May 25, 2016
My older sister, Mary (Angel Mary, in the bosom of the family): what would I do without her? As fragile as she may seem sometimes, she has been a rock for me. She has been a model to prepare me, at every age, for the next era, though no one would see that influence in the outward facts of my life’s path.Her influence began early. Photographs in family albums show her reading on the sofa; I must have seen that happening often. The year that she was a sixth grader, I was in kindergarten. I didn’t know it then, but I was falling in love with learning. Mary played a role in that love affair. She and I shared a bedroom, much to her chagrin. I was a messy child, given to building nests behind the door or cities of blocks under my bed, cities which then gathered dust and resisted easy cleaning. I did not suffer one block to be moved and defended them strongly. I wet the bed, and didn’t pick up after myself, contrasting sharply with Mary’s neat habits. She, the well-behaved second born, contrasted sharply, in turn, with our older brother, who was a handful. Hence, her nickname - Angel Mary. She endured me because she had no choice.
That forbearance, though, didn’t keep her from the kindness of talking to me in the dark as we were falling asleep. She was excited by subjects she was learning about in her sixth grade classroom, so occasionally she would tell me about her studies. I don’t remember the specifics, except for a vague recollection of basic anatomy, biology, and botany lessons. I do remember the excitement and engagement in her voice that transmitted such passion to me. I’m sure that passion is what carried me through the formidable work of field research, a dissertation, and a doctorate in my fifties. Thanks, Mary!
Mary tutored me, without intending to, in coordination of color, fabric, clothing, and accessories. She sewed match-y match-y clothing for herself, and for me and our little sister, Liz. She made me change my clothes before the school bus came if my choices did not fit her aesthetic. One of her Christmas presents to me was a razor set, when I was old enough (but not motivated) to shave my legs. I resented her guidance fiercely, innate rebel that I was, but she saved me from myself in many instances. I might have been more of a nerdy outcast than I already was if she had not lent me some of her fashion sense by sheer force of big sister insistence. It helped that she was pretty: fine-boned and thin, with tiny wrists, ankles, and fingers that I admired surreptitiously.
Mary the high school student got good grades, wore fashionable carefully-tailored clothing, styled her hair in perfect sixties’ smoothness (think Breck advertisement models - remember them?), and was involved in class politics and activities. I, too, kept up my grades when I entered high school six years after her - it was easy for me, inflicted as I was with unquenchable curiosity. Fashion styles and political winds changed drastically, though, between 1966 and 1970. Wearing my bell-bottom jeans, with long unstyled waves of brown hair and a center part, I became politically involved, though not in school activities the same way Mary had. Instead, I read TIME magazine (cover to cover every week - thank you, dear parents, for the subscriptions you kept up), new ones like Psychology Today and Ms., and then wrote letters to the New York Times about the women’s liberation movement.
Mary, of course, had moved on to college and then marriage to a Vietnam veteran who became like a brother to me. Our paths diverged for a while. Then she, mother of two girls and a boy, joined me the night before I went in the hospital to have my first baby. We were making a bed, I complaining about how uncomfortable I felt at almost the full 9 months. In the other room, our families ignored us and ate pizza in our Friday night routine. It was the calm before the storm, as I became a parent that weekend: the universe shifted, tilted, and turned upside down. Luckily, she was able to spare me a few minutes here and there (by then she was teaching full time) to help me with Caesarian section recovery, breastfeeding issues, and sleep deprivation.
Mary and I were mothers together, and also teachers, she in second grade for most of her long career, I in middle school for most of mine. She switched from social work, a job she got right out of college before babies arrived. We began to have recurring conversations about how to fix some of the more vexing problems of school management, curriculum planning, and instructional design. “When we open our own school, … “ was the refrain we returned to so often. It was no surprise to May when I decided to resign from my classroom and study for a doctorate in education. It was no surprise to me when Mary became the cheerleader of my family support group.
Before that, though, when my first marriage collapsed, Mary helped when she could. Her three children were teens: I knew she was busy; she knew I was depressed. My approach to depression was different from hers, but she provided some needed therapy, taking me to the cheap movie theater for something funny or trucking me way the hell down the Vestal Parkway to Kohl’s to buy outfits she thought looked good on me (she has never given up on my fashion sense - some of them even looked good to me). She was frightened by my involvement in internet dating, but asked me about memorable meetings. When one love affair broke up in a spectacular way after three difficult years, she was the first person I called, the one to come down the hill to my house to console me, the one to insist that he give back a recent gift she’d given to him - one of her beautiful pottery mugs.
Although we experienced menopause in different ways, Mary was also a guide for me as I entered this next phase of womanhood. She nudged me to discuss pre-menopause, hormone replacement therapy, and regular mammograms with my Ob-Gyn. Her hot flashes had become debilitating, while mine were at first horribly annoying but less and less so. I always resisted chemical solutions that helped her, but our conversations about what was new in the field were more important than our differences of opinion.
Her artistry as a potter has become another topic of our conversations, as I have advanced with my music, art, and writing. We discuss her designs, the newest pieces out of the kiln, my song arrangements, a recently published letter to the editor, the latest band, or the draft of a speech I’ll deliver in Albany. I advise her on pricing pieces for annual sales in spring and fall.
When John, my great love, found me in 2008, she rejoiced along with me. They conversed as artists and collaborated on some design ideas. One morning, over coffee at her house, John said, “Mary, I had a dream about some leaves you put on mug handles.” He drew his idea, later sculpting them with clay for Mary to try out. Thus began a series of discussions, as Mary began to know and love John as a friend.
When I had to greet Mary with the news that John’s suffering with a lung ailment led him to choose a dignified death, she fought it, and argued with him as much as she felt she could. It may have been harder for her to accept his end, for she had not had the chance, as I had, to discuss with John his beliefs and approach to the metaphysics of existence. She has mourned him with me: we are sisters in grief.We are also sisters in caring for our aging mother, Maddy, who in her mid-nineties requires emotional strength and creative problem-solving of her caregivers. We meet each Friday morning to vent, talk out solutions, cry a little, plan, and to take care of each other. We’ve come a long way from the sisters fighting about sharing a bedroom.