From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Comrades in Arms

Sisters are the easiest people in the world to forgive. Except when they are the hardest. It’s a question of balance.

Source Unknown

Life can be a challenge when you’re just over two years old and a “little mother” to your thirteen-month-old sister. Even at that tender age, I knew being an older sibling and the first child in the family meant I had certain inescapable obligations. Making sure my little sister, Shelley Lynn, did everything she was expected to do was a chore I accepted willingly and perhaps a touch too enthusiastically—as evidenced by the black and white photo my mother took one spring morning in 1952.

Dressed in identical mint-green cotton dresses, Shelley and I were posing, for some long-forgotten reason, in the front yard of our home in Weidman, Michigan. We were supposed to face the camera, hand in hand, and smile like good little sisters. But Shelley decided life would be more interesting if she turned to her left. She ignored our mother’s plea to face the camera, so I took my turn at persuading her. And persuade I did—with a vengeance. Although I don’t remember this exact incident, I remember others like it: times I tried to bend Shelley to my will and came away with bite marks, a much-deserved smack in the chops or sometimes (once in a while, but not very often)—sweet victory!

This time, however, victory eluded me. Shelley put up a mighty struggle and I tried my darndest to subdue her. Apparently, being in the presence of our mother was enough to discourage us from fisticuffs (this time) and we settled instead for choke holds and pinching. The picture shows me, a full head taller than Shel, standing behind her with my arms wrapped tightly around her tiny neck. Struggling for breath, she’s trying valiantly to pry my arms loose and break the choke hold I have on her with her own two chubby arms clawing at mine. I’m determined; she’s determined; it’s a stalemate. The grimaces on our faces tell it all.

Back in those days, casual shots—or at least those depicting murder—were probably considered a waste of valuable film. To her everlasting credit, our mother abandoned all caution and snapped the picture of our sisterly struggles, preserving for all time a scene that would be repeated, again and again, throughout our childhood and teen years. Fortunately, she wasn’t witness to all of them. It might have killed her.

Although we weathered the usual upheavals during our adolescence, we managed, somehow, to string together enough periods of tentative truce and testy tolerance to forge a strong bond of sisterhood. (Not that we didn’t test that bond, mind you. We did our level best to scratch each other’s eyes out on several occasions. The WWF would have been proud of us.) Of course, that sisterly bond would not become apparent until years later, after our independence had been won from schoolteachers, parents and the frustrations of sharing a small bedroom for several years. But bond we did. In fact, relations between us have been much calmer in recent years. We haven’t smacked each other in decades and I can’t remember the last time I pulled a handful of hair from her head. To her credit, I haven’t sported bite marks or a black eye for an equally impressive period of time. We have grown up. We now pride ourselves on our genteel manner and civilized ways. I guess you could say we’ve come a long way, baby.

I’ve discovered, in fact, that she’s quite a wonderful person—loving, gentle, responsible and, for the most part, reasonable. I am still the serious, responsible older sister, endowed with certain rights and responsibilities, not the least of which is my right to insist that she do things my way. Shelley, however (still one year and three weeks younger than I), sometimes insists on running her own life. And that’s not all bad.

Our differences, however, are many. She is dark and petite; I am light and taller. To look at us, you’d never know we’re related. She’s the artist; I’m the writer. I like to throw ideas out and let the chips fall where they may. She’s organized, loves structure and, as a result, gets a lot more done than I do. I started my family at a young age and had three children—one right after another. They are all on their own now, pursuing marriage, careers and lives of their own. Shelley had her children several years later and spaced them out. She’s still in the midst of homework, slumber parties, track meets and parent/teacher conferences. I’m waiting for grandchildren; she’s still waiting for her turn in the bathroom. I’ve worked outside the home for years. Shelley’s worked even harder as a stay-at-home mom/art student and obtained her degree from one of the most prestigious art colleges in America— somewhere in between swimming lessons, broken arms, allergy shots and first dates. But despite our differences, the similarities we do share boil down to this: We love our families, we love our lives and the paths we’ve chosen for ourselves, and we love each other. These likenesses seem to have held us in good stead.

Again and again, Shelley reminds me of the strong bond of sisterhood we share—during the bad times, as well as the good. During a particularly difficult period in our lives a few years ago, when tempers were short and miscommunications and misunderstandings plagued us, Shelley— with God’s help—came to the rescue. For the last few months and for long-forgotten reasons, words had been hard to come by, gestures of love even harder to express. Tensions were mounting, and I didn’t know how to fix things. We found ourselves, once again, at a stalemate. I prayed for a resolution to our problems but couldn’t figure out how to make things better between us. Was our close and loving relationship slipping away forever? Would our stubbornness, our inability to communicate, our pride prevail? Had God given up on us? Or had I?

One evening, she arrived at my front door and handed me a small white box. Inside was a delicate golden pin in the shape of a bow; a small heart-shaped locket dangled from it. Tentatively, I pried open the locket and inside, facing one another, were miniature pictures—one of her, the other of me—when we were not much older than we were in the other photo. This time, there were no grimaces, no struggles—just the innocent smiles of two little girls—sisters— looking back at me. All the misgivings of the previous months melted away. There we were, pressed together for all time in a delicate heart—just as we lived in the hearts of one another. Even though I had remained muddled and inactive, God had softened Shel’s heart and given her the perfect solution to our troubled times.

We need one another. Separate, we are fine; but together, we are spectacular.

We don’t all have to face the same direction in life to enjoy its many delights or take joy in one another. That fading photo and delicate heart-shaped locket are poignant reminders that we can always look at things from a different angle.

Of course, I’m not making any promises. I may have to step in once in awhile and take charge of the situation. After all, I have a longstanding tradition to uphold, and when you’re one year and three weeks older than your baby sister, you most certainly have a thing or two you can teach her. Even if you have to put her in a choke hold to do it.

Deborah Dee Simmons

Deborah and Shelley “posing” for their mother.

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