The other day, I saw a woman who looked and moved so much like my sister that I felt a little flutter of excitement. For a brief moment, I thought “oh, she’s here! she came to visit me!” And then I realized it wasn’t her, and my heart fell. And I knew from the pain of that tiny disappointment that this is the downside to moving across the country; I don’t get to see her anymore.
We didn’t see each other often when I lived in Chicagoland, even though we lived only 35 minutes apart. Toward the end of my time there, we saw each other more, as she became my only support during the last year. We talked on the phone and had coffee together and went to lunch. And talked on the phone. And talked on the phone some more. She knows more about me than any living person except my husband, and if you know how close Tim and I are, you know that’s saying something. And now I’m living in the area she had vowed for years to someday make her home, a place with trees and water and mountains for exploring. Here, I’m surrounded by things that would make her happy, things I want to show her or share with her, but I can’t. I suppose this is what they mean by taking somebody for granted.
Like many people, I’ve had an unsettled relationship with my immediate family, the parents and siblings in whose presence I rose to adulthood. Until I left for university at age 17, I had very few relational issues with my family, but as an adult, I’ve had many. So many, in fact, that I consider myself to be without a family now, decidedly separate save my contact with a couple of siblings. And with those fellow adults, I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in contact because I genuinely like them and feel better–not worse–when they are in my life.
One is my beloved brother John, who lives in a distant state but remains one of the people dearest to my heart. The other is my sister.
Tracey is five years older than me, a fact that placed her, in my childhood mind, in the firmament of the adults in my world. The second-born, she was given the responsibility to caring for me and the other younger siblings at an alarmingly young age; at eight, she was responsible for taking me and the other two other younger kids (both older than me) to the park, multiple blocks away, all by herself. When I had kids of my own, I looked back on that decision with shock; I wouldn’t hire an eight year old babysitter to take care of three kids under the age of six. It’s insanity. However, she took this responsibility like she’d take on all the rest in her life; with good humor and a determination to make sure the kids had a good time.
And we did–always–have a good time with Tracey in charge, and we always stayed safe. She had creative games for us to play; Rocket Ship (we’d sit in a dark closet with the door closed and imagine we were lifting off into space); Pillow Sandwich (while making beds, we’d lie on the pillow and get folded between the pillow and the comforter, then rolled up toward the headboard); Mop Skating (standing on scrub brushes, we’d skate across the bathroom floor while we were cleaning).
We didn’t actually name the games, we just played them. Nothing with Tracey was structured or disciplined, just fun. I’m sure she wiped our noses (and, according to her, our butts, but I certainly don’t remember that either. And seriously–she was FIVE when I was born. WHY did my mother have her changing my diaper? Did she ever have the eight year old oldest brother change diapers? Doubtful.)
As we got older, the games grew with us. She and I played Apartment at least once a week. In our imaginary world, we had adjoining apartments in the city, and we would hang out in each other’s pads. Our separate rooms functioned as both our living spaces in the city and our workplaces, where we toiled as secretaries, a job I would later fall into, but she would avoid altogether. We “typed” and took dictation and chatted importantly about office things. At the end of the day, we would walk back to our apartments, where we’d cook and decorate.
Upon reflection, it appears my sister allowed me to play pretend based solely on my personality, my likes and dislikes, and having nothing to do with hers. Sounds like how I played pretend with my own children. Which, in turn, makes me realize how much of a parent she was to me. I don’t recall my mother *ever* playing with me. She very well could have, I just don’t remember it.
When she reached adolescence, we stopped being friends, as happens. She had a rocky adolescence, one that baffled me completely in the depth of its violence and angst. I watched her driving through turmoil like an out-of-control freight train, all power and noise and destruction. Her battles with my parents were terrifying, and the instability of the household–which had never been peaceful–was permanently exposed.
As an adult, when I discovered what had led to her troubles, it all made sense. I won’t be telling that story here, as it’s not my story to tell. Suffice it to say that the circumstances that drove her to that difficult period were wholly out of her control, and she bears no blame for any of it.
That period in my sister’s life affected me deeply. I was determined to avoid causing my parents any trouble, to be the good girl, to do the right thing at all times. The saying “if you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back” became a mantra for me whenever I walked anywhere; to this day, I find myself avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. I didn’t rebel, I didn’t push them away when it became time for me to leave the nest and go to school.
By the time I left for university, she was living on her own and estranged from our parents. In that age before cell phones, she and I didn’t have much contact either, but when I moved out of the dorms to live on my own and got my own house phone, we started getting closer. She was always in varying stages of reconciliation with our parents, a process that would last the rest of my mother’s life, to limited success. We marveled at the disparity between what we were raised to believe and reality, at the confusion imparted to us by our upbringing, at our lack of preparation for the harshness of day to day life as an adult. She was the person with whom I could explore and translate and interpret the “Life” template I had been given, and try to reconcile it with the ill-fitting pieces I encountered. She once called me at 2 a.m. to tell me our prim, repressed mother had used the word “sex” in a sentence. It was unprecedented, and we laughed ourselves silly at the absurdity of the whole thing.
When I became pregnant at 20 and decided to marry, my family shrank to just her. She was the only person I could talk to in the family to get an idea of how my parents were handling “my betrayal”, the only one I could trust with the ugly truth of my ill-fitting marriage. She never judged my decision, never judged my first husband, and did all the things family is supposed to do; she loved me and my children unconditionally.
Later, she’d marry someone similarly ill-suited to her, and they’d raise six kids before her husband died from a lengthy illness. I hope I gave her the same unconditional support. I love her children deeply, and admire the uniqueness she encouraged in each of them. They got something I had always secretly wished for; they got Tracey for a mother.
Our relationship as adults has had its ups and downs, but we always come back together with a rush of relief and apology and forgiveness. No slight hurts too long between us, dependent as we both are on each other to provide that unique perspective on our slightly warped understanding of life. Nobody helps me figure out why I see things the way I do quite like she does.
She has grown into a brilliant artist in the “fine art” form, as opposed to contemporary or abstract or fiber arts…as a musician, I don’t have the knowledge to explain it exactly, except to say that she’s the most talented artist and painter I know. I compare all other artists to her, and they all fall short. Her driving passion all her life is expressing what’s inside her in a visual medium, either pencil sketches or acrylics, wood and clay, stone, and lately–most potently–oil paintings. What I find so compelling about her work is the intensity and movement in the images she creates, and that’s wholly an outgrowth of who she is. She’s all motion and concentration, pressure and force and will. When they talk about people being a force of nature, my sister is the first thing that comes to mind. She’s whirlwind, a fire, a great engulfing wave. I see this in her work, from her wild pencil sketches of nudes to her harmonious still-life images of fruit in a bowl.
This week my sister will celebrate a birthday, and I will not be there to embrace her. This is a deep disappointment, a pain I didn’t expect. What I wouldn’t give to appear at her side on Monday morning, to spend the day with her, traipsing from one impulsive and satisfying adventure to the next, to laugh until our chins quiver and cry over our separate but so similar disappointments, and to present her with a deeply chocolate cake exclusively for her consumption. A cake and a single fork, and two candles on top; one for each of us to blow out. She can have her wish, but I want one too; I want everyone to see my sister in her raging glory, fantastic in her wildness, untrammeled and unfettered, brilliant and formidable and–in the truest sense of the word–rare.
If you know her, please wish my sister a happy birthday, and give her a bone-crushing hug (I’m not kidding) on my behalf. If you don’t know her, find her and introduce yourself and get to know her. Knowing my sister is like encountering the aurora borealis; powerfully moving, inexplicably magnetic, and searing.
Happy birthday, Tracey.
Your little sister.