From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

My Special Sister

There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.

Edith Wharton

I’m running late as I pull into the circular drive in front of the apartment building. My sister is waiting for me as I knew she would be.

“Hi, Sis,” she says, wriggling into the seat.

“Hi. How are you today?”

“The people in my building are trying to get me in trouble,” she grumbles.

“Oh? What are they doing?”

“They’re still trying to break John and me up.”

That routine exchange out of her system, we pull away from her building. “Where we goin’?” she asks.

“I’m taking you to my acting class. We’ll go shopping afterwards.”

I sensed the wheels turning in her head, and I knew what was coming next. “What floor is it on?” she asks. Now in her fifth decade, she’s more and more unsteady on her feet, and stairs fill her with trepidation.

“It’s on the third floor, but they’re easy stairs to climb, and I’ll help you,” I say in what I hope is a reassuring tone. She’s quiet as we head into the city.

At the first stoplight, she breaks the silence. “Guess what, Sis.”


“I made two dollars.” (She lifts two fingers.) “Two dollars,” she repeats, louder.

“At Pizza Hut? They must really like you there.”

“Yes, they do,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I have lots of friends there.”

As I weave my way through traffic, I’m having second thoughts about bringing her. If I hadn’t detoured off my usual route, I’d be on time for my class. Heavy traffic and signal lights seem to conspire against me. I strike the steering wheel in exasperation as a city bus swerves in front of us, then immediately slows down to pick up passengers on the next block.

What was I thinking? I had figured I could save time and give my sister an interesting experience in the bargain. I knew that once we got to the studio, she would sit quietly through the class, waiting with infinite patience nurtured through years of depending on the goodwill of others. But now she represents an impediment to getting to class on time.

We continue to crawl down Lake Street. I would have been there long ago if I had taken the expressway. At 9:00 A.M., when the class is beginning, I’m still ten to fifteen minutes away.

But finally, we’re there. I take my sister’s hand and guide her along the cracked sidewalk to the front entry. She’s nervous, partly because the building itself is unsettling. The block had housed an upscale department store in the 1930s. Once-prosperous storefront windows are now boarded up and covered with graffiti. It’s not a neighborhood she’s used to being in.

The old brick building had once echoed with the sounds of swing music and dancing from the third-floor ballroom. But now, paint on the well-trodden wooden staircase is flaking. The place is dark and musty-smelling. The stairs above look as if they disappear into a second-floor cavern. My sister is shaking, distressed about this dismal building, afraid of the stairs. I take her hand firmly in mine, and trusting me, she begins to ascend the stairs slowly. Very slowly.

Finally, clearing the third flight of stairs, we enter the dingy foyer that decades ago served as an entry to the once-elegant ballroom. The studio is off to the right. My teacher has just finished passing out the day’s assignments. As we enter, he sees right away that my sister is “special,” and to his credit, he welcomes her warmly.

But the bad news is that the students have paired up to act out scenes for this, our last day. I’m the “odd man out.” The teacher says to wait until one of the teams has presented a scene, then I can pair up with one of them for another assignment. A few minutes pass, and he comes back to me.

“I have a couple of scenarios here that I think you could act out with your sister,” he suggests. I stare at him incredulously. He’s got to be kidding. She can’t read. She can’t learn lines.

“Why don’t you give it a try?” he persists.

I look at the scenarios and select one. It’s better to be doing something than sitting and waiting. My sister and I cross the foyer into the old ballroom to work on the impossible. In the scene, one person is trying to persuade the other to take a plane trip.

Until recently, my sister traveled alone by plane each year to see relatives. But along with her general unsteadiness, she now refuses to fly. I decide to just talk to her and let her respond naturally. She will have nothing to memorize.

I begin with, “Why don’t you take the plane to see Wally.” She tenses up and huffily responds, “No way.” I continue to feed her lines to react to. I repeat questions and entreaties to her several times and get her consistent responses. We return to the studio for our presentation.

Finally, it’s our turn. “Lights! Camera! Action!”

I lead my sister onto the stage and begin. “Lelia Mae, the fastest way to get to New York is to fly.”

“I won’t fly!”

“But, Lelia Mae, you know you look forward to seeing Wally every year. And he wants to see you.” She tenses and glares at me, hands on hips.

“No! I want you to drive.”

“But I don’t have time to drive,” I plead with her.

“I won’t go if I have to fly.” She stomps her foot and turns away from me. I turn her back toward me.

“We’ve been over this and over this. I don’t have time to drive.”

She keeps resisting, pushing me away.

Finally, I put my arm around her shoulders. “It’ll be okay. I’ll be sitting in the seat right beside you.”

She folds into me and begins to whimper softly. “Are you sure?”

And the scene is over.

I look sheepishly into the lights, waiting for a reaction, when my teacher erupts with applause. “Bravo! Bravo!”

I think it’s nice of him to make my sister feel good. But it slowly dawns on me that he’s sincere. He explains to the group that what they have seen is a perfect example of what he has been trying to teach us for the last five sessions. “Acting is simply tapping into the natural emotions that we all have. This was wonderful!” My classmates applaud, and everyone pats my sister on the back. “Great job. Great job.”

We negotiate the stairs back down to the street.

Yet once again, my “special sister” had demonstrated her love for me, her trust in me and her eagerness to please me. I also realized how mutual that love is and how important it is for me to go out of my way to do what I can to please her.

Betty McMahon

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