From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Taking Care of Each Other

On my sister’s fourth birthday, she got a fire engine. She flung herself across it, scooting around the linoleum, her frilled panties visible and her curls bouncing. She was the justifiable center of attention—it was her birthday. I recall feeling resentment and anger and wanting that darn fire engine. I’d never had a penchant for fire trucks before.

After a second, she got off the engine, distracted by a new doll. With a slight smile she shoved the truck in my direction. My resentment melted.

We played out similar scenes throughout our childhood. The Chatty Cathy doll from the eighth birthday party became joint property. My sister was a pretty child; she danced well, excelled in athletics and had a herd of friends.

I was a brooding bookworm.

She recalls different days. She still has the delusion that she only passed algebra because of me. One of her favorite stories from high school centers on needing a ride and calling one of my erstwhile boyfriends to fetch her.

But from the moment she shoved that fire truck across the floor, we shared. She may have been younger in years but she set a pattern of a lifetime of sharing. She took care of me even though she was “the baby.”

Sitting in the middle of boxes and bags after the death of both of our parents we had the horrible task of dividing the knickknacks and mementos of our family. We started with sticky notes. Going around the house, we each affixed notes to whatever we wanted. We even created a third category—“I don’t want this, but I don’t want it sold so if you don’t want it, I’ll take it.” It was a sad task. Mom and Dad would have been proud. We’d heard of siblings driven apart by desire for a duvet or lust for a love seat, but we grew closer in our grief.

My parents left a lot of things. But they only left us each one sister.

No conflict. Tears, memories and laughter—“Why did Mom save the canceled checks for all our toddler finery?” And “Well, we have proof they paid the light bill in 1958.” “And, in ’59.” I also now know my sister can’t be repossessed. I saw the paid hospital bill for her birth.

My sister is the organized one. She took charge of canceling the cable, dealing with Social Security and arranging a real estate agent. I’m the emotional one. I fulfilled the Jewish tradition of attending daily services to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer honoring our departed parents. My sister carved safety out of chaos by organizing it. I created more chaos by ranting and crying.

We each did what we needed to do to seal the open wound left by being orphaned.

While we were sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of their forty-five years together the phone rang. It was one of the organizations Mom made charitable donations to frequently. “She’s passed away,” my sister said.

Then I heard her say, “Oh my sister handles that,” before she handed me the telephone. The caller wanted to pray for my mom.

I muttered something and got off the phone barely able to control my giggles. “What was that for?”

“Well,” she said. “That’s how we share it: I do bills, and you do prayer.”

I looked at the mess we’d made pulling decades of old clothes out of closets, piling them up on every surface. “Do you ever want to go to synagogue with me? I mean I could understand if you felt uncomfortable because it’s been so long.”

She continued making notes on her pad for the estate sale. “No. I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t think that it would meet a need for me.”

I watched her organize, categorize and fill the page with careful documentation.

“I do know it will be there if I ever need it,” she added. Her voice was soft. Her words hung like specks of dust in the still air of the house no one lived in any longer.

Since that day I’ve had moments when I feel alienated from my religion. Sometimes when I get caught up in my daily concerns, it seems like services are just another chore to be checked off. I’m not a world-class housekeeper; in fact, I expect the board of health to condemn my kitchen soon. Yet, every year I undergo the laborious task of cooking and cleaning for Passover, doing what I need to do to keep Judaism alive.

When I wonder what it’s for, why I repeat the rituals and say the prayers during moments when I don’t feel particularly spiritually inclined, I recall that afternoon between the bags and boxes.

I have to do my small bit to keep Judaism going—my sister might need it one day. We’ve always taken care of each other. That afternoon among the boxes she took good care of me.

Diane Goldberg

More stories from our partners