You’ll hear a lot about my sister this summer; after all, for several weeks, we’re living together with our children, embracing the village life temporarily. (For the first three installments in the series, written for Washington Post’s On Parenting this summer, see The Village Life, Part I, Village Life, Part II: Specializing by Moment, Village Life, Part III: Sending My Daughter to Camp, and Packing Up the Village, Saying Goodbye)
Here’s a little more history to the story of us as mothers:
When Sisters Become Mothers
Finally, below is what I read to her (and a barn full of people she loves) on the eve of her wedding, nearly five years ago.
(Photo Credit: Our lovely cousin Sara McPherson)
I’m not sure I ever really figured out how to be a good older sister. I think I always assumed that Joanna needed me for something, though I couldn’t possibly have articulated what that was. “Joanna and me” was something of an experiment; my own private after-school special that I made up while posturing in front of my bedroom mirror, making up songs for imaginary Suave shampoo commercials, in which Joanna was the back-up singer, or whatever supporting role I happened to assign to her. She was happy to roll along with me—I don’t think she pouted, sulked, or slammed a door with real meaning in her life. My parents will tell you that Joanna and I complimented each other in that way.
She doesn’t know this, but up until a few years ago (maybe a few days—I’ll never tell) I really and truly thought Joanna was mine. I mean this in the same way that my nose is mine, my arm is mine, and my Joanna was mine. I talked to my friends about how beautiful she was—even with her headgear on—how smart she was, how talented. She was like my beloved pet. I think I hoped that if she really was mine, she would somehow make me shine a little brighter. Some of you know exactly what I mean. She was more organized, more gentle, more forgiving, more willing to try new things than I was, and she was mine.
In the role that I thought she played, and we all know she plays them well, she witnessed some of my most tortuous moments. After those moments were over, even when she was only 9 years old, she always managed to provide some sort of adult-like perspective that of course I hadn’t thought of myself. Most importantly, she always loved me anyway. She was steady and strong. You couldn’t shake her. It was so annoying. It was also the best.
We choose people whom we admire as our friends. We choose people who remind us of the very things we want to love in ourselves, the things we aspire to be. We rarely get to say that if we could have done so, we would have chosen our families, and yet I get to say that. I would have chosen my sister.
And, for the record, I chose her husband (I’ll call him Matt here).
For the past five years, every time I’ve seen them together I’ve wanted so much to say “I told you so,” if only because in those words I could contain my excitement, conceal my joy—I won’t say relief— and make light of the fact that to me, in life, it was real love that trumped all other semi-important matters.
I engineered this pair when I was pregnant with my first baby. I was brilliantly happy with my own situation and wanted more than anything to rearrange the universe so that my dear sister would some day know exactly how I felt then. I did my best, but Matt got the hint and took over faster than I could say “Soccer Mom!”
Matt was funny, he was quirky, he was attentive, he was interested in everything, and he was real. He was perfect, a bit like my own brilliant little sister star, though I think he’d agree that nothing really compares. It was no matter to Matt that shortly after they met, Joanna took off for Kentucky, or Mexico, or Chile, Argentina, or wherever. He was sold.
Apropos of nothing, he also liked to eat. Ice cream, peanut butter, chocolate chip scones. We once had a cookie war: I baked him a dozen or so of my best efforts and asked him to take them to work the next day, knowing they’d be gone before he’d finished the five-minute drive home. This was my form of torture. He countered the attack by dropping at my back door his latest shipment of baked goodies from Kansas, still in the cardboard box. I ate all of them. I’ll remind you that I was pregnant; Matt didn’t have any excuse for the insatiable hunger that apparently drove him to consume three gallons of frozen cookies and cream while he was dog sitting for a day and a half. I realize that Matt has gone on to compete in triathlons, while I continue to compete with my dog for who can eat the most off the countertop at once, but still, if you give a Matt a cookie, chances are he’ll ask for more.
I sometimes imagine that if I could check Matt’s Google cache, or browsing history, I could discover all the particular, peculiar things he’s been interested in. Things, I imagine, like the underside of tree lichen, the composition of bear scat, the exact muscular fibrocity or fibrociousness of bat testicles. That he’s had his arm all the way up a cow’s insides is part of what makes this man so awesome, so genuine, so willing to engage in life, so good.
I am not saying that I myself fell in love with Matt, but I knew that I had found, for the first time in my life, someone who I thought was worthy, and very much so, of my sister. If I am the only one who thinks my own opinion on this matter is important, I’m okay with that.
It wasn’t until later, when we’d grown at least halfway into the women we are today, that I really understood, in the same way you allow yourself to accept a certain sweet loss, that Joanna didn’t need me as much as I thought or hoped she did, and that she would find her own way, in her own time, with her own heart. That she would find this way with tremendous compassion and grace is no surprise, but stunning nonetheless. I love every piece of you. Congratulations.