My sister Joanne is ten years younger than me.
She was born in May instead of in June, one day later. Everyone in my family was born on the 25th or 26th except Jackie. The eldest sister chose April Fool’s Day to come into the world.
Sister Jackie and I were planned. I like to believe we were wholly welcomed after Mom suffered at least two miscarriages. Joey was an oops, but Joanne, she was a big oops. In 1969 for a 35-year-old to be pregnant was slightly less scandalous than to be found drinking in church. Especially with two sisters-in-law in their twenties pregnant at the same time.
There she was, this biggest baby of us all, a whopping 6 lbs+, with a full head of the curliest coal black hair. I mean, the first of us looked like a Gerber baby. Jackie was topped with the barest wisps of Gerber hair in pale blonde. I had board straight red hair, so didn’t fit the mold of 1959. And Joe? He had a ton of hair, but it was short and flat.
There had been one or two cousins arrive before Joanne, but that year found three of them arriving within six months of each other. I felt inundated with crawling, caterwauling children, unsure at my tender age, what to do with them.
At Age Ten, I was Already the Older Sister to Our Brother
I was both fascinated and irritated by this trio and the devoted attention and quantity of work involved. Neither did I like that the house was in an uproar I didn’t instigate. Everything changed. Suddenly our three-bedroom, ranch-style house didn’t seem as big. Ridiculous, of course. Especially since three of us were outside far more than we were inside.
Yet, there she was. This demanding, mop-headed baby wanting—hold me, feed me, burp me, basinet me, play with me, aren’t my toes awesome?
No doubt I whined about being allowed to hold my teeny sister until our parents relented. They sat me on a hassock put her in my arms, and all was well. Until? Who knows? How old was she? A year? I learned that babies bounce well when dropped, by accident, onto the hardwood living room floor. At least there was a carpet under us. Stricken, I raced to my room. Our parents laughed and Joanne didn’t emit a whimper.
I did not willing hold a baby again until Jackie’s daughter was born in 1982. I was uneasy, uncomfortable, and any other un-word you use to describe not wanting to do something. It was 1999 before I willingly held another—a friend’s daughter. For Grace, I sat on the thickly carpeted floor, surrounded myself with pillows, and said, okay, hand her over. The seasoned parental adults in the room thought I was ridiculous, but that was my comfort level. They snapped some blackmail pictures and I handed her back. Have I been baby-proof since?
Infrequently, a diapered tot has made its way into my arms. I still fear being that preadolescent and dropping a swathed bundle on its head. When I refuse to hold your baby, remember, it’s not you. It’s me.
Back to Joanne, the Youngest
We were roommates once. Both divorced, making our way in Pittsburgh. I had just moved into a new apartment, providence leading me to rent a two-bedroom. Joanne called and asked, can I move in. Sure, I said. Our parents placed bets on who would kill who first. Truth is, we had a blast and I still miss the roommate-camaraderie we shared.
We had to set some ground rules. Okay, I set rules. Joanne was the easier sister. She went to work at five a.m., I got home from work at six p.m. She had already wound down and was ready for company when I walked in. I was stressed out and ready for silence. I would enter and Joanne was like the proverbial teenager prattling on about her day at ninety-miles a minute and I finally snapped.
The next evening when I arrived home, Joanne met me at the door with a glass of scotch. A treaty had been found.
The two of us settled into a routine. She would prep dinner and I would cook. I was still hovering around vegetarianism at that time. Eggs, milk, cheese, and the sometimes steamed shrimp were the exception. Joanne lived with it. We still have running jokes from TV shows we watched—the Gilmore Girls, Xena Warrior Princess, and others. One year for Christmas, I bemoaned that we didn’t have a fireplace to hang stockings from. I came home from work and she had built me one from construction paper complete with a redbrick mantle. The crafty gal made us a tiny tree from garland that served us well for putting gifts under. We kept both for years.
Little Kids Make Little Sense
When I came home from college, Joanne would fly into my arms. At eight, she was rail-skinny, had that crazy head of hair, and the softest gray-blue eyes you’d ever seen. I could never understand why she missed me or liked me so much. I didn’t feel I had ever been particularly nice to her or involved in her pre-adolescent life.
Away at college, I wrote my younger sister this poem:
She rides her blue bicycle, alone.
and her square sandbox knows only her tiny fingers.
I hear her in the other room,
holding a conversation between two Barbie dolls,
using different voices.
I look up to see her large blue eyes staring at me,
asking, will I please play a record for her?
How often these moments have occurred,
but only now does it strike me how lonely my little sister is–
her two sisters and one brother are grown,
almost as one child. But she must amuse herself,
I wonder why I don’t reach out
and help her in her eight-year-old’s world,
but I never do,
though I can’t find a reason not to.
And someday, I fear,
I’ll regret not being there when she needed me as a kid,
someday when I find I need her as an adult.
Here we are, fifty years later and lucky enough to call ourselves friends, to choose to be friends beyond being siblings. With our older sister, Jackie, Joanne and I share challenges, joys, laughter and a lot of Bitmoji moments. Jackie’s daughter, Jenny, instigated that and sometimes we have entire 4-way conversations using them.
So lucky me? Nah, it’s more a case of blessed me. The Little One, as we often call her, has allowed me to envelope her into my life and welcomed me into hers. There is a tie, a bond, between siblings when you let down walls built by familial settings—concrete walls or straw ones. Let that go and look at who you are underneath and sometimes you are fortunate enough to discover a basis for friendship that grows over the decades.
Thanks, Joanne, JJ, CB, Punk Kid Sister, Jage—thank you for being in my life.