I have been writing stories in recent months that are as painful to read as they are to write. Truths, revelations, memories that now serve a purpose were once shoved into the far recesses of my mind; kept rather than discarded so that retrieval would be tricky, but still possible. I now understand that many of my memories are just that – my memories. Other people that were present remember the happenings of a given day from their own points of view. They will remember what they saw, what they heard, how they felt, and sometimes even what they tasted and smelled. Our memories hold onto everything – sometimes too much – about important events. What I find even more interesting is the fact that what I remember as important sometimes isn’t remembered at all by other people that were present.
My sister Angie and I are 19 months apart. Forgive me. Angela. Angie was the name that she went by when we were in Junior High and High School and I have never been able to adjust to calling her Angela. To this day when I introduce her to someone, I call her Angie. She quickly and kindly corrects me by saying Angela and extends her hand or a warm hug in greeting. She is older and I never let her forget it. Those 19 months are important. There are only we two girls in our family. Our mom passed away just over 5 years ago and our dad moved across the country 28 years ago. We’re just two Minnesota sisters trying to make life work on our own.
Angie was an amazing dancer when she was young. At age 2, she was the youngest person ever to compete at the Minnesota State Fair. She danced for 10 years and traveled everywhere competing. She finally decided her dancing days were done and took up the clarinet and of course excelled, immediately becoming 1st chair. Her exposure to music through dance and movement and her ability to sight-read music enabled her to learn at twice the pace of anyone else. Playing in the band enabled her to travel and develop close friendships with other band members.
I have always admired my sister. She loves her friends fiercely and is forever loyal. Because she was born and raised in Forest Lake, and now lives only a couple of towns away, she has had the fantastic opportunity of fostering some of the same friendships that she had growing up. Those tried and true few have now become her people, her circle, as an adult. She is helpful, encouraging, intelligent, and a natural born leader and organizer. She is the friend others seek out when they are in turmoil. She is the one that friends can depend on. She is the one that loves until it hurts.
Angie and I, however, were not always close. We struggled. I thought she was mean. She would call me names, make fun of me in front of the neighbor kids and tease me in front of her friends when they came over. We would holler and scream at each other. Our mom, bless her heart, would often just throw her hands up in the air and say, “Figure it out. It is just the two of you. It isn’t that hard to be nice to each other.” Well, I thought it was very difficult to be nice to a sister that was so rude to me every chance she got. I found that ignoring her and creating distance was going to be my only reprieve. I started singing when I was nine and was acting in plays by junior high.
As we got older, things didn’t really improve, so we lived somewhat separate lives. Angie started dating at 15, and then I didn’t see her anymore. She was rarely home. Her extreme intelligence enabled her to put very little effort into homework and projects. She was always done in record time and then would be gone many evenings. I liked it – the peace. Then, she started making some poor choices and staying out late. Everything changed. No longer were Angie and I arguing and fighting; it was now Angie and our mom butting heads. Angie knew she was taking liberties and ignoring my mom’s parental authority, but didn’t really care. They started to fight constantly. I hated it. I hated the idea of going home. I hated the idea of them being home together while I was trying to study. I hated the thought of possibly bringing a friend home and having them overhear one of their many arguments. I was embarrassed.
Our mom would stand outside her door and shout for what seemed like hours. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I once left my room and approached my mom standing outside her door. “What do you think you are accomplishing by standing here yelling at her? She is just going to hate you more the longer you scream through that closed door. I hate you both most of time and I hate living here!” I watched my mom crumble. At first, she was ready to retaliate – probably tell me to go back to my room or find something to do. But then, she was silent. Not a word, nothing. Her eyes glossed over, she reached for my shoulder, gently squeezed it and nudged me backwards and out of her way. She turned and entered her room and closed the door behind her.
Ah. This is what I had wanted. Silence. But not this kind of silence. Not this eerie quiet that seemed to swallow our house whole. My mom must have exited her room that night, but I don’t remember hearing her. She may have waited until she knew I was asleep. I thought, yes! I did it! I made them stop fighting! But my young mind didn’t understand that yes, they stopped fighting, but I had hurt my mom’s heart in the process. I woke the next morning at 6-something, quickly dressed and did my hair, packed my bag and ran to the bus without ever checking on our mom. I asked Angie if she had talked to our mom since last night, and she responded with a curt, “Thank God, no!”
I didn’t talk to my mom until two days later. Two days. That is a lot of time to not speak to a parent. She was home when I got home from school on the bus. I didn’t have play practice that afternoon and was excited to just go home and relax for a bit before tackling a mountain of math homework. She rounded the corner from the kitchen as I entered the house. She asked how my day was and if I was hungry without ever making eye contact. I said it was a good day, I was glad I didn’t have play practice and that I had stupid amounts of homework. She made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread and said she would have a simple dinner for us ready in a couple hours. That was it. She didn’t say anything else.
The joy I felt over not hearing her fight with my sister the last couple of days turned to dread. My mom must hate me because I talked to her like that. She is going to unload a heap of punishment on me. I was going to be in so much trouble. My life as I knew it was going to change. I was scared.
Angie wasn’t home that evening. It was just mom and me at the kitchen table. She shut off the old black and white TV that sat on corner of the large table my dad had made years before. “I am sorry. I’m sorry for everything Angie and I have put you through. I am sorry for all of the yelling, all of the fighting. You don’t deserve this. I am going to try harder with your sister to get along and see things from her point of view. I am just sorry that I let it get this bad.” I sat staring, not sure if I should say something or what I should do. “I want to ask you something. Do you hate me? Do you hate your sister? It is just the three of us trying to make this work. I don’t think my heart could take it if you hated me because of how bad things have gotten here at home. I love you and Angie. A lot. And I am so thankful that you are my kids. I might not be the best mom, but I never knew that I was going to have to do this parenting thing on my own. I don’t really know what I am doing. I know when I am angry, I yell. It doesn’t make me feel better, but I think if I yell, your sister will know how much her choices anger me.”
Right there and then, everything became clear. My mother was hurting. She felt alone in life. As a parent, she was alone. She didn’t feel equipped and she knew she was blowing it. She actually thought I hated her. She was just trying to get through these years of us being teenagers, keep us alive and keep her sanity in check. She didn’t feel she was succeeding at any of it.
I shared with my mom what was working and what I felt wasn’t working. She listened respectfully, nodded in agreement and asked in-depth questions to help her understand more about what I thought and felt. She said she would try harder to be silent and show Angie more love. That she would try to make things easier for all three of us in our home. She also told me that she was sorry that I had felt the need to escape into activities and commitments, friendships and relationships that would enable me to spend as much time as possible out of the house.
My mom had me all figured out. She knew what I was doing. Those boys I was dating? I didn’t care for most of them. They drove cars and could take me away. Away from my home. Away from the yelling. Those plays and friendships brought me so much happiness. One friendship in particular – another Angela – God bless her and her mother as they were my saving grace. I could spend all day every day with Angela and often did. Her mother welcomed me to every outing and enabled me to stay over and swim and enjoy life in a quieter setting. I will be forever grateful to both of them. The name Angela – they must all be good people.
My mom and I started talking more. I stopped avoiding her. I stopped avoiding being home. No, my mom and my sister’s relationship didn’t change much until quite some time later, but it did change. My sister matured and realized that the relationship she had with our mom was the only one like it she would ever have and that it was one they were going to have repair, sooner rather than later. I realized that the three of us were a team. A small family unit that needed to work together rather than against each other. I realized that the three of us didn’t really have a clue what we were doing, but taking a swing at life all alone wasn’t working for any of us. Angie put an effort into conversations with my mom and I gave my mom space and grace when she messed up. My mom started realizing that her parenting style, speech, and actions needed to change as we were getting older.
Angie and I struggled until the summer before my senior year. At camp, she and I had a great conversation and actually became friends. Suddenly, she was more than a sister. She became MY fierce friend. She loved me. She encouraged me. She spoke truth to me. She stood by me and supported me. She didn’t leave my side after that. We didn’t have to go at life alone anymore. We were sisters by birth, but family by choice.
Our relationship as adults these past 25 years looks nothing like it did growing up. We struggle, we call each other. We laugh together. We schedule afternoons of lunch and shopping. We enjoy each other’s company. We uplift each other in prayer and love each other’s children as if they were our own. Most importantly, we love each other fiercely.
Now that our mom has passed, it is the two of us, taking a swing at life as sisters and as friends. I love Angie. I mean Angela. I love Angela. I feel honored that God thought pairing us together would be the best sister relationship for both us. Now, I fully understand that if I were to ask Angie if she remembered this story, her recollection would be quite different. She would speak of what it felt like to be behind that closed door and to hear so much yelling. She would talk about how hurt she was, and possibly how alone she felt. I have been meaning to talk with Angie about this, but this memory came out of my fingertips before we could chat. Angie? What do you remember? Tell me you remember hugs and love and that the three of us really did make a good team. Make me laugh, hold me close and amaze me with another story only you can tell.
I am the dealer of words. And today, those words have healed me.
Kelli J Gavin lives in Carver, Minnesota with Josh, her husband of 22 years and two crazy kids. She is a Writer, a Professional Organizer and owns two companies. She enjoys writing, reading, swimming, and spending time with family and friends. She abhors walks on the beach (sand in places no one wishes for sand to be), candlelit dinners, (can’t see) and the idea of cooking two nights in a row (no, thank you). Check out Kelli J Gavin on Facebook and on Twitter and Instagram: @KelliJGavin and her blog: http://kellijgavin.blogspot.com/