From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul


What do women talk about? Women’s conversation starts in the middle, goes to the beginning and doesn’t have an end; we stop talking as we part and pick up right where we left off when we meet again.

Susan Branen

My sister and I became allies when I was three and she was seven. That’s when it became us against them—the army of children our mother brought into our home to baby-sit. Not that we’d been enemies before then. Francie had always been protective of me, her baby sister, and I followed her around like a baby duck after its mother. One of our family’s favorite stories is of me running after Francie with nothing on but my shoes when she’d dashed off down the street to play with the neighbors. “Wait for me!” I’d cried after her. One of our little cousins called us both “Carolannafrancie” because she’d always heard our names together and thought of us as one entity. But our survival was at stake when our peaceful, gentle lives were infiltrated by crowds of noisy, rowdy and destructive children. We were outnumbered and, as children intuitively do, we built a fortress in defense.

The invasion came about when our father was in a near-fatal elevator accident at work. It would be over a year before he’d return to work and before any money would be recovered from the lawsuit. Our mother realized it was up to her to bring in an income, but was reluctant to leave her two timid daughters with strangers while she worked. So she made the best decision she could at the time: She took children into our home. This was long before day-care centers were common and there weren’t many alternatives for working mothers. Her reputation grew quickly and soon we had as many as seventeen children in our home on any given day. Mayhem broke loose in our bucolic life and reigned until we were grown and left home for college.

Francie and I were both small and noncombative, so we fought our war from a strictly defensive posture. We built a private world around ourselves that included books, Francie’s passion for drawing, and Gina, our boxer dog. Taking Gina for walks up the hill and into the woods was our means of escape into that world. Under the towering, fragrant firs, the three of us would walk single file until we came to our favorite spot. It was a small opening where we’d smoothed out the spongy earth beneath an ancient fir. We’d release Gina to snuffle amongst the underbrush while we’d lean against the broad trunk of the tree to gossip, giggle and grope our way into adolescence. Francie would clear up the mysteries in my life from the wisdom she found in her books. Often she’d take her sketch pad and charcoal and draw while we talked. Sometimes we’d just listen to the silence and breathe the sweet, damp scent of the woods. At dusk we’d brush the fir needles from our clothes and trek back down the hill, timing it so we’d arrive home after most of the kids had been picked up by their parents. There we’d face the noisy wrath of our exhausted mother.

In her teens, Francie drew further into her art and books and away from people, while I reveled and struggled with intense friendships at school. But always we remained the closest of friends. We didn’t dare risk the sibling rivalry we saw amongst our peers. We knew that when it came down to it, we only really had each other. Francie left for college just as I was entering high school. I stood in the room we’d shared for fourteen years, with its twin beds that we’d arranged in every imaginable configuration. On the table between the beds was the record player that had appeared under the Christmas tree one year with both our names on it, along with a little red record called “Susie Snowflake.” It was all mine now; I wouldn’t have to share it ever again. I wept with the emptiness of knowing that things would never be as they’d been before.

There were summers, of course, and Francie and I would pick up where we’d left off, taking Gina into the woods, walking across the bridge into the city to buy art supplies, and all the things we’d always done together. But there was a distance between us now that was undeniable. She had one foot in an adult world I couldn’t begin yet to understand. I left for college at the same time she graduated, and the distance between us grew wider. Then she introduced Ron to the family, and there was the excitement of planning a wedding. Then she was gone.

Ron took a teaching job on the east coast. We’d still be close, I told myself, but Francie was a notoriously poor correspondent and sometimes a year would go by without so much as a letter or card. Eleven years passed without our seeing each other. Then another seven. I can count the visits over the next thirty years on one hand. But when we parted after each visit, it was as if we’d just brushed the needles off our clothes and were following Gina out of the woods.

Francie’s life in upstate New York still centered on her art. She had a studio and art supply store where she could do her work and make just enough money to keep the business alive. Until three years ago, when she lost her lease. The letter I received then was long and so full of pain I longed to hold her in my arms and comfort her. Without her studio, she had no place to do her art. And without her business, she lost contact with customers who’d become friends over the years. From her pain and isolation, she began writing letters as she never had before. Ironically, at nearly the exact time that she lost her studio, I rediscovered my love of writing. I read her letters and saw the open honesty of the emotions she expressed and encouraged her to write. Writing would never replace her painting and sculpting, but it gave us a shared interest and we corresponded eagerly and frequently.

That summer she and Ron were to visit Ron’s mother in Spokane on her eighty-fifth birthday. Their schedule was tight and they didn’t know if they’d be able to make it to my place in Seattle. So I made plans to kidnap Francie for a weekend. I sent her a plane ticket and made reservations at a Benedictine Abbey guest house outside Olympia. I picked her up at the airport and whisked her off to our private retreat. At the abbey we sat in our room, ate with the monks and walked in the woods, talking and talking, filling in the thirty years of our separate lives. Sunday evening before we left, we took one last walk through the woods. We found a clearing and sat against an old fir tree, talking and giggling. Then we stood up, brushed the needles off our clothes and headed back to the airport, our alliance as strong as ever.

Carol Sweet

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