My sister Karma has always been the black sheep in our family. I don’t know how she ended up with that name but it suits her. For karma has not been kind to Karma and her participation in the murder of our grandmother was the strawberry on her ruined life’s cake.
We are a most ordinary family, residing on the coast of Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay and not too far from the Atlantic Ocean. Karma is the oldest child and I suspect that she got her name from her conception. Our parents were only married five months when Karma was born.
I am the middle child with a younger brother rounding out the family.
None of us were outstanding in any way, a most ordinary family. Dad worked as a bureaucrat for our small town’s finance office. Mom worked as a waitress periodically. Grandmother Parker lived down the road from us, an independent and feisty lady in her mid-60’s . She was widowed and lived on her own for over seven years the year she was murdered. Grandmother owned the home we lived in, in fact, but bought a smaller one for herself, close by to her only daughter, my mother, but with independence.
Karma began by lighting fires when she was eight years old. We kept finding piles of paper in strange places, mostly closets, all over the house. At first we didn’t know what to make of it, blaming it on one of our friends or another until it became impossible not to know that someone in this house was setting little bonfires all over the place.
We only found burnt papers at first but then one of our living room chairs caught on fire. Karma came to dinner that night with her bangs completely gone, burned to a hairy, ashy, and noticeably odiferous mess.
School mates began to have their pocketbooks stolen to be later found in Karma’s backpack, and to her complete surprise. Karma began to date and she picked the worst juvenile delinquents of the lot and soon keeping cash money in our house was risky, there was often a strange smell permeating our home and eventually it was difficult to keep the family car at home.
I make light of it, in a fashion, but it was horrendous living with Karma; all of us were beside ourselves.
“She’s been diagnosed as bi-polar, Betsy. She’s subject to boomeranging moods and it affects her behavior,” my Mom told me one day as I launched into yet another hissy fit over having a known criminal for a sister who’d just then taken my entire paycheck from my well hidden wallet. So the paycheck was only forty three bucks, it was a fortune to me.
Karma, or her then current delinquent boyfriend, broke into our little brother’s old Ford, ripped out his tape player, and sold it for drug money.
Well no, we didn’t really know, for sure, that it was Karma or her beau wreaking constant havoc on our family.
But we all knew it was her.
If Karma wasn’t actually doing the dirty deed, she was egging on some love-struck gang member to do the job.
Over the years my parents had tried everything, lest anyone suppose it was their fault. They punished her, lectured her, took her to counseling and rode the beltway to obtain proper protocol to fix Karma’s head up and make her act right.
It wouldn’t be so bad if Karma was a sneaky criminal, desperate not to get caught to better continue on her crime spree. But when the principal pulled a class mate’s pocketbook out of Karma’s backpack, when Karma came down the stair case wearing a dress I’d just bought, when any one of us were missing anything….Karma always gave a knowing, smirking smile, as if to assure us it was her and there was nothing we could do about it.
Karma went too far when she murdered Grandmother.
So okay, Karma, or her then current juvenile delinquent boyfriend, didn’t, technically, “murder” our grandmother, but that was their intent. I will always consider Karma as my beloved grandmother’s murderer even though she didn’t succeed at it. Just knowing that she tried, and got away with it, is enough for me to condemn and avoid.
Some might understand had our family retaliated against Karma’s thievery, her angering smugness, her attitude that what was hers was hers and what was ours was hers, that perhaps Karma wouldn’t have murdered Grandmother. One year Karma got a new typewriter for Christmas. I thought about sabotaging it, slamming it on concrete, breaking it into a million pieces. This was the week that Karma had somehow set my favorite living room chair on fire and smugly told me she doesn’t even own a lighter.
Mom went on about Karma’s possible pyromania which was Mom’s mental illness of the week’s explanation for Karma’s bad behavior. Dad would put his hands in his pockets and rock back in forth as if considering this pyromania, or bipolar disorder, or PTSD, whatever mental illness then upon. Dad absolutely looked like Mr. Clever of Leave it to Beaver. Only this Mr. Clever had the female version of Chucky as a daughter.
Technically KARMA didn’t murder Grandmother. For when Grandmother fell out of that sky over the Atlantic ocean on a beautiful June morning, it was Karma’s current delinquent beau who was suppose to be partnering with Grandmother as she made what had to be her fifth plunge from a parachute.
It was a birthday gift, in fact. After all what can you buy a budding senior who has everything? Ah!, so our family figured, how many budding seniors get to jump out of airplanes? So my parents, for the four years prior to Grandmother’s plunge to her almost-death, purchased an airplane ride and a parachute jump for her, thinking they were too cool and happening with this brilliant idea.
“Betsy, do me a favor,” Grandmother pulled me over one day when no one else in our family was around. “Somehow, some way, talk your parents into getting me something else for my birthday.”
I had been in a grandmotherly hug with Grandmother when she said this and darn if her voice didn’t seem to be quivering in fear. I pulled back and held Grandmother firmly by her shoulders as I looked seriously into her eyes. “You don’t like the parachute jumps?” I asked Grandmother, surprised at this to a state of shock.
Grandmother pulled away from our hug and went over to pour me a lemonade. “The first year I sort of liked it,” Grandmother said, plopping the lemonade down on the table and indicating I should sit.
It would turn out that Grandmother HATED the parachute jump and with each passing year she hated it more. “I’m not getting any younger, Bets, and you get scared easier when you get older. A simple fall can break a hip and leave one crippled.”
I sipped some lemonade and sat back in the chair. Once again Mom comes up with some simple explanation and boom, Grandmother is fit properly into her niche where she belonged.. As my Mom saw it, Grandmother should be filed under “older woman loving to sky dive for her birthday every year” and that was fine. Mom no longer had to worry about whether Grandmother liked the sky diving gift because, well, that was what she was filed under.
To be fair, I hasten to add, Grandmother always gushed about how much fun the skydiving was, how she couldn’t wait until her next birthday to do it again. What was my mother to think? “I didn’t want to hurt her feelings Betsy,” Grandmother explained. “But I just can’t do it anymore. My birthday is next week and at first I figured afterward I could tell Rachel that an even five, I’ve gotten older, let’s stop.”
I listed to Grandmother’s words and felt pity for her. Poor woman’s been dreading her birthday for the past five years, how sad was that? I vowed to find a way to tell Mom that maybe another birthday gift for Grandmother would be best.
Grandmother took a long noisy sigh as I felt sorry for her. She ran her fingers through her short light gray hair in exasperation. “I just can’t do it any more, Bets, not this year, not ever. Can you somehow tell your mother?”
I suppose it was a hopeless case. Mom didn’t listen to me as I cajoled her and begged her not to gift Grandmother with another parachute jump. “She told me she doesn’t like it, Mom!” I shouted to my dismissive mother.
“She gushes in joy every time she sky dives, Betsy,” my mother said, stopping and giving me a firm stare. “And….,” Mom continued in that self-important way she has at times, “When I asked her what she wanted this year she told me she’d love another parachute jump.”
Once again I was shocked. After Grandmother begging me to stop my mother from the sky-diving gift certificates she didn’t even have the courage to tell Mom herself? She couldn’t just suggest another gift, perhaps a hair appointment? I sighed and gave up. I figured Grandmother would be sky-diving once again.
Grandmother’s parachute did not open on that fateful day of her almost-death. Fortunately she was over a shallow part of the Mid-Atlantic when she “jumped” and the ocean water caught her fall.
Of course no one knew quite how it all went down and all were so relieved that Grandmother survived that horrible fall. There are many theories, many misunderstandings, some would say that Grandmother herself dropped the ball.
Somehow Karma’s then current thug-boyfriend ended up being the “guide” for Grandmother and her birthday sky dive. Sky diving guides are those folks who dive along with a sky-diver, perhaps to train them, perhaps to help the skittish, and naturally for these famous birthday sky dives, witness George Herbert Walker Bush and his famous birthday jumps from the sky.
Karma often speculated about how much money Grandmother had. “Mom told me Grandmother has a million dollar life insurance policy on herself, had it for over fifty years. It makes us kids recipients when she dies and we get double if she dies from an accidental death!” Karma once told me, late at night and after complaining endlessly about needing money for a new car.
I certainly did believe that Karma had something to do with Grandmother’s almost demise and the broken parachute. Of course something went awry at the last minute and Grandmother and her skydiving guide Karma-‘s-boyfriend-thug were over water when the thug somehow cut the cords on Grandmother’s parachute. Or maybe he cut them on the ground and put the defective chute on Grandmother before going up in the airplane.
If ever anything was a mess it was the mess of Grandmother’s annual birthday skydiving gifts that would end in her near death from, as I am sure, the hands of Karma, the evil one in our family.
Since that fateful day Grandmother almost had another suspicious “accident” involving the tampered with brake line of her car although the mechanic said it could have been from a freak accident. I almost stepped on a live power cord laying across a wet lawn. How it got there I cannot imagine but it was there and with me gone there would be one less heir to Grandmother’s money.
If Karma could ever get Grandmother out of the way.
The day of the snake, I just don’t know how to describe it. It was a copperhead, quite common in our area. Dad cooked some hamburgers on the barbecue that weren’t ready till twilight given everybody’s busy day. Karma sat in a low to the ground lawn chair that we used at the beach. The rest of us were in and out of the house, working the grill, getting ingredients, just a busy family all about, preparing the evening meal, finding the salt and pepper.
I noticed the snake by Karma’s chair as she sat absorbed in some magazine. The snake was close to her leg. I sure could have warned Karma though to startle her wouldn’t do as I later told the authorities. IF Karma were to jump the snake would surely strike from the surprise threat.
I decided to let the fate fall as it will.
The snake bit Karma, twice. She let out a cry and in one split second I turned around to span my surround.
Everybody was watching. My brother was over by the picnic table, watching. Dad was in the house but I could see his face in the kitchen window. Mom was standing by the sliding glass door, watching.
Grandmother, of note, was right by Karma’s chair but was hidden by a Rose-of-Sharon bush. In fact Grandmother jumped out from behind the bush after Karma was bitten the second time, and plunged a pitchfork in the snake’s neck.
Before killing the snake that it should not harm anyone else, Grandmother too was behind the bush, watching.