The Middle Distance 11.18.11: Sister

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photo by Sean Cayton

When my younger sister was a little girl, she was so cute it would make you sick. Well, it made me sick anyway.

Where I begged my mother to chop my hair off into a pixie haircut because I couldn’t sit still for all that brushing and pulling and ponytailing, my sister sat patiently day in and day out, allowing my mother and anyone else who wanted to brush her dark locks and braid them into twin pig tails that swung when she skipped.

While my little sister rolled her doll buggy up and down the sidewalk, prissing and pretending to be a grown-up mom, I raced my bicycle through the streets and shimmied up trees.

She loved old people, like our grandfather out in the country who smelled like mothballs and tobacco, and creeped me out when he spit long brown trails into a coffee can. When we visited his house on Sunday afternoons, I would find a seat far away from his or wander the chicken yard while she curled up into his lap and coaxed from him a rare smile.

The summer my best friend and I spent hours honing our duet, “My Boy Lollipop,” for the neighborhood talent contest, my little sister stole the grand prize with her rendition of “Itsy Bitsy, Teeny Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

My sister’s most remarkable talent, however, lay in her covert ability to torment me into a rage. In our first house, we shared a bedroom with our third sister, each of us cordoned off from the other by a maze of chests of drawers. When the lights were out and I was settling in to sleep, she would start singing, low and steady, just loud enough for me to hear but low enough that our parents, in the living room, couldn’t hear her. I would hiss into the night, telling her to be quiet and she would subtly shift to another, more annoying tune. My next shush would be a little louder and more insistent and she would carry on, unfazed. Finally, after what felt like hours of trying to sleep, of burying my head beneath a pillow and sticking my fingers in my ears, I would jump out of bed and scream at her to stop. When my mother or father ran into the room to see what the commotion was about, my sister would close her eyes and look like a sleeping princess, while I stood over her, a red-faced raving lunatic, ready to pounce.

As we grew up, our paths continued to diverge — hers straight and center, mine veering off to the left. She was a cheerleader and I was a wanderer among various fringe groups. Our family photos from those years show her coiffed and groomed and beaming into the camera while I looked as if I’d rather be anywhere but there, among family, forcibly having my picture made.

It went on that way into adulthood — she the sister whose life was carefully planned and predictable, me the sister who might go off on a tangent at any time. We found common ground in our children — my daughter, her first niece, and all our sons, five of them lined up like stair steps, the brotherhood.

Last week, for the first time in many years, my sister came to visit me in my home. Out here in the middle distance, we have shared tragedy and sorrow and have worried as we watched each other suffer and cope over the past few years. She lost a son and a home; I lost a son and his father. We both lost our other sister. And we have shared joy: my daughter’s wedding, our sons’ good hearts and mutual successes.

When my sister came, I expected that we would be polite and pleasant and careful. I didn’t expect that we would be candid and honest, and that she would admire my life and my home, and that we would lie in bed at night with the dog between us, just talking like two best friends. I didn’t expect that, in her retirement from a long career as a nurse, she would be relaxed and contented and rested and at such ease with herself and with me.

We drove to the airport on a sunny afternoon, not talking much, just taking in the late autumn view, the bare tree limbs carving sharp silhouettes against the sky. We hugged and said goodbye and she said, “I love you” and I said it back, and I think we both believed it.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


4 Responses to The Middle Distance 11/18/11: Sisters

  1. Rose Enyeart says:

    What a gift to find in the Middle Distance. I am happy for you and doubt I’ll ever find that gift in my life.

  2. Liz says:

    As an only child, I have been able to chose my sisters (and I have many), but have always longed for a connection with someone who has known me all my life – differently than my parents. You and Karen are a gift to each other – how wonderful that must be!

  3. Sandra says:

    The worst thing my father could say to me as a teenager was that my sister and I were “just alike”–this was, of course, when we were causing him trouble. Nope. Night and day! I love the story and what a great picture!

    • sharon berthrong says:

      How beautiful. I have 2 sisters and can so relate to this. Sisters cannot be replaced – ever.


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