My two older siblings and I spent a few days together recently. It’s a welcome yearly occasion. One is a musician/photographer/world travelling brother, one a retired executive director of social services sister–and, of course, me. This is unlike the more frequent “three sisters’ trips” and visits shared with our oldest sister, now gone. And the last time we met in 2018 was after our older brother passed. (So this year it is only us, down to three from four, and before that, down to four from five.) Since it is a more rare occasion, our get-togethers mean that much more. We swap stories, share food, take walks, nothing fancy. Sometimes it is enough to just be with siblings; lots of chatter can be less important than you might suspect.
In some ways, this year’s gathering was as usual, mutual changes noted. There have been a few since we are older, as expected, and still it can hit us as surprising. After all, we grew up together, and it can be easier to hang on to how it was than meet the present head-on. But there it is; we are the same if different and it is likely to continue this way. That we are siblings will never alter; the ties are deep.
I doubt anyone accurately predicted we’d become who we have been, done what we’ve done, and ended up in our respective spots. Though since I am the youngest of five, I can’t say I recollect entirely what Wayne and Allanya (and the others) were like when I was a child. Five years younger than she and seven younger than he, I tended to feel they were a set, like semi-twins; the oldest two sibs were the same with one and a half years’ difference. I was out of the primary circle of four due to my late arrival, and how I saw them was through a lens of the littlest one who looked up to them literally, and otherwise. I trailed them about, happily but was called a “pest” often if also was routinely looked after and taught things helpful or not so much, blamed/teased and generally, at the very least, tolerated. I forged my own ways and world as they grew up, while I remained a kid a few years longer. By age 13, they had all become college students and I was alone in my room and with my thoughts. I saw them infrequently after that–until my later thirties or so.
Wayne, as I think back to our childhood, seemed quietly and warmly outgoing, helpful with many friends, and he was good with kids. Like all of us, he was from an early age a string player–viola–and played in orchestras as well as with the rest of us and our father in our impromptu gatherings. Allanya laughed robustly and this drew people to her. She adored animals but had just cats (enjoyed then lost many, played a mean game of softball (as did our other sister). he had chosen cello to start (as did our biggest sister and I) then switched to flute and then, happily, bassoon. We all sang, at church and in school; I sang with a pop trio and performed in musical theater productions and wrote and performed songs with a guitar. There were so many stages and musical performances we all were involved with, they blur in my memory. Music was our common denominator–and all arts were considered of great value from childhood on. The same is so today.
My sister and I were close but fought as siblings can. She packed a mightier punch; our parents would have been horrified to know we had a few actual fights. Three of us sisters shared a room. When it was only Allanya and me, I was by default the underling, scapegoat and accomplice. I was her comforter when another cat was run over in our busy street, and when her heart was otherwise broken, a repository of dreams and struggles.
A favorite scheme was when she wanted extra food, typically dessert–she’d she’d hand it off to me in a napkin under the dining room table so Mom didn’t see. (She tended to heavier while I have been more skinny–still fight to keep on pounds.) I knew that meant I was to somehow whisk it away to our room and hide it until later. It worked, generally, if I didn’t eat some of it first. From this experience I was learning part of my role.
When I was a teen it meant that even when no one else knew she was gay, I did, before I understood all it meant. I, of course, told no one after I saw her, a college camp counselor (I was a camper, not in her sphere) with another camp counselor at an arts camp. I kept mum until she officially came out, then eventually legally married the woman with whom she remains. (I admit that after that, I said less about my own romantic yearnings of the guys in my theater class or in orchestra; later I realized love was love.) Once I mailed a box with many journals to her for safekeeping, then we threw them out later. She shared the truth of matters no one else suspected. We grew closer, also had fun together when visiting even though she left home, then moved far away. We had learned to trust each other greatly. We are, in fact, still best friends in the way we can be.
She taught English a few years but found her true calling within social service agencies, whether helping people with HIV/AIDS and LGBT issues or pregnant homeless girls or teen runaways or battered women’s shelters. Her skills included advocating and organizing as she oversaw massive community work, and also did fund raising for millions. In the meantime, she ran side businesses–rebuilding/restoring furniture, buying and selling turquoise jewelry and other collections, investing in real estate and flipping renovated houses. My sister has always loved being busy accomplishing something. And, she’d agree, making money–it was a pleasing challenge.
Was this what our hometown folks expected of her? I think they thought she would be a teacher like she’d planned (and likely married to a man). But she did formally and informally educate others about important social matters.
Unfortunately, Wayne and I have not been as close. Inevitably, perhaps, because he is male; we simply shared less time together–though there was affection– as he roomed with our older brother (though they were not too close). He also spent more time with Allanya in school or musical events. He was tall– at least six feet to my five foot four inches–though everyone was– and he moved with a casual grace. I believe he liked tennis, and was thrilled with a good game of ping pong. And he swam often, loved to dive until he sliced open his head and got a concussion when slamming a diving board on the way down. A terrible day.
His enjoyment of the water coincided with mine and so we’d swim around and past each other in pools or northern lakes; he might show me things as we dove off a raft or board. His serious accident, frankly, did not deter me from working on my own swan and jackknife dives and flips, even from a high dive board. I figured if he could master these, so could I. The accident was “just” an unfortunate pause; he recovered. Then, in winter, we sledded, tobogganed, ice skated and built forts from which to throw monster snowballs. I was quick if not the biggest, and knew how to compete! Mostly, I admired his congeniality and his talents from afar more than from up close so am delighted that has changed over time.
But we all got separated year by year, went to different colleges, landed jobs, married, moved to other cities. Though I did live with my sister a year in Seattle after high school… truth was, I was given a one way ticket by our parents to stay with her after I ran into trouble with drugs, and wrestled with PTSD from past abuses. We lived in a great mossy cabin on Lake Washington with an artist she knew who also became a longtime friend. It was at the lapping lake on a half acre of land. We smoked pot and made art and music, studied eastern religions and had philosophical discussions into the early morning. It was 1969; that was how many of us lived. My sister did alright in work and life. I didn’t make much progress as I racked up hours at an A&W drive in restaurant as a roller skating waitress, and hung out with an older, wilder bunch, a guy who loved his motorcycle and partying. I learned about drug dealers and drug dealing and often looked out across the lake and wondered, in tears, who I had become and how I might reclaim what mattered most. Yet we sisters had each other’s backs no matter what. It should have been better for us both. I might have styed and enrolled in college there, but did not. We remained in close touch after I went back to Michigan.
My brother, meanwhile, had taken a required ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program in college, and later entered the Army though he held a music education degree, a minor in history. I did not think we had much in common and was likely correct. While I had been railing against the Vietnam War, he was overseas enmeshed in it and what we hippies called The Machine. Then, when he returned to stateside, he was not the same. There was a stunned stillness to his typically animated self and it scared me. Yet he stayed on with his Army career many years.
Was this what people would have expected? He might have been a choir director, an historian, or a teacher of music theory like our father. I don’t think most would have expected him to become a career Army officer but it made sense to him and he did his work well.
It would take me decades to get to know Wayne again, due to differences in our lives but also actual miles between us. You, too, have to build a habit of genuinely engaging even with family (maybe especially). When I did visit with him, I watched, listened, shared what I felt I could, though some still felt too private. I waited. Over time, life got less arduous, more normalized. I visited him on the East coast; he flew out to Oregon every year or so to see us four sibs living in the Pacific Northwest. When, for my 60th birthday, my siblings bought me a ticket to celebrate it with them at his home (with his second wife, whom I enjoy) I felt enriched with the growing appreciation and love. It was one of the best family gatherings I’d had, just being together a few days. And we later met up as much as we could.
Wayne has traversed the world constantly since he and his wife retired from the Army. It is as if their stops at home are a brief respite before they return to lives they more need and desire to lead. It is so far afield from from my life; I cannot keep up with all the countries they’ve been to–most all, some several times. It exhausts me to consider the miles they fly and how they partake of what they encounter but the experiences also fascinate me. I eagerly await tales they share. This last Oregon visit was on the heels of more European travels (lastly Switzerland and France, I think). And I sure look forward to viewing the photos since they are both fine photographers.
Wayne got engaged with his passion as a young adult when he was stationed overseas; he snapped and developed black and white pictures then. Some of those wartime images are moving. haunting. Since then he has studied, learned and exhibited often. It has been a pleasure to see how his work has evolved over many years.
He and his wife have been professional string instrumentalists and vocalists; he recently retired from rigorous performance work. I am sure he will still sing for special occasions when he called to do so, as he loves music, still. As we all do, in our way–how can we not? It is in our blood and heart. But while he continued to perform, I did not, but left it to raise a family and more. And sometimes that feels like a very large chasm between us, though we talk music, embrace it together, nonetheless.
I have shared much of my life here so it is known that I was a home care manager for elder care/disabled adult services for a few years, then was a clinician mental health/addiction treatment field for 30 more. And raised five kids. I didn’t reach certain goals I had growing up. I believe Allanya and Wayne have. I’d guess my emotional and physical trials were of a different nature than theirs, and fall-out less private than my siblings’. But I am first to praise them and so enjoy being their sister.
Would people have expected this life for me? My close friends were likely just relieved I stayed alive– and created some happiness. And as far as the career, I think some would while others may have expected I’d seek a life of performing. Having a big family? I doubt it. Writing more than this? Perhaps. Life happens and we often plan around it, just live it as it unfolds- I do not regret it. There is good in this living every single day. There are lessons to be gleaned in all changing circumstance. I am a willing student, and a seeker of Spirit and so I go with the river as much as I am able.
My family makes a patchwork design; we have all kinds, of course, with many so-called eccentrics or to use a modern term, “creatives”, with unique perspectives. Dysfunction or any significant challenges also impact members differently in any family. People learn to adapt, survive, strengthen and find healing, and it goes better if they use several resources and work at it. I would say the three of us have recovered from much if not most all of our woundedness over time. We let go of more with each year, I feel. No one can know for sure, even a brother and two sisters, what we have lived but ourselves.
But we are strong and bendable, thankfully. We’ve made or captured countless wondrous moments, taken chances to forge our own way. We also share a heart for others. Our passion for fine and performing arts is primary; we value and respect differences even if it demands much; and we believe in a loving Divine Power, a genius web of vast creation. This, despite scars and remaining secrets we must sort out or release, our defects and weaknesses and those failures to do what might have been much better to do or say. Like every family, we are so fallible individually and also as a whole.
Wayne had to fly back to the East coast after 4 days; Allanya and I, of course, remain in Oregon. She has worsening dementia, almost unbelievable and yet she is herself, who she always was, and we flow with her flow. She remains amazingly good-natured, and does realize she has short term memory loss and confusion. We talk about it– and many other things, as ever we have. It all began with several car accident and resultant concussions but has has evolved into a quite foreign illness we are trying to grasp and accept. This has not been in our family; we are new to such necessary understanding and are improvising as we learn more.
Our brother and I are not sure what is next. I am here, while he will be there and yet we will figure things out together. It is hard to accept at times that what or who she knows today she may not know or be able to share the next day. Or even the next hour. Wayne and I are the last who can remember much of the family’s past and also this busy present–and will hopefully for a long while. He is 75; I am 69. And blessed to feel well, overall, well engaged in living. He will again be travelling to, I think, South America to start with, along with his equally adventurous wife. And they will be taking more photographs.
I will be tending babies and my family, enjoying friends as I can, taking my own impromptu photos and writing with time stolen, and immersing myself in nature’s gifts, as ever. And praying for more strength and grace, please, Lord.
I gave a last-day-of-visiting barbecue for some of my kids and their partners and my youngest’s new baby twins for Wayne last week-end before he left. I found it absorbing to just sit back as my son, Joshua, asked questions about Wayne’s military career inception, how he rose in rank and why he remained in the Army. And if you had been there, it would have been this: a forty-something house painter/pro skateboarder with many scars and tattoos and also beads around his neck–asking his only surviving uncle, now–with sincerity– just what he learned, and more of who he is. And his uncle told him some of that story. And then asked after his nephew’s skateboarding and life. And we talked about other relatives here and long gone, and our genealogy. Life as it is, common, valued.
And how lovely as we sat in the glow of sunshine on the balcony, eating tasty grilled fare, sharing it all and laughs. The company of those I love is so worth keeping.
We start out seemingly empty of personal agendas, hands and minds clean of miscalculation. As a grandmother I can attest to this, and study my twin granddaughters and see only eager and immense possibility for their individual life paths–it is vividly apparent in their searching eyes, ready responses, new skills and guileless anticipation at four months.
My brother cradled each one of the twins, smiled and chatted with them, then he hummed and sang and said: “A flat? Can you sing A flat with me?” And they cooed and smiled at him and maybe, just maybe, one of the girls hummed in response, that note or in its vicinity. This is our family. This is our way of caring. Who will the little ones become? As we all discover, there is a momentum as we undergo a curious series of events, just journey through each hour upon this earth. I feel fortunate to have my two remaining siblings and to witness their decency. To share affection that shapes time and tales. To be able to say, I am one of this small tribe, blood of this blood.
2 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: The Visit”
Those photographs with your sister are the most relaxed I have ever seen you
Ha, random shots as we were just goofing around, eh? Might be my brother’s skills. Most aren’t captured spontaneously while being photographed, I’d guess, but we were distracted! Thanks, Derrick, for commenting.