Irene’s Sister

This is a story of 19, the year that the schools did not open on time, the year that plague descended and caught us as terrified and as defenseless as though we were inhabitants in some medieval city faced with a new and terrible sickness.

I was a child at that time. My friends and I did not understand. We asked questions but the grown-ups were as confused and as frightened as ourselves. “It’s infantile paralysis,” they told us. “It kills you or else it leaves you crippled forever. Don’t go too close to anybody and don’t touch any­thing that a strange child has handled.”

Fear held us so completely that we forgot how to laugh or to play. I can remember lying in bed at night waiting for the disease to strike at me. I had no idea what form it might take and I lay very quietly praying that when next I wished to move my legs or arms I would be able to do so as I had always done in the past.

There was one among us, however, who had no fear of the terrible plague. That girl was Irene Crane. In my mind’s eye I can still see her as she was back there in those difficult days. She was a yellow-haired child with a happy ring to her laughter and the greatest capacity for fun of anyone I’ve ever known. She was the school beauty, popular with teach­ers and pupils alike and if she was not the most intelligent of our group that was easily forgiven for one does not ex­pect to find genius in a flower.

Irene had a sister who was a year younger. Her mother called her Caroline, but outside the house she was known simply as Irene’s sister. It was natural for her to be Irene’s sister just as it was natural for us to be a nameless group of girls known as Irene’s friends. Irene was the center of our small world and we revolved about her brilliance and asked for no recognition for ourselves. Irene’s sister, conscious of her inability to compete with the beauty and enhancing manner of Irene, was perfectly content to be only a pale reflection of our yellow-haired commander.

Only once were we unable to think with Irene. That was when she said: “I’m not scared of that infantile paralysis. We won’t get it. You’ll see. None of us will.”

We were ashamed of our fears but there they were just the same.

I can remember the day that we all went over to Ginny Smith’s house for games and light refreshments. For our health’s sake, the grown-ups looked upon the party with some doubts, but for the good of our morale they consented.

“After all,” they said to one another, “it’s the same group of girls who see each other almost every day anyway. It’ll be all right.”

“It’s the same group except for Irene’s sister.” She hadn’t been invited because she was not in our grade at school and Ginny Smith hadn’t known that Irene had a sister.

“It doesn’t matter,” Irene said. “Caroline isn’t feeling well. She has an upset stomach, I guess.”

The games were fun, the food was wonderful, we thought. It had been a beautiful day in which we all seemed to forget for a while that something strange and terrible walked everywhere about us beyond the pleasant comfort of Ginny Smith’s house. We were just collecting our hats and coats, ready to leave, and thanking Ginny for a lovely day when the phone rang.

I can still see Ginny Smith’s mother as she stood talking on that phone. I can see the look of horror that appeared upon her face. I can still see the tears that were in her eyes when she hung up the receiver and turned to face us.

“Irene,” she said in a choked voice, “that was your mother. Your sister has infantile paralysis. You can’t go home. You’ll have to stay here.” There was a horrible pause. Then, “It’s too late for us to be afraid of you, child. You’ve been here all day.”

We went away without touching Irene, some of us with­out speaking to her. The plague had reached out and struck at us. We hurried home afraid of each other, ashamed of our fear and unable to keep back the thought that tomorrow we would all be attacked by death or lameness.

Irene stayed with the Smiths’, I suppose. I don’t know. I hurried home and wrote at once to my father. It must have been an emotional, crazy little letter in which I begged him to come and get me and take me to safety somewhere, anywhere. I did not know that the plague was widespread. I thought it was just in our town. Anyway my father came and took me away. I went happily, thankfully, but I did not know as I went that it would be fifteen years before I ever saw that town again.

I was a woman when I returned to visit and the first night I was back I was surprised to find that my hostess’s living room was decorated as though for a party.

“Just the old group,” she explained, “and their husbands. You remember Ginny Smith, Lila Day, the Crane girls and that group.”

A strange feeling of terror ran through me at the mention of the Crane girls. I was a child again frightened before a terrible mysterious force that wanted to kill me.

“I remember them all,” I said. “How are the Crane girls?” “The same as ever, just exactly the same. One popular and one a complete failure.”

“It’s cruel to say that,” I protested. “Caroline had paral­ysis. How can you expect her to be—”

“But it’s Irene who’s the failure. She’s silly. Remember how she used to laugh and play jokes all the time? She’s still the same, but now everything she says sounds a little silly. But you can’t invite Caroline without inviting Irene so we-”

“But is Caroline well?”

“Of course she is. She had good care and good sense used on her and she’s as fine as anyone. A lot finer, I guess. She went through so much pain and suffering that she has more depth and understanding than most people. She’s so strong and dependable. Of course she thanks her doctor and her nurse and her mother for everything and they say that it was Caroline’s patience and courage that helped them to help her. Wait till you see her. She’s—”

It was at that moment that the doorbell rang and that my hostess’s mother, who was looking out of an upstairs win­dow, called to us. I’ll never forget her words. She called, “Daughter, go to the door. It’s Caroline’s sister.”

My hostess looked at me and laughed. “What did I tell you?” she said.


  1. Of what “plague” is the author speaking in this story?

Infantile paralysis

  1. Why was Irene Crane so popular as a child?

She was happy and beautiful.

  1. Why was Irene’s sister Caroline always referred to, outside of her home, simply as Irene’s sister?

Because to them, everything revolved around Irene.

  1. Was Irene’s sister jealous of Irene’s popularity or was she content to be only a “pale reflection” of her more popular sister?

She was content.

  1. Why did the grown-ups look with some doubts upon the party at Ginny Smith’s house?

They were worried about their kids getting infected.

  1. Why hadn’t Irene’s sister been invited to this party?

She hadn’t been invited because she was not in their grade at school and Ginny Smith hadn’t known that Irene had a sister.

  1. Just as the girls were leaving the party, what sad message did Mrs. Smith receive by phone?

Caroline got infected.

  1. Why did the author write to her father asking him to take her away from this town?

She thought that she would be away from the plague if she was out of town.

  1. When, finally, did she return to this town?

When she was an adult.

  1. What changes had occurred in the Crane girls in the meantime?

Caroline became the popular one, and Irene became the failure.


Vocabulary and Idiom Review

A. Match the word in the left-hand column with its OPPOSITE in the right-hand column:

  1. popular — unpopular
  2. happy — sad
  3. late — early
  4. strong -weak
  5. upstairs — downstairs
  6. true — false
  7. lower — higher
  8. hard — soft
  9. lost — found
  10. dirty — clean


B. Use the following expressions in sentences of your own:

  1. I don’t want to be known as an unreliable person.
  2. We’re doing this for the good of the public
  3. I like to play jokes on my brother
  4. We’ve been here for a while.
  5. I was in prison in the past.
  6. I don’t like it when people hang up on me.
  7. I wouldn’t want my work not to matter.
  8. I stay up late at night.
  9. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.
  10. We never went bowling after all.
  11. I like to be either early or on time.
  12. I could sleep all day.


C. Nouns can be formed from some verbs by adding the ending –ment.

For example: They met together to decide how the country should be governed; the government they established has lasted almost two hundred years.

Change the following verbs to nouns by adding –ment. Then use each of the resulting words in a sentence of your own:

  1. development- His knowledge in the field isn’t very developed, therefore this project’s development is on hold.
  2. refreshment- I noticed the party goers needed some refreshing drinks, so I ordered some refreshments.
  3. establishment- My friend had a dream of establishing her own business, now she runs her won establishment.
  4. improvement- I gave her some writing tips to help improve her writing and I can already see the improvement.
  5. management- She’s always been good at managing others, that’s why she was promoted to a position in management.
  6. employment- The employment rates are low in my town, so I was very surprised that I managed to get employed.
  7. retirement- He was old enough to retire, so he was looking into retirement homes.
  8. arrangement- I was asked to arrange some flowers for a costumer. He was happy with the arrangement I came up with.
  9. fulfillment- I wanted to fulfill my dream of becoming a dancer. I felt great fulfillment after winning my fist award.
  10. excitement- She asked me to excite he guests with a magic trick. By the end of the night excitement was rolling off of the guests in waves.



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