A Tale of Two Sisters

"In concert with Dylan Thomas, we will 'not go gentle into that good night.' There is no porch in our future, but possibly more adventures."

 
My sister and I are four years apart, spanning a chasm of ideology as well as straddling two generations. We share our mother, as my sister’s father was killed during World War II four months before she was born. Mine was the only father she ever knew. Growing up, the rest of our siblings believed she was my father’s favorite. I’m confident she was. As children, I was in awe of her and completely besotted by her perfection and matching grosgrain ribbons. I thought she was beautiful in a way that thrilled and yet frightened me to my lizard core. I remember watching her, prone on her bedroom rug, exercising in that 1950’s style-over-substance way of leg lifts and little else, although she was a ferocious athlete. I was all legs, elbows, and knees and could do nothing with balls or racquets. She was Grace Kelly to my even gawkier Twiggy, and she mocked me when I pilfered her bra in a moment of yearning and hopeful anticipation. I wanted curves, but my prayers went unanswered as I grew more ramen-like all angles and bones. It was a dream deferred.

My sister came of age jiving to the end of the Eisenhower years, a ’50s girl through and through who loved early rock ’n roll, group dates in cars filled with sparkly, toothy teens—clean-cut boys who could have been on Teen Beat or on the cover of a romance comic. While she was rocking her madras shorts and Peter Pan collars, I grew more distant, listening to darker music, a sulky, surly Stones, Kinks, and Motown girl who tracked and lived a little closer to the edge than my cautious self would allow. Yet I always harbored a hope that we would be friends one day. Even in my disdain for her appropriation of all things Gidget, I still clung to the memory of just a few years earlier, when on Christmas Day, she and I would hunker down together in hierarchical harmony in front of our grandparents’ old RCA TV to watch The Regulars dance on American Bandstand. Sometimes she practiced jitterbugging with me and I was in heaven, even as I stepped on her toes.

Later in my nascent rebellion mode, I pierced my ears, bleached my hair, and went from Mod Carnaby Street to street grunge. All the while, my sister kept her preppy, well-groomed, and well-curated look. I envied her poise and grace, yet I felt a significant tug toward the political whirlwind of the ’60s. I supported Civil Rights, marched to end the war, and heard Betty Friedan speak at Georgetown University which awakened my feminist leanings.

Marriage took us to other parts of the world, yet we remained connected in an abstract way. After all, she was the person who taught me to read and who did my math homework while I wrote her poetry assignments (even though she thought poetry writing was a loser assignment—not as cool as numbers). Ultimately, our own children brought us back into each other’s physical orbit. Between us, we had four who were close in age and who were sometimes best friends, sometimes frenemies, but always conspiratorial cousins who could delight in the many games of imagination at our parents’ home—a place of decaying grandeur which lent itself to hours of play and internecine warfare through tunnels and palaces of empty rooms and fading cabbage wallpaper—regal enough. As our children reveled in their foursome forays, I would of course be the one to break the symmetry with the arrival of a third child, one who must have sensed his otherness and ended up delighting us all.

My sister and I learned a new way of communicating. Our conversations revolved around mothering and feeding, about which I received gentle teasing for my embrace of wheat germ brownies, fruit leather, unfiltered juice, and hardtack bread—my early eco approach to health and nutrition. My children, on the other hand, yearned for pain au chocolat when we visited her in New York and trips to Brentano's Bookstore where our daughters could indulge in all the books they could carry. Silently, I fretted about how I would pay for the books. I cherished the otherworldliness of my sister’s life in Manhattan and wanted my voracious reader to have this literary avenue into so many worlds. My children and I loved the energy and excitement of her big city life and curled up on the sofa and had British tea to celebrate Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ wedding. But the spell would break. I was, once again, one step behind another princess.

When my first marriage came unraveled, my sister remained rock steady; she was there for me, never judging and always fiercely loyal, and under the most forgiving umbrella of sisterhood, we grew closer and backed into a love that ultimately transcended our divergent lives and beliefs. She is an amazing homemaker, nationally recognized gardener, and gourmet cook, while I have followed the unexpected path of educator, still remaining always vigilant for that younger version of my former, most awkward self by protecting students from the turbulence of adolescence. No one leaves that island unscathed.

Our children are now grown with families of their own, so we cleave even tighter to one another, forging a relationship that burns bright and sustains us. We are older women now, yet when we are in the company of one another, we return to moments of our youth and reminisce with the glow of muted memories. We are more open and honest. We have shone light on our growing up and she has told me of her feelings of being an outsider in a family of six other siblings who shared the same last name. She has had to reconcile a relationship with a ghost father, a man she never knew but who still had high expectations of her. She was the least loved of her cousins on her father’s side and was teased and tortured by them. I never knew. We acknowledge our pasts and our passions as we warm to the presence of one another during our too infrequent visits. We live on different coasts now, and while I have fully embraced the diversity, energy, and vibrancy of my new home in Los Angeles, I miss her beyond words. Yet it is here where I am rooted, so proud of this sweeping city of vibrancy.

Looking back, I see that my life has had two distinct chapters. I grew into my fully realized self and followed a path that has filled me with tremendous gratification. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I envied my sister’s life for many years as I saw her as nearly perfect and successful in ways that alluded me. I longed for her New York-then-London life and wished that I could do for my children all that she was able to do with hers. I never factored in how challenging her life is and how she has emerged as the oldest Sands child who is not a Sands, nor is she a MacCoy as her father’s family reminds her. Her life was not perfect–a reminder that we are all living lives that are not what they may seem. At school, it is a lesson that should make us more generous and empathetic toward one another.

If she and I start to veer precariously toward the craggy shoals of disagreement we steer toward dry land, an aging bobbysoxer and grey-haired hippie heading back to a future of comity. She and I will enter life’s last chapter together. We are fighting an unforgiving clock, but we will continue to visit one another and share our deeply held stories from long, long ago. We also fully realize that we have never walked in each other’s shoes and never had any idea of what we have each suffered and gone through. This tends to transcend differences of opinions and lives.

We will therefore cling to our love and our deep and abiding friendship and laugh in defiance of the sunset of lives that once shone so very bright. Yet, in concert with Dylan Thomas, we will “not go gentle into that good night.” There is no porch in our future, but possibly more adventures. We link arms and hearts and we sally forth together, cherishing the memories of our younger selves, understanding that memories are diffused realities, and still anticipating our weekend call, when I hear “Peeps, how are you doing? I know she means it and I can tell her.

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These musings represent the writing and experiences of Dr. Priscilla Sands.
 

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