October 16, 2015
By Ekta R. Garg
My baby sister turns thirty today. In her birthday card I told her she should look at her birthday as a time ripe with opportunity. Turning thirty can definitely freak a person out. After all, you’re no longer in your twenties. Filling out official forms, surveys, or whatever else requires checking a new box. A certain sense of adulthood finally starts to settle on a person’s shoulders.
A new decade, however, offers a brand new start. New chances. New adventures.
Because I only have the one sister and I gave birth to two daughters myself, often I can reflect on my own experience as a sister—and an older one at that—to navigate the relationship my daughters share. So I thought it might be fun sharing some of the observations I’ve made in the girls and how those observations reinforce what I already knew or illuminated what I knew in a different light. Like the kind of light that comes from birthday candles.
So this is for my baby sister. Yes, you’ll always be my baby sister, no matter what. You’re not a baby anymore by any means—see below—but a part of my heart will always remember you and keep close that memory of the little kid in the high heels banging a Miss Piggy purse on the floor.
I love you. Here’s to birthdays! (And cake, of course!)
On Thursdays Seven has chess club after school. The club goes to 4:30, but students can be picked up any time between 4:00 and the end of club. Because I have a little bit of leeway in pickup time, sometimes I leave at five minutes to 4:00. Sometimes I leave right at 4:00.
Yesterday I scrambled to finish some components for dinner, but I had an eye on the clock. I was almost done with sautéing some mushrooms at about three minutes to the top of the hour. Nine sat at the kids’ table in the family room drinking her after-school milk and eating her snack.
“Isn’t it time for [Seven] to be home from chess?” she called to me.
“I’m getting ready to leave,” I told her.
I hid a smile. No matter how old or young, from the minute a girl becomes a big sister a switch gets flipped inside of her to look out for her younger siblings. At some point during my childhood my mother told me that I had to look out for my sister. Long after my sister’s eighteenth birthday whenever we went shopping together I would keep checking for her.
It’s a hard habit to break.
Nine had a project to work on early in this school year: she had to put together her autobiography. We started talking about major events in her life, which includes when Seven was born. Because of this Nine has begun parsing out the fact that she and her sister are individuals in addition to being sisters.
Over the weekend Nine looked at me with a grin and tilted her head toward Seven.
“Do you remember what it was like for the first six years before you had one of these?”
It’s true, I was an only child for almost seven years before my sister was born. I have faint impressions of life before her. A sense of alone-ness, although I don’t have any recollection of ever being lonely.
Nine and Seven only have two years between them. Nine will never have any impressions or memories of life as an only child. But I find it interesting that Nine is cognizant of the fact that life could be different—usually is different—with no siblings.
The girls’ personalities are markedly different. Although Nine denies ever being tired at the end of the day, Seven’s energy makes a more tangible impression on all of us. This child is often up between 6 and 6:30 a.m., and she usually can’t sit or stand still.
The other night at the dinner table we talked about getting Nine an alarm clock. Thus far either my husband or I or even her grandfather have woken her up for school. As she gets older, we’re slowly trying to give her more responsibility and enable her to be independent.
“Actually,” she said to counter the alarm clock argument, “I think I’ll put [Seven] in a jar and in the morning she can shake the jar and wake me up, and if I’m in a good mood I’ll let her out of the jar.”
“Hey!” Seven said.
Like typical kids they both thrive and go through their entire day on limitless energy, but the way that energy comes out often makes me laugh. My sister and I have both pulled our fair share of long hours in a variety of situations, but I have no doubt that if someone asked us to describe how we parcel out our energy we’d give remarkably different answers.
Yesterday morning the girls spent the short ride to Seven’s school playing one of their improv games. They often assign roles to one another and then dictate to one another how those roles should perform. As their games progress, sometimes the girls don’t agree on what they need to do in their game.
As we drove to school, all of a sudden Seven exclaimed, “Di-Di, listen to me—Di-Di! Di-Di, do it the way I said!”
My mind had wandered to other things, so I don’t fully know the extent of their game. Seven kept demanding for a few more moments and then Nine acquiesced. She did what Seven wanted her to.
My sister and I often have a similar exchange, on an adult level now. I’ll tease her and she’ll demand I take her seriously. Eventually I’ll give in, indulge. Eventually I’ll listen to her. Because she’s my sister.
With both girls learning to play string instruments, we’ve learned quickly that weather changes can knock an instrument out of tune no matter where in the house we keep it. Because of that the girls’ guitar teacher wants them to learn how to tune the guitar on their own. At their latest lesson the teacher tuned the guitar and then purposely twisted a few strings to make it go out of tune once again so Nine and Seven could practice.
On Wednesday I told the kids to practice their instruments. At some point Seven must have tried to tune the guitar, but she couldn’t do it. Several minutes after I heard from upstairs that they would start working on their guitar, Nine came down to me.
“So, Mr. L. out-tuned the guitar so [Seven] could learn how to tune it herself,” Nine explained, a little bit of frustration evident on her face, “but she couldn’t get it so I tried to help her, and it still doesn’t sound right.”
I’ve never played an instrument, so I didn’t know how to help her and told her as much. But I appreciate that Nine jumped in to help her sister without me having to suggest or request it. For the longest time when I would visit my parents and my sister would visit at the same time, if I noticed that my sister’s bed was unmade in the morning I would go in and make it for her. One morning she saw me and gently asked I stop. She could take care of it herself, she said.
Yeah. She could. And eventually Seven will be able to take care of her own things too. But I also know Nine will be there to help her, no matter how long she’ll need it.
Back in February after we returned from our trip to Hawaii, Seven got sick and had to stay home for a few days from school. A couple of months after that my husband and I went to the parent-teacher conference with Nine’s teacher. At the end of the conference the teacher casually mentioned that Nine had come to school worried about Seven and had shared with her teacher how worried she was.
Nine never told us about this, and during the days Seven was sick she didn’t say anything about it either. But from what the teacher said, I could see in my mind Nine’s face scrunched in concern. And I feel exactly the same way whenever I hear my sister’s not feeling well. I’ve sent care packages to her in the past when I’ve heard she’s ill, but the biggest item in those packages was my sense of helplessness. When someone’s an essential part of you, everything feels out of whack when they aren’t well.
On Thursday evenings the girls have their cello and violin lessons. Because we did an abrupt switch of lessons and even music schools, the only lesson time available to us was Thursday evenings at 6:30. I usually try to have dinner on the table between 6:45 and 7:00, so by the time we’re done with strings lessons and get home it’s about 45 minutes later than our routine dinnertime.
To help her get through her meal a little faster, last night Seven’s dad helped her cut her food so she wouldn’t have to fuss with the fork and knife.
“This feels so babyish right now,” she said, heaving a huge sigh and propping her head in one hand.
“Yeah, well, you’re my baby,” my husband said.
“You know,” Seven replied with a pointed look at her father, “I’m getting really used to hearing that, but I still don’t like it when you say it. I like it when Mommy says it. I believe her.”
She looked at me for affirmation and I smiled. I’m sure my sister feels the same way—she doesn’t mind being our mother’s baby but bristles when I use the term. Doesn’t change anything.
My sister is a remarkable woman who has accomplished so much and faced so many challenges with a wonderful spirit. I know she’s not a baby—far from it. She’s a responsible, capable, talented person, and I’m so glad to have her in my life. But like the rest of us, she doesn’t have any memories of what it was like to be a baby.
That part of her belongs to my parents and me. And that means the right to call her our baby belongs solely to us as well.