From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Comfort Zones

It is in the shelter of each other that people live.

Irish Proverb

Some years back I pored over black and white family photos in order to decipher mysteries of my past. My sister Kathleen and I didn’t smile much. In each photo, whether we wore corduroy overalls or Grandma’s finest hand-sewn dresses, my sister’s arm is secured around my shoulders. Her tiny body posture shouts, “This is my sister. Leave her alone!” From what, I wondered, was she protecting me?

Then I began to remember.

I was no fan of bedtime. When we left our closet door open, the clothes by day became ghosts by night. The sprawling sweet potato vine in the pink bird cage planter reached for me. I covered my eyes. I didn’t dare get up because of the snapping turtles under my bed. And when Dad came home, I’d lie there and listen to my parents fight. The thunder of Dad’s belligerence. The lightning of Mom’s terror. Plugging my ears didn’t silence the storm. I tried to muffle my sobs in the pink comforter that Grandma made with the cherries hand-stitched on top.

Soon it was Kathleen’s voice I heard. Standing next to my bed, she whispered, “Don’t be afraid. Come and get in bed with me.” I inched out of bed, careful not to disturb the turtles.

We climbed into my sister’s twin bed. “Don’t pay any attention to them. They won’t hurt you.”

“But I’m afraid they’ll hurt each other.”

“They won’t. Moms and dads just get mad at each other sometimes.”

“Do they hate each other?”

“I don’t know, but they don’t hate us.” She was sixteen months wiser than I was.

She parted the pink- and white-striped café curtains and pointed toward the neighbor’s house. “Hey, look! She didn’t shut them yet.”

Our neighbor’s cuckoo clock hung on her wall in direct view of our bedroom window. Night after night, we’d hope with all our might that Barbara wouldn’t pull her massive draperies before the cuckoo appeared.

“Look, they’re getting closer.”

The exquisite carved boy in lederhosen and girl in pinafore inched toward each other for a kiss. When their lips met, the cuckoo announced the hour. On summer nights we heard him. We always laughed. The show was over when Barbara pulled her drapes.

“Let’s go to sleep now.” Kathleen yawned, prompting a similar response in me. I’d fall asleep in the crook of her arm. Some mornings I’d wake up in the same position. She never complained.

Decades later when I was on the verge of my own divorce, my sister invited me to live with her. “You need a comfort zone right now.” I agreed.

We were both teachers, and every day after school we walked six miles. I vented; she listened.

“I can always tell when you’re upset,” she’d say. “You start walking so fast I can’t keep up with you. Why don’t you just pretend the pavement is his face?”

I laughed. Then I walked hard and fast on the pavement portrait. Anger exited my body via the soles of my Nikes. “I love it!”

“I know how well it worked for me.”

We lived close enough to hear each other’s heart beat for nine months. At the end of the school year, she followed her heart to the ocean. Mine led me to the mountains. We’ve acknowledged we’ll probably never live in the same state again.

When she came to visit last year, she followed me up a mountain on a horse—a major accomplishment for one with a lifelong fear of heights.

“I’m so proud of you, Kathleen!”

“I only thought I was going to die a couple times.”

“You did? I didn’t know that.”

“Just like you didn’t know I was scared to death when Mom and Dad fought.”

“You were?”

“Sure, but I felt important and needed when you were scared. I couldn’t let you down.”

“I always thought you were the brave older sister.” I hugged her hard.

Yesterday I had a touch of the blues. My family and friends seemed so far away. As I was trying to get over myself, the phone rang.

“Hi Sweetie!” I felt the arm around my shoulder as surely as if she were standing in the room with me. We talked for an hour. When I hung up, I was wrapped in her familiar comfort zone.



Melinda Stiles

CLOSE TO HOME. © John McPherson. Reprinted with permission of UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. All rights reserved.

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