My one and only sister’s birthday is today. In a few hours, technically. She lives in another state, so, like most birthdays, hers and mine, we cannot celebrate together. We celebrated every birthday together growing up. But as adults, we’ve crossed more year milestones apart than together now, which is honestly very tough. She’s four years older than me.
The advent of the internet and electronic communications has been helpful. We sent a lot of letters early on, when she moved to Cleveland and I was still in college at Kent. Then I moved to Cleveland and she left for Chicago with her then-spouse, whose research took him to specific labs in specific places that were not Cleveland. We’d drive the 6 hours to meet each other occasionally, but the separation grew because of the distance. Then they had to move to Wisconsin, where she’s lived for a long time now. The marriage ended some time ago, their kid is grown and in college. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s where she is. Now, we have email, text messages, emojis. It’s instant and good. It’s not as good as us being together, but it’s better than nothing.
My mom and her sister, our aunt were always so close, and still are. They never lived more than 15 or 20 minutes apart in the small towns around where we grew up. My aunt was our closest relative, her kids – our cousins, were our tightest, closest bunch. We went to my aunt’s when our utilities got shut off because mom couldn’t pay the bills from time to time. I remember once in winter when the water got shut off because my dad, who had recently moved out, had agreed to pay for an expensive pipe fix in our yard and then didn’t pay. The contractors left the yard all dug up and frozen in the middle of winter, refusing to continue work without payment. Mom was a short order cook at the L&K at that time, making about $7,000 a year and trying to support both of us. She couldn’t pay them. So off we went.
My sister was always my closest confidante. She taught me everything. She showed me how to slow dance with a boy, in advance of the select overnight dances at summer camp, where she knew I would be asked to dance. She made fun of me endlessly to make me shape up and behave and act like a real person and not a jungle animal. She teased me about everything, as an impetus to making me a better person. A lot of people don’t understand that kind of tough love, but it’s greatly motivating and she only did it because she cared and didn’t want me to look like a moron.
As much as she teased, however, she was the only one allowed to do so. When we were both in the same elementary school, I waited for her on the playground after school as I had been taught, with my cloth book bag with the little gingham embroidered kitties on it that my mom had made at home on her sewing machine; waited for her to come and collect me so we could take the path back home together, the way which I didn’t know. She was older and knew the way. Kids arrived on the playground and were picking on me, making fun of me and pulling at my bag. I was crying and didn’t know what to do. Then, like a superhero movie, my sister was there in a flash, with her giant, plastic book bag with the colored flowers on it, swinging it like Ben in the Graduate with the cross, beating them away from me. “Get away from my SISTER!” she said, and they did, terrified at her outburst. She calmly collected me and we went on home.
She did this again when we were at camp and my cabin got attacked by a hornet’s nest one of the girls stepped on. We were helped up the big hill by other campers and counselors so we could be taken to the local hospital. I remember I had 13 stingers in one foot alone, and being lowered gently into the front seat of someone’s car (it was the 70s, there were no car seats). I was 8 or 9, about the age my son is now. She pushed by people, shoving and yelling so she could get up where I was in the seat. She gave me a kiss and a hug and told me everything would be ok and she would see me in a bit, and she was right, everything was.
When we went on vacation every year to Leamington, Ontario, my sister and I would wake up early, sneak out of the motel room and sit in front of the door, propping it open with a shoe. We’d play jacks or cards or read books, the sun beaming down and us waiting for the sounds of our parents finally stirring. She always looked after me.
She told me about boys, about shaving my legs. She always made fun of my long, “stringy” hair, but I often heard her telling other people how pretty I was, how proud of me she was.
When she went to college and I was still in high school, she’d mail me magazines. We used to always look at the fashion mags – Glamour, Vogue, Cosmo, and we’d mark them up with little mustaches or write signs on them with conversation balloons about what we thought the models should be saying. She’d point out horrible fashion spreads and write notes in the margins about how dumb everyone looked. We used to do this together, and she kept it up by sending these to me when she was away.
When I was in the school play as a senior and had the lead role, some mean girls came to the show and were shaking their candy boxes whenever I had a line to try to make me unable to be heard. People were like that to me, a lot. My mom, dad and sister were all sitting together in the audience and it was quickly clear what the girls were doing. My mom turned around and suggested she would break their arms if they continued rattling the candy boxes whenever I talked. Then they were whispering. “Did you hear what she said? OMG.” etc, which was also disruptive. My sister finally turned around and snapped at the talker, “Put a lid on it, leather cunt.” They were shocked into silence for the rest of the show.
She came all the way from Wisconsin to see me in the one and only musical I did, back in 2000. It was a big show and sold out, and she yelled as loud as anyone during curtain call. She told me I was too thin afterwards. Always looking out for me. Man, I wish that was a problem I still had.
She has always been my biggest champion, my biggest defender, and my harshest critic. There is nobody up there to make her a cake, and we can’t gather around and sing Happy Birthday while she blows out the candles, and then go roller skating in the basement. We can’t go out to Lake Erie and play on the big logs with a boy we don’t know who we named “Sir” when he wouldn’t tell us his name, me in my red bathing suit with the white piping and her in the blue with white piping. She is far away, but she is always with me.
I will always be lucky she is my sister. Because there is none more perfect for me and my fucked up self than she is.