A long-anticipated visit with my sister this month can’t help but bring me close to family history, as so many scenes in my novel do these days, too.
Born ten years apart, we were both “only children”, aside from the six years we actually spent together in our parents’ home. My arrival doomed her to a role of perpetual baby-sitter. In my little psyche, she was also a surrogate parent, an adult-like being – unfailingly elegant and unbelievably smart – who actually saw me, when the atmosphere in which we lived could make a lot of things seem invisible. More, she remembered me, and continued to accompany me, long after the early get-away she made when she was barely 18.
Though we’ve really gotten to know each other as “grown ups”, I feel as though I felt her company all of my life – before, during, and after my arrival here.
She has written of her own experience: “I felt almost apologetic for my own childhood, which I viewed (correctly) as an enormous household inconvenience, something to be conquered quickly and forgotten, like chicken pox or diarrhea.”
But with the arrival of a younger sister, she notes, “I seized the opportunity to Be Older, taking charge of her needs, protecting her from my own tadpole experience. … I heard my orders from a Higher Power, beyond parents, to guide this little person safely past the treacherous shoals of childhood.”
“I decided that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” our British mother once described of her when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my four-year-old sister made polite conversation with two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries”.
When my sister turned five, two military police arrived each weekday shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. It’s no wonder I’ve always perceived her as leagues ahead of me in worldly wisdom and experience, rather in the style of Jane Goodall or Agatha Christie.
By the time I was four, she’d already won first prize in a national U.S. magazine’s annual writing contest. She was 14. Her teen-age years are the ones my child self remembers best, some of the sweetest in my memory, set in a fairy-tale German town, no doubt so sweet because she was there.
She’s given me more gifts than I can count, but one of the most meaningful came recently with her instant inner understanding of The Munich Girl, the novel I’ve been working on since our father died in 2007. Hearing her intuitively wise thoughts about the deepest intent of this book and its story was vindication that my soul, however much it aspires to write, hardly knows how to put into words.
In my writing hours, when I want to evoke heartbreak, I think of how I felt on the day after she left Germany for America — or the day after she got married – when realization caught up with me that she wasn’t ever coming back to sleep in the room we had always shared.
I suppose it was inevitable that the book on which I’ve spent so much time, and love, would become a story of separations and reunions.
She tells a story of how, before she boarded the ship that took her away from Germany, I pressed a note into her hand with the instructions that she not open it until she was “home”.
Then she remembered the note. At six, I was a writer of few words, none of them very neat, though pithier than I tend to be now. The note read: “Rite Sune”.
And, she says, she was home.
As I am, wherever she is in the world, whether I’m with her or not.
This, I’ve decided, is what “family” truly means. As a character in my novel observes: “So often, the ties that truly bind us the most have nothing to do with being related.”
But when they do, it is light upon light.