This past weekend was an unusual one—my brother, two sisters, and I got to spend the evening together—along with our combined children, cousins, and spouses. Like many families, the four of us don’t live near one another: two of us are in New Jersey, one in Virginia, and the other lives in Istanbul. When we are together, we are reminded of our shared youth. We laugh as we recount stories from our childhood, each of us filling in the gaps in our combined memories. Even the things that once pained us about ourselves—our insecurities, the mistakes that we made in our youth—now make us laugh as we recount them with one another.
I realized this weekend that, although each one of us has a unique—and somewhat different—perspective on our childhoods, the truth is that each of us has had a direct impact on making each other the people we are today. It is this impact that I want to understand better, to see how each of my siblings has helped make me the woman I am—the wife, the mother, the friend.
I will begin with my sister—the youngest.
There is a three-year age difference between my sister and I, but growing up, it may as well have been a lifetime. When I was getting ready for school dances, she was playing Kick-the-Can with neighborhood kids. When she was graduating from high school, I was in England studying Shakespeare. When she was at college learning about being in the military, I was falling in love in Istanbul. And when she was in the Army stationed in Germany, I was back home learning to be a mother.
I didn’t really know my sister—not the music she loved, the friends she had, nor the heartbreaks she had experienced in her life. If it weren’t for a chance meeting we had when she was seventeen and I was twenty, this may have always been the case.
Our parents divorced while she was a junior in high school. She was the one who witnessed first-hand the devastation that occurred the day our father walked out. In the days and months that followed, she was the one who stood by my mother. And I believe that, in truth, my sister was the reason our mother got up each morning. I was not there for my sister during this time. I dreaded coming home, so I stayed away as much as possible, even going as far as moving to England the following year—the year she was graduating high school.
Our father should have been the one to take her to Ireland as a graduation present—a tradition in our family—but their relationship had been almost irreparably damaged. Instead, I took a week off from my studies in England to travel with her. It was during this trip that I think I truly saw her for the first time. I remember putting make-up on her and being surprised by how different her features were from mine—I had always thought she looked like me—but her lashes were so long they almost touched her eyebrows, and her lips were smaller and more delicate than my own. It was as if by seeing these differences, I suddenly wanted to learn more about who she truly was, not the person I had always thought her to be. We spent the week getting to know one another, and for the first time, we connected not as sisters, but as friends.
One of my fondest memories occurred just a few years after this trip to Ireland. My sister, after attending a military university and joining the Army, became stationed in Germany. She had only been there a couple of months when my daughter was born. Although we hadn’t lived near one another prior to her leaving, just knowing that she couldn’t come home to meet her niece took away some of the joy of her birth. My sister, being the incredibly loving and selfless person that she is, came up with a plan: she would fly home for Memorial Day weekend to see the baby and surprise my mother. It was an elaborate plan that involved my brother (who picked her up at the airport), my older sister (who provided a place to rest prior to getting on a bus to Atlantic City), along with my mother’s best-friend (who picked her up and drove her to Cape May) and her daughter (who videotaped the arrival). It worked perfectly, and because it was being filmed, I am able to watch—over and over again—my sister meeting her niece for the very first time.
In so many ways, my sister—with her selfless approach to life—has made me want to be a better person. Through her, I have learned how to be strong while still being compassionate. As I think now about the advice I have for my daughter, I can only think of one thing: to see my sister as I do, and to know how fortunate she is to have such an incredible woman in her life.