Last week, family and friends gathered to honor the life of my great aunt Elaine, who died at age 89 after a long illness. I showed up just a few minutes before the service began, as is my way, and settled in next to my little sister, Betsey. Displayed on the dais of the funeral home were bonsai trees half my height, hats that rivaled Kentucky Derby chapeaus, and stacks of books of poems. This is what I knew of Elaine: her talents for gardening and verbose poetry, her loud clothes, her eccentricity. I’ve never seen her home; I don’t know her friends or even her daughter.
We saw each other once a year, maybe twice depending on the occasional wedding or graduation (Having three sisters means there are constantly parties celebrating our life markers.) My most vivid memories of Elaine are from my family’s annual Christmas brunch. Each year, she arrived with her sister, Dorothea (or Aunt Dot, who is still kicking), and a Tupperware of her famous pesto dip, a recipe that changed slightly every year. Watching those two interact was a highlight of the holiday. Once, we asked Dot if she and Elaine lived together. She looked horrified by the idea and set us straight. We couldn’t help but giggle at her reaction.
You see, they couldn’t have been more different. Elaine was a believer of “more is more, ” and her sartorial choices proved it. If something had sequins or gems on it, she’d wear it. One year, she wore butterfly clips in her hair, whose wings fluttered as she danced to Christmas carols. Dot, on the other hand, prefers classic fashion and is more quietly elegant. Elaine was talkative, goofy, and showered people with compliments. She spoke often of her Christianity, lost loves, and deepest beliefs. Dot is more reserved and private, although she’s been known to come through with a one-liner. Both, though, represented to me infallible work ethic, independence, and personal style.
And yes, we laughed at Elaine’s champagne-fueled shimmying. We squeezed hands tightly as she sang a pre-dinner prayer so long it would give megachurch preachers pause. There might have been an eye-roll or two, even from Dot. But we deeply admired Elaine’s joy, her talents, and generosity of spirit. There was something precious about how unselfconscious she was, and I know I could stand to mirror that attitude.
Betsey and I are the only siblings in our family to have the same two parents, and though we’re proud of our family’s blended nature, we can’t ignore that she and I have a different relationship than the rest of our crew. We’re four and a half years apart in age, grew up in the same house, and went to the same schools. However, we’re pretty dissimilar. Betsey is slim, and I’m curvy. She’s a Republican, and I’m…not. She’s married to a handsome all-American Southern gentleman, and I usually go for more offbeat types. Betsey is devoid of body art, and I’ve made some questionable ink choices. She’s private and doesn’t publicly show much emotion. I, on the other hand, wear my heart on my sleeve and publish poetry that spills my guts.
You get the picture. I’m glad to say that we’re close, but it wasn’t always that way. A long-running joke is that she and I nearly come to blows at family gatherings, usually Christmas Eve. Though that used to be true, I’m grateful it’s not anymore. We’ve found a way to honor our differences and team up against any bullshit that threatens each other’s happiness.
Once, someone said to us “You’re the brains, and she’s the body.” Had I a time machine, I’d go back and kick her in the shins, or at least explain how wrong she was. Betsey is brilliant, but doesn’t hit you over the head with it. She’s a marketing genius, and her wit continues to blow my mind. She’s stunning and fit, yes, but she’s no Barbie. Her jokes are irreverent, timely, and sometimes even shocking. She’s hard-working and has incredible self-control. I’m in awe of her maturity and discipline. She’s built a beautiful life for herself, and though it looks like a J. Crew catalog, I love knowing how secretly weird she is. If there’s a true crime documentary, she’s seen it, probably twice. Once, she ate seven hot dogs in one sitting. She calls her dog “Hector” when his name is Ace. She used to be obsessed with owning a ferret.
It’s not a stretch to say that my relationship with Bets mirrors that of Dot and Elaine, and we can refer to their deep love for each other as an example of how to move forward. Elaine’s death reminded me that I have no right to judge anyone’s goofy behavior, creative output, or aesthetic, but also that my relationship with my younger sister should be a higher priority. The complexity of sisterhood is rarely rivaled. You’re not guaranteed a close relationship by blood. It would be easy for me to let communication fall by the wayside because I know she’s not going anywhere, but it would do a disservice to the bond we’ve worked hard to foster.
On the short list of our similarities is our fear of flying. Despite all of our international travel, we both get shaky in the air. When we were younger and traveled alongside our mother, we all held hands and prayed. These days, I’m agnostic, yet can’t help but send pleading vibes for safety into the ether. Last week, we flew to North Carolina to visit our older sister, and on the way home were met by intense turbulence. I was scared, but Bets much more so. She hates being touched, but grabbed my hand and squeezed. In my head, I repeated a promise: “I’ve got you. I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
Written by Anna Claire Hodge; PhD, accomplished writer, and monthly columnist for The Boutique Next Door. Find more of her work on her website, www.annaclairehodge.com, and follow her endeavors on Instagram @to.thine.own.self.be.trill.