wit. That continued throughout the years, up to and including the virtual chats with my siblings during the pandemic. A friend wrote to me regarding all the tragedy my family had encountered over the years, most recently my sister having taken her own life. Yet, I don’t perceive it as a tragedy, nor the events, incidents, and acts that preceded it. I view it as life writ large; that we must find the silver lining behind any dark cloud; finally, that we should count our blessings and be thankful for what remains behind. Life is for the living.

John’s sister, Cheri

Other Anthology I works by John RC Potter: Chiaroscuro and Dead Roses

John RC Potter is an international educator & gay man from Canada, who lives in Istanbul.  He has experienced a revolution (Indonesia), air strikes (Israel), earthquakes (Turkey), boredom (UAE), & blinding snow blizzards (Canada), the last being the subject of his story, “Snowbound in the House of God” (The Memoirist, 2023). When in high school John had the opportunity to interview the Nobel Prize winning author, Alice Munro, who resided in his hometown. It inspired John to begin creative writing, & is the subject of his story, “In Search of Alice Munro” (Blank Spaces, 2023; Bosphorus Review of Books, 2022). His poems & stories have been published in: Memoirist, The Stygian Lepus, Fireworks Story Magazine, Plenitude, Fiction on the Web, The Globe Review, Fragmented Voices, The Write Launch, Literary Yard, Down in the Dirt, Bosphorus Review of Books, The National Library of Poetry & Jabberwocky. Upcoming creative writing will appear in: Creatopia, Suspended Magazine, Wayward Literature & The Stray Branch.

Kayla Sosa, managing editor of Strangers & Karma, is also a professional writer & editor. View her biography here. For inquiries or collaboration, please email.

Blaire Grady has hardcore Imposter Syndrome. She’s just happy to present unique content & work with literary & visual artists. A dream come true for her. For inquiries, please email.