“It’s not like your life is over, Danae. You can still do fun things when you’re married…” My sister, Corrine, was in the passenger seat next to me, sipping tea through a thermos. Sighing, I turned off the engine in my Honda minivan. Somehow the conversation always turned back to marriage. Corrine loved weddings and the planning process, down to choosing the brand of nail polish for the bridesmaids’ toes.
It was after ten o’clock at night; we were sitting in Target’s new parking lot. Silently, we watched a young group of kids pile into a rusted van parked across from us and drive away.
“I actually enjoy it…”
I nodded and listened to her break it down for me. For some reason, I was gripping the steering wheel and continued staring out the windshield. A couple days before, Corrine had flown in from Texas with her three children. I loved those kids, I really did. But from the moment they landed in Grand Rapids, Michigan, my head hadn’t stopped spinning.
Maelyn, her middle child, was two years old. The precious synapses in her little brain were incapable of drawing certain rational conclusions at such an age. I thought of that morning when I found her standing on the couch downstairs. A movie was playing. Her older brother Brayden was drawn in, completely blocking out the noise of his sister exhausting her lung capacity and destroying her vocal cords in sincere, adamant vexation. Cautiously, I had approached her.
“Mae Mae, what’s wrong?”
The crying stopped and her head turned around sharply; her tear smeared face looked up at me and instantly contorted in disappointment. Two seconds later, without breaking eye contact, she tilted her head back, filled her lungs, and in a single, drawn out breath, wailed, “Ma-a-a-a-a-a-ma-a-a-a-a-a-a-a!”
There was no arguing with this vocal powerhouse. The closer I moved in, the louder she demanded for “Mama.” Her steady eye contact in the midst of her screaming began to unsettle my conscience. Those little blue eyes were burning through me; I began feeling at fault for not being her mother. Corrine, unfortunately, was in the shower. Feeling uncomfortable and half-consciously ashamed of myself, I looked down at the floor, avoiding my niece's raging scrutiny. Rejected, embarrassed (and embarrassed for being embarrassed), and not knowing what else to do, I had slipped back upstairs and left her bawling.
“You’re cut out for marriage, Danae, really, you are. You might not think so, but I think you’d love it.” Corrine said, taking another sip of tea. I nodded slowly.
“Yeah…yeah, I hope so.”
Like most things, I didn’t exactly agree with her. For me, marriage was in direct correlation with children; I knew I couldn’t expect to get married and not have kids. It puzzled me that I had such trouble with them; not just my sister’s children, but kids in general. I thought of my own childhood. I clearly remembered what it was like to be little. Sitting in the minivan brought back specific memories; namely, my severe motion sickness. I was incredibly self-conscious and ashamed of puking as a child, so I’d deny I needed to until the last possible moment. By that time, it would be too late and I’d end up vomiting all over the car.
On one trip when I actually told Mom I wasn’t feeling well, I was put in the front passenger seat next to Dad. I hadn’t experienced sitting in the front before, and, despite my stomach, I relished the grownup feeling. I didn’t want to admit I was going to vomit though, and I certainly wasn’t about to ask Dad to pull over. In a last ditch effort, I thrust my head out the open window and let the chunks fly. Unfortunately, I hadn’t considered the rules of centripetal force (the reality of what happens to puke when it is hurled out of a vehicle going seventy miles per hour). My dad smiled and waved to the slack-jawed locals at the closest gas station when we pulled in with evidence of my breakfast literally encompassing the entire right side of our van.
No matter how many times Mom told me to give her a heads up, it just came up spewing so devastatingly that I’d forget all about the empty Cool-Whip dish I was supposed to use. Naturally, both of my siblings were appalled by the milky chunks of my lunch dripping down the back of Mom’s seat, but the memories scarred Corrine the deepest. Once, when we pulled into a rest stop after I lost a particularly large lunch, she flung herself out of the van and took off down the parking lot for several yards. She huddled down on a parking curb and pulled the drawstrings of her hood so tightly around her head I couldn’t see her face, only one tiny black hole. She was crying, rocking back and forth, and refused to get back in the car for hours.
“Marriage is worth it.” Corrine finally added, picking at a crusty, dried up stain on her jeans. “It’s nice always having someone there, no matter where you are, to just be with.”
“It’s such a commitment though, people grow and change…weren’t you scared?”
“Of getting married, you mean?”
“Yeah, wasn’t it kind of daunting knowing you’d be with Drew forever?”
“Well…” Corrine looked out the passenger window at a Target employee gathering up the grocery carts and watched as he sent them rattling down the pavement. “I didn’t think about it too much. I knew I loved Drew, I loved spending time with him. I guess I lucked out. He’s great and I think I love him a little more every year.” It wasn’t the first time she had shared this, and every time it still amazed me.
Corrine was a perpetual mystery. When we were children, I knew she wasn’t my mother, she lacked that warm, nurturing security mothers often instill; and, being six years older, she wasn’t my friend either. Or rather, I wasn’t hers. I was the child who had a history of throwing up in the car, crying too often, demanding our mother’s attention, and taking precious objects without asking. I was very aware of the fact that I annoyed her. As a result, Corrine and I kept to the periphery of each other’s lives. In an email last spring, Corrine expressed some remorse over this:
I…often regret I wasn't a more supportive, involved older sister to you. That is honestly one of my life's greatest regrets. Why I didn't spend more time playing with you or was more invested in our sisterhood is something I often lament over.
I can’t remember life without my sister; her presence and influence were constant whether I liked it or not; often, I didn’t. My earliest memory of her was in the dining room of our old house. I was being chased around the dining room table, filled with genuine terror. Corrine’s heavy footsteps made the plates in the china cabinet rattle. She was somewhere behind me (I couldn’t quite see over the tabletop), I’d glance over my shoulder and imagine her eyes gleaming wildly; she really did have a safety pin in hand as she beckoned, “Come here, Danae! Come here! I’m going to pierce your ears…!”
Even recently, I was aware I still had trouble relating to her and the things she talked about and she could say the same about me. She was a mother living with her husband in Texas, I was single and still in college. We’d talk, but I often felt inadequate to further the conversation. I didn’t have three kids or a mother-in-law. Nevertheless, somewhere in the everyday monotony of our shared lives, within the different stages, terse actions, passive aggressive comments, and the small talk, something had changed us, together, at the same time.
A few years ago, for the week of Brayden’s first birthday, Corrine brought him to visit the family in Michigan. Incidentally, he caught the flu. One morning when I was home with her and Brayden, I heard a lot of commotion downstairs. I was well aware Brayden felt sick; in fact, I knew exactly what had happened. I went to survey the damage. Brayden was in his highchair, crying adamantly. His big round eyes were stretched even wider than usual, as if in amazement. Confirming my suspicions, coated over his face, his arms, his hands, his clothes, and flowing out onto the floor several feet in front of him, was the aftermath of a curdled, powerfully projected breakfast. Stunned into silence, I looked around for his mother. I found her sitting on the floor behind the counter, leaning up against the stove, her head between her knees. She had been crying.
“It’s just…too much.” She said, wiping her eyes.
Not knowing what else to do, a crouched down next to her.
“I can take dirty diapers, I can take snotty noses and sleepless nights, I can take just about anything, but this...this is too much.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I suspected I was the cause of this; I had an ironic sensation of indirectly fulfilling a childhood fantasy. After years of dormancy, my long forgotten endeavor to bring my sister to her wit’s end had come to fruition vicariously through her own son. Those long trips and my motion sickness had stuck with her all this time. I might have found the situation legitimately funny if she didn’t look so defeated. I felt I didn’t have the right to pat her on the back and say, “Aw, it could be worse…” I resorted to offering to take care of the mess. I assured her that no, really, it was fine, I didn’t mind. In reality I didn’t. I half-consciously felt responsible anyway. I might not fully grasp the realities of parenthood, but I knew how much getting sick devastated Corrine; in fact, I took full credit for it. As I knelt down, meticulously wiping up my nephew’s detonation of blueberries and oatmeal, I wondered in what other ways I had affected my older sister.
Corrine and I have made sincere efforts to develop a relationship. We went out for frozen yogurt and Target shopping sprees during our short visits. Once, we even took the kids with us; but only once. We opted not to try again for a couple of years. Also, that past spring when I left the country for five months, we occasionally corresponded through emails. While I loved her emails, I found communicating so formally difficult. This was something we had never done before. Still, she was very honest; more honest, perhaps, than she’d ever been. When I asked her about life, she shared:
The truth of the matter is life is hard. You hear me talk about my kids so much because they are my life. They take up all of my energy, time, and attention. Often I think I get into "mom mode" when I don't think too much about what's going on with me and just how I can meet the kids needs…I just wonder how to enjoy this time of the kids lives when it feels like every day we're in survival mode.
I thought I understood what she meant. Memories such as Brayden puking across the kitchen floor came to mind, and the last time we all went to Target together. And after Brayden and Maelyn, Trennan had arrived, too. I barely knew these little ones. Every time we visited they’d shamelessly stare at my face, as if beholding it for the first time. Brayden was four, Maelyn was two, and Trennan hadn’t celebrated a birthday yet. Maybe I didn’t know exactly what Corrine felt, but I had witnessed the absorbing momentum of all three that very morning in the course of ten minutes. I had a pretty good idea. And while I had never experienced motherhood personally, I did have a mother. What I knew of mothering was also directly correlated to her. During our childhood, our mother’s words written in her journal weren’t so different from my sister’s:
I feel like I am treading water--vigorously--and just able to keep my nose out of the water. I feel like just one hesitation will cause me to go under and I wonder if I would ever surface again.
Corrine knew what that felt like on any given day; and she wasn’t the only one. My grandma had raised not three, but four children. My mom talked about her often. Apparently, our Aunt Dana suffered from car sickness, too; even worse than I did. When Aunt Dana was a little girl, she got sick in the car almost every time she rode.
Pure Italian blood coursed through my grandma’s veins, and with it, her Catholic faith. Consequently, my mom’s older siblings attended a Catholic school throughout their childhood. Once, while my grandma was driving with Dana in the back seat, she observed two nuns walking along the side of the road; they were dressed head to toe in their brilliantly white habits. My grandma felt convicted to offer them a ride. With no small amount of apprehension, she pulled the car over and invited the the nuns in. The women obliged and oohed and awed over Dana, complimenting grandma as they squeezed into the car. My grandma smiled nervously, almost painfully, and shifted the car into drive. One of the nuns had taken Dana on her lap and was bouncing her up and down, swing her little arms, and chatting animatedly. Horror stricken, eyes bulging, my grandma leaned over, clutched the steering wheel with both hands, and prayed desperately. She all but lost hope in Dana; it was one thing to ride in a car, and quite another the ride in a car and bounce around like a bobblehead. Grandma could already hear her daughter’s inevitable heaving and coughing, could already smell the aftermath; she had already imagined the horrified expressions as the nuns looked down at their white gowns stained in the coagulated gleam of warm, half-digested nosh. The catastrophe never happened, though. Much to my grandmother’s relief (and my shrewd disappointment), the nuns arrived at their destination, thanked grandma for the ride, bade Dana goodbye, and left unscathed. My grandmother remembered the story fondly, my mom said she would share it often.
As a kid, I always liked my Aunt Dana (I also remember throwing up several times on the ride to her house in Springfield, Illinois). She looked and sounded too much like my mom, though; it troubled me. Their bone structure was so similar it was uncanny, especially in their hands. I remember I once followed Aunt Dana around for nearly five minutes with my hand in hers before I realized she wasn’t actually who I thought she was. I was a bit more consciously aware around her after that. More recently, I found a journal entry my mom wrote years ago:
Perhaps someday you will wonder why I called you Danae. I thought it was a pretty name--but more than that it had DANA in it--my sister’s name. She was a special influence on my life. She taught me so many things...May you too be an encouragement to others my precious one.
Although Maelyn hadn’t taken my namesake, I wondered if Corrine could say such a thing to her about me. Or, if I did ever have a daughter, would I write that about Corrine?
“Maybe I could just elope,” I suggested, “that way, I wouldn’t have to worry about a wedding and spending so much money.” By this time, Corrine and I had rolled the windows down in the minivan. The evening summer air was still warm and sticky. I tugged at the collar of my shirt, trying to cool down. We had gone from talking about marriage, to husbands, to men in general, to our dad, brother, mother, her children, our childhood, and now we were back on marriage. I had brought up eloping before, mainly because I knew how much it bothered her. Corrine was more excited about my wedding than I was. She had been collecting images and links to wedding sites online for the past year despite my apprehension towards weddings and practical reasons not to want one. Nevertheless, I suppose the occasion is worth celebrating. Before Mom’s wedding day, my grandma wrote in a letter:
Another phase is in store for you…plans and dreams for the future...where did the time go…I guess I have done alright but I sometimes wonder if I didn’t miss out on something… You are all so very important to Dad and I but we know we have to let go and there is a big new life before you that we know you will experience.
I could relate to my grandmother. When Corrine asked me to stand as the maid of honor in her wedding, she asked so matter-of-factly, it was hardly a question. Naturally, I would be the maid of honor even though I wasn’t yet sixteen and lacked the desire to become particularly involved. During the bachelorette party and rehearsal dinner (which she planned), and while getting our hair done and putting on our dresses, I was mechanical; none of it felt real. When the time finally came, I could only step back and observe.
The ceremony was in our grandparents’ church. The photographer was there, overt, snapping shots with noticeable poise. Mom had already been led into the sanctuary. She joined Drew’s mother at the altar and finally managed to light the union candles with a dubious lighter. The bridesmaids and groomsmen were paired and lined up, ready to walk in. Daylight filtered through the stained glass windows, contouring the bodies of the people--friends and family from all over the country. Music was playing, a flute and piano rang out the same Pachelbel Canon in D my mother walked to. Two by two, the party made its way down the aisle in long, rhythmic steps. Drew waited. His hands were clasped firmly behind his back and both eyes were locked on those back doors. For two seconds, everything went silent. Then, the organ suddenly exploded into the first dramatic chords of “Here Comes the Bride.” Like a single tidal wave, everyone stood up in the pews and turned to look. She appeared, arm in arm with Dad.
Where did the time go…
Drew wasn’t smiling. His lips were pressed, the corners of his mouth turned up just slightly. His eyes were soft and so intent on hers. He stood incredibly still as he watched her approach. Subtle hints of deep understanding reflected in his face. He was carrying her down the aisle with his eyes. Corrine hadn’t stopped smiling since she walked in. Tucking her chin down just slightly, she looked up at him, childlike excitement dancing in her eyes. She was flawless, down to the last bobby pin placed in her hair. As he took her hand, the impact of this new reality finally hit me. As she repeat her wedding vows to him, suddenly, without warning, I felt like crying. It wasn’t because she was the saint of my childhood or my savior and role model. She was anything but perfect. But we had shared a lifetime.
I sometimes wonder if I didn’t miss out on something…
My existence up to that point had been a communal one, largely involving her. We would always be sisters, but now in a different way. We wouldn’t struggle through reality anymore. We would have windows…short visits, sweet emails. Corrine and I had shared a collective life. At the time it was just life; those were merely days of the monotony I never knew would end. Yet, somehow…they had.
…we know we have to let go and there is a big new life before you.
Maybe I would get married some day; maybe I still couldn’t possibly wrap my head around the idea. As I turned the key in the ignition and listened to the hum of the minivan, I took one more good look at my sister. She seemed so timeless, no different than that first day she ran down the aisle as Mrs. Helder. Even after three kids, her body retained its small, strong shape. Her blonde hair was longer, thinner, maybe; but her blue eyes never lost that undeniable childlikeness.
“Funny story,” she said, “the other night I had a dream I wasn’t even your maid of honor...or, matron, or whatever.”
“No, really! I seriously dreamed about it.”
I wanted to say something witty and reassuring, but the words wouldn’t come. “No,” I mumbled good-naturedly, “of course you’ll be the matron of honor.” It had struck me to know such a concern was in her subconscious. I thought about all the planning she had already been doing, and how legitimately excited she was talking about it.
“By that time, Maelyn will probably even get to be a bridesmaid.” I added. She chuckled, not finding it very funny.
It was getting late. I turned on the headlights, backed the van out of the parking lot, and drove us down the familiar roads leading home. Incidentally, we began talking about her children.
The other day, in the journal Mom wrote to me, I found these entries:
May 8, 1993 - Today you clung to your sister Corrine when I tried to take you from her arms and you cried. It warms my heart to see that you love her already. My prayer is that you’ll always be close. My dear sister Dana and I have a special friendship, this is what I hope for you…
June 14, 2000 - Your sister…loves you…and though you get into squabbles I can tell you are precious to each other.