Years from now, I hope that one of my kids will set out to pen a tribute to the other. And if that happens, one challenge they most certainly will not encounter is finding a photograph capturing one of the thousands of fleeting moments of their childhood. But we were kids of the 1970’s, when the Instamatic may or may not have had a working flashbulb bar stuck on top of it at the precise moment that you or David or I were hamming it up, or laughing, or sitting on a beach. Luckily, we have our memories.
Though I don’t have thousands to choose from, I landed on this backyard scene from one of countless happy days spent visiting The Relatives. Based on our proximity to a bulkhead, I’m almost certain we are at George and Ann Marie’s house in Burlington. It’s a late afternoon, and we’ve nabbed two of those woven chairs that always left a patterned imprint on your legs. I’ve got my hands behind my head, kicking back without a care, with a paper Solo cup in the grass under my feet. You’re using the chair arm to brace yourself. And of course, I have too much hair.
So it’s sort of perfect.
There is a concise, albeit confounding, set of truths about our first 18 or so years as sisters.
I was a generally happy, fairly lazy kid focused on landing as much chewing gum as possible. As the years went on, that drive for Juicy Fruit was replaced by any number of other prizes sweet to my taste: the coolest OP shorts; Love’s Baby Soft, and robin’s egg blue eye shadow; invites to beer-drenched parties in high school; friends that secured a spot for me in the popular crowd, or at least its solid B tier.
I was also an utter slob. After a short-lived experiment in our sharing a bedroom, Mom and Dad quickly self-corrected and gave me a space in which I set in motion the inspiration for what would one day become the show “Hoarders.”
You were self-critical and unsparing in your (correct) judgment of the inanity of those same adolescent prizes. Even you were not immune to ubiquitous fads and clever marketing, but when you received two Izod shirts for your birthday, you laundered them faithfully and hung them in your ordered and elegant bedroom. You demanded much of yourself. A slate of AP classes in which you invariably excelled. Varsity basketball. Editor of the yearbook. In your graduation speech given as class salutatorian (damn you, Amy Burke!), you laid bare some of the hurt that came with all of those checked boxes. As your family, we already knew it, I suppose. But as your sister, I could only feel the beginnings of regret for the gulf between us.
Our battles became the stuff of lore. You’ll remember when I used my dramatic skills to optimal effect to garner sympathy when you swung at me one day in high school, hitting my face instead of your intended target of my shoulder. “She gave me a black eye!!! Do you see this?? SHE GAVE ME A BLACK EYE!!!”
Because it’s your 50th birthday, I bestow this as one of your gifts. For while I can’t recall the specifics that gave rise to the bludgeoning scrum, we both know without reservation that I deserved it.
It wasn’t all bad, of course, and looking back I can see that it was all simply what had to happen. Thanks to the steadiest parenting hands that ever took up the task, we knew we were duty-bound to love one another, even if we didn’t like each other. And I suppose both of us wanted as much of David’s attention as we could get. But while you still stood a chance to best him in mini-golf or a round of Horse, such a notion was so beyond my grasp that I was free to both relax and bask in youngest child hijinks, secure in the knowledge that any one of these competitions was likely to end with a trip to Dairy Queen.
Our annual truce came each year in Wellfleet, where we were both released from the brittle versions of ourselves that we may have crafted as a sheath but had become a trap. Long Pond washed away venom like the waters of Jericho. Our ritual commitment to always return to Newcomb Hollow beach was, as Mom and Dad were wise enough to know then, something different altogether. When I miss Cape Cod now, it is not because of a wonderful house on Riverview Road. It is and will always be the place my soul calls home, in no small part because its sand was the hallowed ground where, for a few weeks each year, you and I made peace.
I feel like this is the moment to pivot in a narrative that risks becoming superficially bogged in negativity. And luckily, of course, I can.
Because then, you left. Not in a fiery fit of pique, with your little green suitcase packed and a head of toddler steam telling you to break out on the open road. You left as was planned, worked for, expected, and celebrated …to go to college.
And the moment I was free of you? It set in motion the million moments to come when I not only wanted you by my side but came to know, finally, this person who confounded me. This teenager who in the mid-1980’s explained the environmental problem of paper plates to a household that could only regard you with dead-eyed befuddlement.
I can’t say exactly when it happened, but it did. For all those years when I couldn’t look past myself, I found a new joy in looking up to this extraordinary person who apparently was and always had been my sister.
Since I’ve dated us with the primitive options for photography in our childhood, I’ll now do it again. I remember calling you from the pay phone in my dorm hallway at UVM, when you were so far away in Madrid. I’d wait out some unworthy dorm-mate hogging the line, enter 453 digits of a calling card, and rejoice in getting to hear my sister’s voice. In faraway places, you grew closer to me than I’d ever dreamed possible.
I remember the four of us huddling about what to do when Patches died that year, because we knew how devastated you would be. As ever, Mom and Dad did everything right; we welcomed you home with a fancy dinner at the Chart House, where we all cried for the loss of a creature who was the only pet that could have ever been a part of the Judge family.
And then our 20’s, and the years start to fly. I suppose I should get a complete pass on any single moment of my vexing little sister existence for introducing you – with equal thanks to Kevin, of course – to Michael Patrick Burns. While I have never and likely will never get to repeat it, this instant of genius matchmaking has fed my ego like a recalled batch of MiracleGro ever since. And I don’t need to tell anyone in this room the reasons why.
But there are no words for my gratitude, Michael Burns, that you won the heart of my sister so many years ago, despite living at the time in what I hope was Seattle’s worst hovel, on a bare mattress, trying to figure out your own path.
Though they deserve their own tribute, I will bypass the Maynard years. Peter Cetera has those covered.
My life set off on its own frenetic course. But from the inscrutable young girl and woman who I knew would never get me, you became my indispensable support, and respite, and truest friend.
Over time, it stopped mattering whether we would have made the same choices as one another – of course we wouldn’t, and therein lay all the beauty.
I will treasure always how you joined me on a whirlwind tour of girly frivolity after Amit and I got engaged. You celebrated my joy by delighting in the things you knew I would enjoy about the process. From the dresses, to the excellent call Mike Burns made on baby lamb chops for the appetizer station, to the test run of 5 different shaped votive holders you gladly performed to assess which one would best extend the life of a small candle through our reception.
Playing off the titles for wedding officiants, morphed appropriately with the big haired bands of our youth, I named you my Iron Maiden. You have remained so, and as I look back, you always were. (But let’s face it, iron still hurts when it hits you in the face and gives you a black eye.)
But the immense joy of my engagement and wedding was in so many respects the joy of YOU grasping my hands and saying, “I’m all in!”
You were all in when I set out to become a mother. I remember walking with you and Mom around our neighborhood in Wellfleet, so excited to tell you that we wanted to have our girl share your name. Amit and I had decided it, and I thrilled in it, but do you remember calling me a few nights before we met in Cape Cod, and saying, “I just had the craziest dream that you named your baby after me?”
Giving your name to our daughter was the sweetest end to a crazy dream. And, of course, you were there to greet both Devan and Kian, to assume the outstanding auntie-dom that is summed up in our house with one magic word: ‘Stine.
I see aspects of you in both of my children.
Devan was blessed with your musical talent (thank God), but even more so your drive and determination. When she gets too critical of herself, I keep in mind that (a) that’s probably more Amit’s fault, genetically speaking; and (b) some things may be hard-wired but come in a package of talent, and humor, and wisdom. She is so freaking funny, and as you know, there is no one funnier than the two of us, and nothing funnier than what we both know to be funny. One of my best moments as a mother was when Devan grasped the brilliance of the SNL skit “Super Showcase.” It was honestly like every mistake I’d made in her 11 years was washed away, and I had done everything right.
We rejoice in her being your namesake.
In Kian, I see your complete and unfailing kindness. Sure, maybe I didn’t get a lot of that headed my way when we were kids, but it defines you, has graced our entire family, and nourishes the lives of your many loving friends. Kian doesn’t feel the need to charge head-long into what is popular or situations that seem like they could trend toward hurt feelings. He will decide for himself what is worthwhile.
With all that said, you’ll be glad to know that they fight quite often, like two cats in a bag. I have a hard time resisting a speech beginning, “One day, you will know ….” But I do try to resist.
After all, Dad just told us to knock it off. And look where we are now.
As for me, I marvel at my great fortune in so many ways. For having parents that withstood the station wagon battles when there were no screens to distract us. For a brother whom I absolutely believe we modeled into someone who respects and admires women, even if (sorry, Laura) he may have built an imaginary Kevlar bubble to withstand Old Colony Drive circa the 1980’s. For all those aunts and uncles who threw those summer cookouts, and for grandparents who cherished us, and cousins who sustain us still.
And of course I am blessed beyond measure with my husband and two heroic children.
But you, my only sister, are one of my greatest good fortunes in this life.
Looking back, I still see many of the threads that defined us both as kids. If I can grasp a treat, even one I should not, I do it. If something looks like an athletic competition at which I think I’m doomed to fail, I still pass. There’s usually still ice cream at the end of these events.
While you deserve to treat yourself more, sometimes you still hold back. And I dare to say that some of those voices always telling you that you needed to be “better” – as if there is such a thing – still get an audience they don’t deserve.
All I know is that in my best version of myself I see and strive for parts of my sister.
And I see that you always knew that only a few things worth striving for are real. That life is filled with a lot of noise that will never add but always subtract from joy.
Looking at that photograph more than four decades later, I hope maybe I taught you that it’s ok to kick back without care (though it is never ok to litter). Because I know you braced my life in that bigger chair next to me, and that while perfection did not come in the things either of us strove for, it has marked our lives as sisters just the same.