From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

A Promise to Keep

Last night Margot and I were lying side by side in my bed. It was incredibly cramped, but that’s what made it fun.

Anne Frank of her sister

I have a story to tell you about my sister. While my account is surely full of sisterly love, it’s not necessarily about anything soft, sweet or womanly. Really, it’s the story of how a bond not known to many developed between my sister and me, under some pretty raw but honest conditions in our little brick house in Fort Worth, Texas.

My sister and I weren’t just sisters to each other, we were mothers, too. My mother committed suicide when I was five, and my sister and her twin brother were six. Mama wasn’t living with us at the time, as she had suffered some pretty serious mental illness that eventually split up my parents, and she had moved in with one of my half-sisters in another state.

Dad has never stopped loving my mother and would marry her again today if he could. After her death, things were hard for Dad, not that they were ever easy before. Dad was doing his best with work and getting the three of us to school every day, and the house around us suffered. With just Dad to raise us, I think we figured early on that it would fall to us to do a little of our own parenting.

Besides the house being neglected, we couldn’t afford a lot of things. I remember many winters being without heat or even hot water, and there were many years that we lived without a refrigerator and stove.

One winter when we were nine and ten, my sister and I decided we needed to be bathing more regularly. At the time we didn’t have a hot water heater, but Dad would boil water about once a week and we would take a “splash bath” in the sink. After an embarrassing trip to the doctor, my sister and I concluded this wasn’t enough.

One day the school nurse had taken us off campus to see the doctor, and it turned out we had scabies, which is a kind of skin lice. I guess our teachers noticed we had a weird skin condition and alerted the nurse. In any case, when we went to see the doctor and had to undress, we were ashamed for him to see the dirt rings around our ankles and wrists.

That night, we made a pledge that we would bathe every day. I remember it being a cold night in winter, and the air was plenty chilly in our old house that had just a gas heater in one of the bedrooms. To make good on our promise, my sister and I drew a tub full of COLD water up to our ankles, and both stood in it shivering. Following was some sort of discourse about who would be first to plunge into the water and suds up. I think my sister decided to be the courageous one and down she went into the icy water.

It was pure torture and the air didn’t offer any relief, but we bravely took our turn at soaping up and then rinsing off. I remember how we felt for a few moments falsely warm as the cold air burned our wet skin.

As we promised each other, the bath ritual turned into a nightly routine. Something that we would never have done on our own, we had the discipline and willingness to do because we were doing it together.

There were plenty of other experiences in which we drew together the same way: like when we contracted head lice the year before and had to painstakingly comb each strand of the other’s hair in a dark cold room in front of the fireplace.

I also remember the summer nights without air conditioning when we would open the windows and sleep head to toes, inviting the cats to sit on our stomach. Those nights we would sing every song we had ever learned. What magic we created, just the two of us!

There were plenty of worries those days and lots of reasons to feel insecure, but we created a temporary haven from all of it in the little cocoon of our bedroom.

Later in life, we would both go on to be academically and professionally successful. Others would never guess our origins—in fact, they often assumed we had come from a family of privilege. And indeed we had.

When I think back to those nights in the tub, I understand now where we both got our ability to face the hard things in life. My sister and I, without knowing it at the time, were teaching each other how to find solutions to tough situations, seek promise in situations that didn’t seem to offer any, and mostly to have bravery of spirit.

Although certainly an ice cold bath is not the harshest experience a person can endure, I realize that what we over-came was mostly mental rather than physical. It was believing in ourselves enough to give ourselves our own comfort when Dad was asleep and the house was falling down. The hard part was not the bath but that we had to be adults for ourselves, and to learn a little early to be able to right our own situation rather than be defeated by them.

No one ever modeled this for us, yet somehow between the two of us we figured it out. What we didn’t realize at the time is that the way we handled our bath problem would be the foundation for the way we attacked all problems later. It’s the reason we have both been able to rebound when tough things happen.

When times arise that I don’t feel immediately equipped to endure, I think back to our wintertime cold baths and feel such a sense for who I am. I remember the girls who made a game of it and didn’t think of their own discomfort, but tried to make it more fun for the other. And then I am filled with the extreme knowingness that through my sisters love, I am still able to accomplish everything.

Phoebe Elizabeth Sisk

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