Wednesday, April 09, 2008

My Sister's Birthday

(News-Herald, March 2003) My sister turns forty this Saturday. She is the baby of the family (let’s not reflect on what her crossing the big four-oh checkpoint means to my brother and me).

I distinctly remember wanting a sister. I don’t remember my mother being pregnant, but I do remember staying with friends, waiting for my folks to come back with a new child.

Apparently I found my sister interesting at the time. There are many pictures of the three of us, highlighting her legendary hair. For the first several months of her life, it appeared that my sister’s hair was never actually going to lie down, but simply keep growing straight out, like an overachieving porcupine of a chia pet run amok. Even though she was too young to understand, my brother and I still made fun of her for it. It is never too early to start.

By the time we all moved to Franklin, we had learned how games like the running away game; some of you parents will recognize this as a more active version of “La-la-LAAA-I’m not listening!” It all evened out, because she had learned to get us in trouble for things we may or may not have done.

My sister is six years younger than I am, and six is a big number when you’re young. By the time she was in high school, I was off to college.

There are disadvantages to being a youngest sibling, I hear. Your older siblings may have acquired reputations of one sort or another and you face frequent comparison. As the oldest, you just follow your interests and abilities wherever they may lead; as the youngest, people expect that you’ll be good at this or belong to that. I know my sister wrestled with some of that. But there were compensations.

My parents never threatened to be the kind of permissive overly lax parents that messed up so many baby boomers. But by the time my sister was growing up, somehow all rules had disappeared from the house. My brother and I had a list of approximately six billion rules to follow, while my sister had roughly three. Our curfew was 8:15 pm; hers was mid-June. She and my parents will deny this, but my brother can back me up. The baby of the family always gets away with murder.

As the brother Off At College, I enjoyed a certain halo effect. When I would come home, my sister was delighted to see me and would defend me vigorously from any and all challenge, assault, or inconvenience. Well, for about the first forty-eight hours, anyway.

I was back at Franklin High School as a substitute during her senior year. It’s excellent training for a substitute teacher to try to get cooperation from someone who still remembers when you hid her toys and called her “pickle puss.”

She went to college at Mount Union and became a Marching Purple Grape (I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the official name, but it’s all we ever called them). She fell in love with a man who played lacrosse, a game, as near as I can tell, in which players beat the daylights out of each other with webbed sticks while referees occasionally stop the action to administer first aid and announce random scores (I may have missed some of the nuances). She went to graduate school at Rutgers to become a librarian.

She got married, and they had a couple of sons; this was no small achievement, as she is one of those women for whom childbearing didn’t come easily. They lived in a variety of places, including a rather grubby corner of New Jersey. My sister is tougher than she looks.

Now they live in State College. My brother-in-law has one of those University computer sub-contract for the Defense Department “I can’t tell you what I did at work today” jobs. My sister spent years as an at-home mom; now she runs the Christian Education program at a church.

It is true that my sister can be a bit of a den mother. She once scolded me for walking outside in the rain in my bare feet. I was forty-three at the time.

But my sister is one of the handful of people on the planet that I actually admire. It’s not just that she’s family, though I think it’s true that no one ever knows you quite like a brother or sister. I feel bad for those who have lost that connection; I know that there are toxic siblings, just as there are toxic spouses and parents, but I don’t think you can’t lose the connection to a sibling without losing a piece of your own past.

Somewhere along the way my sister became the responsible adult dependable rock solid nurturing member of the family, and I want to be like her when I grow up.

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