Sisters


It was more than a dress. It was our whole shared history of missing combs, midnight talks, crowded bathrooms, tied-up phones, and even some tears.

Sisterhood was something I would have avoided at times. But there were other times—times like my graduation night—when I realized that being a sister is not so much a formal title as a shared history.

Diane and Mary, my two older sisters, had tried for years to transform me. They were both experts in applying makeup, styling hair, and selecting the latest fashions. I was a constant embarrassment to them because the only thing I really cared about was freedom and comfort. If it didn’t feel good, I avoided it.

Even as a child, I had felt a duty to free paper ladies frozen in a glamorous pose. I regularly cut my paper dolls up to their navel so they could run. I knew beauty came with freedom, not restriction. I believed I had seen beauty, the whole of it, in my backyard. A bird slicing through the evening sky and the wind washing through the trees were my teachers.

These two older sisters had worked on me for 18 years without success. It had been a valiant effort. Then came the early evening before my high school seminary graduation.

I was downstairs in my bedroom looking through the closet for something nice to wear. I was going to be one of the speakers and wanted to look at least presentable. My closet was full of hand-me-downs from Diane and Mary.

It had never bothered me until then. It was the end of the month, and the family paycheck wasn’t able to stretch quite far enough to include a new graduation dress for me.

I understood. Being raised in the middle of nine children teaches one to understand a lot of things, but sometimes it doesn’t take away the wishing. I was wishing I had a new dress to wear.

I selected a nice navy blue dress with a white lace collar and pearl buttons. It had been Mary’s graduation dress two years ago, and it would just have to do.

After I zipped up the dress, I slipped on a pair of dressy black shoes. They were worn down at the heel and fit the foot form of their previous owner, my older sister Diane. They would have to do.

I grabbed my speech and walked upstairs ready to leave. When I got to the head of the stairs, I saw Diane and Mary standing together smiling. Each of them was holding a package wrapped with fancy paper and bows like the expensive department stores used. Most of our family presents were wrapped in paper and bows my mom had saved from previous birthdays and holidays. We were taught to unwrap carefully.

I took the presents from each sister as they put their arms around me and kissed me on both cheeks. The first present was large and rectangular. I opened the gift slowly, being careful not to rip the wrapping paper under the tape. When I lifted the lid and folded back the tissue paper, a bright yellow chiffon dress with lace and pleats on the front yoke shone out with the same warmth as the smiles on my sisters’ faces. The next box held a pair of bright yellow shoes with bows, an exact match.

“Run downstairs and put them on,” Diane said.

“Hurry or you’ll be late,” Mary added.

I ran back downstairs and put on my new outfit. A middle child in a large family never gets a pair of bright yellow shoes. It’s just not practical.

Diane was now a newlywed struggling to pay a huge medical debt after her first baby died of a heart defect. Mary was now a college student working hard to earn her tuition. I knew the money to buy that dress and shoes had not come easily.

When I stood up to give my speech that night, I was clothed in something more than new clothes. It wasn’t so much just the dress as it was a whole shared history before it—the missing combs, midnight talks on the double bed, the letter tucked under my pillow after I lost the election, holding hands when they lowered the tiny casket into the ground at the cemetery, crowded bathrooms and tied-up telephones. I learned that night that a sister was more than I had ever supposed.

[photos] Photography by Craig Dimond