A tale of two sisters

The last time I saw my sister was at the Olive Garden. I don’t even like the Olive Garden yet that bastion of suburban culinary mediocrity is where I had my last physical contact with her. It was a fine enough lunch (who doesn’t like bread sticks?) but what was much more important than the food could ever be was the simple fact that we actually had a good time. Sadly that was not always the case when we were together. She seemed to be happy with a new job and a rekindled relationship with her only grandchild. We hugged in the parking lot and said we would talk soon. I loved my sister very much (both my sisters for the record) but it wasn’t always easy for me to show it. She was 19 years older than me so I had no memories of us ever living in the same house together even though we most certainly did. She grew up in one suburb of Minneapolis while I grew up in another, the only thing we shared were parents, and yes they were the same pair.

When I was little none of the other kids in the neighborhood even believed I had a sister, let alone two, both of whom lived in California at the time. We had some of my sister’s clothes in a closet in our den and I would proudly show them off to some of the naysayers just to prove that she was indeed real and not some Jan Brady fake boyfriend kind of thing.

During one of her visits home she took me shopping and I remember calling her SISTER at every possible opportunity like we were in some sort of weird religious cult. I wanted everyone within a five-mile radius to know that was who she was to me and not my mother. I already had a mother but a sister was not something I just had lying around the house like some Legos or Tinker Toys to take for granted like my friends with siblings got to do on the regular. My sister looked like Natalie Wood, dark auburn hair, big brown doe-eyes and I thought she was the prettiest, sweetest, kindest sister in the whole wide world. My sister was also very smart and could figure out how to do just about anything you needed her to much faster than my parents ever did.

Unfortunately despite all of this she had major self-esteem issues which ultimately contributed to her early death. When she was a teenager she thought she was fat (she wasn’t), but between the diet pills she took back when doctors prescribed them like candy and the anorexia/bulimia she developed afterwards, she ended up not only damaging her teeth (capped and recapped) but also her heart and so one night six years ago it just stopped.

My sister’s lack of self-esteem manifested itself in other harmful ways as well. One with more immediate results than the years of puking up every meal she ever ate. She married an abusive alcoholic and stuck with him no matter how many times my parents tried to rescue her. It seemed like once a year we got in the car and headed somewhere to retrieve her, Indiana, California, Nevada or Texas. Often times it was my Easter vacation. Other kids went to Disneyland or Disney World, I went to domestic abuse land and believe me it was way scarier than the Haunted Mansion or Space Mountain could ever be.

My sister was stabbed and had her jaw broken not once but twice. When I was about nine she moved back to Minnesota with her husband and son. Now I don’t come from drinking people, neither of my parents ever drank, yet the next few years of my life played out like one of the deranged drunken fight scenes from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. When my sister’s husband got drunk and abusive she ran home and he followed. Sometimes the police were involved, sometimes not, but she always went back. Always.

Holidays were a bit of a hit or miss proposition. Sometimes they would come, more often they would not. If they did come, sometimes it would be okay but many other times it wasn’t and would end in him storming off with her trailing right behind. Since abusers like to isolate their victims, we could go months without seeing her yet she lived mere blocks away. Not even the magical vocal powers of Adele could have saved some of our Thanksgivings.

The sister I loved did not love herself at all and it became harder and harder the older I got to try to understand why. We had the same parents and grandparents, my other sister who grew up with her was normal, what happened? No one seemed to know the answer. My sister and her husband moved to Florida when I was in my 20’s  and it was like my birthday and Christmas all rolled into one. No more having to sit across the table and ask the person who threatened to kill you and your entire family to pass the potatoes. I felt like I could finally breathe.

Ten years later they moved back, supposedly to be closer to family yet they lived 60 miles away. Typical. He was older now, no longer drinking and it seemed like the abuse days were over. It was still difficult for me to be around them because they were a package deal and every nerve, hair and hackle in my body was always on high-alert in case the craziness would re-surface and I would need to flee like so many times before. It didn’t, thank God, but the wariness remained.

My sister loved animals, I can’t tell you how many times she stopped the car and we got out to rescue a cat, a dog, ducklings or turtles trying to cross busy roads to go lay their eggs. She was generous to a fault and would gladly give you her last dollar no questions asked. She always got me an Easter Basket because no matter how old I was in real life I was always her baby sister and I miss that terribly.

Baggage man, we all have it. Some of us can fit it neatly under our seats while the rest of us pack too damn much and have to pay extra. Never pay extra people, sometimes we just need to take a note from the airlines and lose it altogether.


  1. Oh-Amy, indeed. A super-sad story, almost as much so for little sister–not that one must weigh and measure. Having my own formerly volatile sister with volatile partners, I can relate to the family stress, the guilt, or whatever form ongoing disruption and fear takes. Finding love and grace, despite that legacy, as it seems you’ve done, is a nice place to be.

    In the total, I hope she experienced more happiness than pain. And, she does look fabulous, I must say.

    1. That was her graduation picture, before I was even born. I wanted to tell her story because even though many times she made me angry and crazy I still loved her like mad.

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