Side by Side

On the last working day of December, my younger sister sends me an e-mail that says simply, “I’m done.” At the ripe old age of fifty, she is officially retired. She is ready, she tells me, to turn over a new leaf, to send the tendrils of her life in a new direction. She is moving to Uruguay.

Now, I don’t have anything against Uruguay, but from my vantage point here on California’s west coast it strikes me as being awfully far away.

Why Uruguay? I wonder. Why not Mexico, or even Costa Rica? Isn’t it enough that she’s going to another country? Does she have to go to another hemisphere as well?

It seems that she must. Something is pulling her, compelling her to transplant herself to a foreign soil that holds, for me, absolutely no appeal.

I wonder how that could happen. How could we end up so far apart when we started out in the same place? When I was eight and she was three we shared the same house, the same room, even the same double bed. I had to draw an imaginary line down the middle of our mattress every night to emphasize the difference between her space and mine. It never worked. By morning she had always squirmed to my side of the bed, and I would wake to an elbow, a fist, or a foot thrust against my middle. It seemed to me then that I couldn’t get away from her.

We experienced childhood side-by-side: hula hooping on the front lawn, careening one behind the other down a slide into a sun-drenched motel swimming pool, racing down the front walk on white shoeskates that were identical in every way except for size. I was the bigger one, the older one, and as bossy as any big sister could be. When we played Follow the Leader I insisted on going first and I made sure that her turn, when it came, was mercilessly short. If we play acted, I always snatched the starring roles for myself, and she had to be content with back-up – Lost Boy to my Wendy, Wicked Godmother to my Sleeping Beauty.

Thinking about those days now, I begin to wonder why she didn’t move to Uruguay sooner. But she didn’t. I was the one who left home – for summer camp, for graduate school, for ever. She was the one who stayed behind, trapped in the ruins of our parents’ marriage, tied to a career and to the care of our mother, a burden she accepted without complaint or reproach.

After my wandering youth was spent, I planted myself in California soil a few hundred miles up the coast from our childhood home. My sister was still in the old house and still playing back-up. She stood as bridesmaid at my wedding; she cared for my children in the first weeks of their lives. But while I coped with the daily trials of raising sons, she coped with the trials of caring for a terminally ill husband and nursing our mother through her last years. To this day I don’t know a fraction of the difficulties she had to face, with little help from her big sister beyond a willing ear.

We never grew apart, but we grew separately, like completely different blossoms sprung from the same root stock. When my sister finished her job as nurse/daughter/wife, she nurtured her creative side. The little girl who used to sing camp songs in my shadow became an actress in community theater, earning the starring roles I never let her have when we were kids. It was the perfect balance to an ever more demanding career that grew in responsibility with each passing year. And then she, in her turn, took to wandering. Each new decade found her in a different house, a different job, a different state: California, to Nevada to Oregon to Florida.

And now to Uruguay. It seems to me that she has become rootless, airborne, like a spore caught on an updraft and carried to some distant shore. For months she has been unburdening herself of possessions, making herself even lighter. On a recent visit she brought me a suitcase full of our mother’s treasures – silverware, a delicate Fostoria dessert service, family photographs aged to the color of pale tea. They take me back to those days in the old house when two little girls with blonde braids giggled and quarreled and sang together in a pink bedroom with one desk and a double bed that they had to share.

What will we share now, with such a vast distance between us? I can’t tell. I don’t speak to her of the distance or say anything at all that might quell her excitement and anticipation. She must go her own way, blossom in whatever clime suits her. And I must learn to think of Uruguay in a new light, not as a distant land and a foreign shore, but as another home — the place where I will go to find my sister.

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