From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Beach Day

When I told my three older children that we were going to have a new baby, they each had a different reaction. Anny, the oldest at twelve, promptly burst into tears. She had never been good at handling change and was always the child who needed the five-minute warning whenever we had to change activities. (“Okay, sweetheart, in five minutes, it will be time to clean up the blocks and go eat lunch.”) I think she also cried because, though she couldn’t express it in words, she was at that stage where she had just learned what one had to do to get babies and was mortally embarrassed that her friends would know that her parents still did “that!”

Rachael, three years younger and wanting something different than just girls in the family, promptly announced that she would call the baby “Jacob.” It didn’t matter that the baby turned out to be a fourth daughter. Rachael called her sister “Jacob” and took every opportunity to dress her in blue until Elliana was four months old.

Kayla, four at the time, promptly announced that when the baby came, she herself would give up her pacifier so she could be one of the “big” sisters. She did, too.

Each of them had a reaction to being a big sister to this beautiful little baby number four that clearly reflected her own unique personality. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized how profoundly and distinctly each older sister had imprinted this little one, and I guess, each other as well.

A few weeks before Anny was to leave for college, I took the four girls to the beach. With twelve years between the oldest and youngest child, it was getting nearly impossible to find an activity that we could all enjoy together. At eighteen and fifteen respectively, Anny and Rachael often (and understandably) didn’t want to do things that were appropriate and fun for their eleven- and six-year-old sisters. More often than not, these older two, who had grown quite close since the previous fall when Rachael entered high school, were off on their own with their own friends. Anny enjoyed having a sister at the high school with her and often was the driver when the two of them went to basketball games or movies with friends. They had a life apart from the rest of the family, largely due to Anny’s sense of responsibility and the fact that she had a driver’s license.

But going to the beach was one activity we could all enjoy together. Summer was almost over and everyone was feeling the approaching strain when Anny would leave for college. Already, it seemed a hole in the fabric of our family was looming. The girls didn’t talk about it outright, but I knew each of them could feel it. I did, too.

The sun was high and hot as we unloaded our gear and slathered on sunscreen. But the breeze off Lake Michigan was cool and the water looked inviting. I set up a big umbrella, spread out the blanket, and prepared to park myself under it to read. The three older girls went down to the water’s edge to look for shells and get their toes wet. Elliana settled down next to me with a shovel and pail and proceeded to build a sand castle. But after a few minutes, she asked if she could go down to the water with her sisters.

Unwilling to relinquish my comfortable position, I called to the big girls and motioned for them to come back. I asked them if they would watch Elli down by the water and let her gather some shells. To my surprise, they agreed without an argument.

I watched them walk away from me—four tan, perfect little bodies in various states of growth: two womanly shapes with long legs and slim hips; one still with baby fat around her middle carefully hidden under her older sister’s oversized T-shirt; and one still in the sweetness of little girlhood, tiny, pudgy, deliciously unself-conscious.

They held hands.

I went back to my book for a few moments, secure that I could trust the older ones to make sure Elli did not venture too far out in the water. But then something made me put my book down and look for them.

They were walking down the beach, the two older ones in front, Kayla next, Elli trailing behind. Every so often, one of them would call to the others, bend down, pick up some found treasure, and put it in Elli’s pail. Then the little procession would continue. But I noticed that Elli was not looking for shells. She was playing a different game, watching her sisters. She seemed to be hopping from side to side, following directly behind them. When they stopped, she stopped. Sometimes the older three walked with each other, side by side. But Elli always stayed behind them. She seemed happy bringing up the rear.

It took me a few minutes. Then I realized what she was doing. Elli was walking in her sisters’ footprints.

The afternoon wore on. We ate and napped under the big umbrella, the girls using each other as pillows. When it was time to go, I gathered everything up and we loaded the car. I waited until we were all in the car together before I asked Elli about her game.

She told me, “I was trying to walk in only Anny’s prints. But she takes too big of steps, so I had to use one of Rachael’s feet or Kayla’s to get to Anny’s. It didn’t matter whose footprint I was in but I wasn’t allowed to step on the sand outside a print. That was the game.”

Her sisters heard her but they didn’t pay too much attention. Or so I thought. Several days later when I was helping Anny pack the last of her things before she left for school, she said, “I wish you hadn’t had me first.”

I thought she was expressing her fear at leaving home so I started to reassure her that everything would be okay, that she would love college and being on her own. . . . But she stopped me.

“I’m not nervous about going to school. I’m nervous about not being everything they need me to be.”

I hadn’t realized how seriously Anny had taken her responsibility as the oldest sister. She knew, had probably known all along, how much they looked up to her.

I wanted to tell her that she had done her job well, had given them what they needed when they needed it, that she was a good role model. That each of them would make decisions in life influenced by each other but always lead by her good example. She was a good big sister, the best big sister. I wanted to tell her all that.

“The other day at the beach. . . .” she began.

It was my turn to stop her. I said, “The other day at the beach when you were in the lead and the others followed you? When you set the pace, always looking back to make sure they were there right behind you where they were supposed to be? When I didn’t get up—not once—to check on any of them because I knew you were watching out for their safety as you always do? That day at the beach?”

I smiled at her, knowing better than to cry.

“Do you think they’ll be okay without me? They can miss me a little, but do you think they’ll be okay? You know, Rachael has done some things this year in high school. . . . I promised her I wouldn’t tell.”

“Then don’t,” I said. “Evidently, you handled it.”

“But she’s the oldest sister here now.” She stopped and thought a minute. Then she said, “Let them call me whenever they want, okay? Don’t ask them why, just let them. Promise?”

I promised, aware that we were talking about some secret sister bond that existed among them completely apart from me.

I hoped my oldest daughter would realize that as they had done that day at the beach, each sister would follow in the footsteps of one of the others. But, as Elli had showed us all, it was always available to hop from one sister’s prints to those of another, if needed. Because each sister, influenced by the others, would leave her own indelible mark in the sand—and on the world.

She got it. Among the socks and underwear (and her sister’s sweater, probably unbeknownst to her sister) that were going off to college with Anny were four tiny pink seashells, carefully wrapped up in tissue paper.

Just a small memento from a day at the beach.

Marsha Arons

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