My sister died this week. Her death was easy and not unexpected. At 86, no one can hope for many more years of life. But her loss leaves a hole in my life and a world of memories that can no longer be shared. After parents die, sisters and brothers are the
only people left who have known us as children and remember what our lives were like.
We were born in Queens, New York, and grew up in our small neighborhood in the big city. We didn’t have many models of what sisters were supposed to be like. Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret Rose in England were the most prominent sisters we heard about. But it is hard to find much in common with girls who spent so much time standing on the balcony of palaces and watching troops parading by. The other sisters we read about lived in books like Little Women and spent their lives in improbable good deeds.
But we learned. We went to public school, so every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon after school we would walk over to church for catechism class. I remember one afternoon we walked there silently because I was angry and refused to speak to my sister for some reason I’ve now forgotten. In class the subject was sin, as it so often was, and for some reason I asked Sister Mary Bernard whether refusing to speak to your sister was a sin. “Yes, Adele”, she said fixing her fierce eyes on me. “Refusing to speak to someone is a sin.”
I’ve forgotten, or rejected, a lot of what I learned in catechism class, but I always remember that stern pronouncement. And I still believe it. Talking to people, and listening to them is what makes us human. If we refuse to talk—to communicate—we are denying our humanity. I wish some of our leaders could learn that. Perhaps they needed a Sister Mary Bernard in their lives.
But our main job during those years was winning the war. We did that by spending our allowances on war stamps and pasting them in booklets until we had enough to buy a war bond. We also stomped on empty tin cans to flatten them for recycling. Sometimes we stayed after school to help in the war effort. I can remember one afternoon we addressed envelopes so the OPA (Office of Price Administration) could let grocers know they could raise the price on filberts. Neither of us had any idea what filberts were, but we firmly believed that sending these notices to every grocer in Queens would help our brave soldiers and sailors.
Eventually the war ended—first the European War and then V-J Day when the entire World War ended. We looked forward to peace forever. Peace meant prosperity and frozen food, television, and no more black-and-white movies. We finished high school and went away to college.
During college vacations we would come back to the city. The YWCA at 53rd St. and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan played a large role in our lives. We went to a modeling class there one summer and learned to walk and apply makeup in a way we hoped would make us look sophisticated. We also went to the Friday night dances.
At one of those Friday night dances I remember meeting two young veterans just returned from Korea. One of them told us stories about the war that horrified me.
Suddenly I became aware that the Hollywood-based stories we had grown up with about heroic, generous and kind American soldiers had not told the whole story. We learned that war meant brutality and cruelty on both sides and that no one was immune. Perhaps those lessons helped prepare us for the later horrors of Vietnam. And perhaps learning about adult lies helped us to really grow up.
We both went on to have husbands and children, even grandchildren, with all the joys and complications an expanding family brings. But whenever someone dies she leaves a hole in the world—a set of memories that will eventually disappear when there is no one left to remember. One by one our time is done. The world goes on with new players and new memories. But good-byes are never easy.
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
When we think of the great travelers and explorers of the past, we usually think of men—Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Stanley and Livingstone—but there are many women who feel the lure of travel too. Even in fairy tales when it was usually the prince who went wandering through the world seeking his fortune and/or a beautiful princess, there were also girls who went on journeys.
Do you remember the story of Snow White and Rose Red, who lived deep in the forest with their mother andwere kind to a bear that came asking for shelter one snowy night? These two sisters roamed through the woods and kept meeting an unpleasant little dwarf who got into terrible scrapes by having his beard seized by a fish in the river, or caught in a log the dwarf was trying to split. Each time they met, the girls saved the dwarf from harm, but he only screamed and harassed them for their trouble. Finally one day they came upon the dwarf looking over his collection of precious jewels in a quiet glade in the forest. The dwarf was angry that they had found him and started screaming at them but just then the bear came out of the woods and killed the wicked dwarf. Sure enough, as usually happens in fairy tales, the bear turned into a handsome prince ready to marry Snow White and his equally handsome brother married Rose Red. The moral being, I suppose, that sisters who travel together may come upon great treasure and happiness to share.
Real life sisters, of course, were rarely so lucky. Still, travel sometimes brought new adventure, professional growth, and even a loving husband. Louisa May Alcott and her sister May, traveled to Europe together after Louisa had found success with the publication of Little Women. Her sister May wanted to be an artist, but facilities for studying art were limited in the Boston of the 1860s, so the two set off for Europe. They traveled through England, France and Italy and for the first time had a chance to study the great European art they had only read about. When Louisa went back to America to help their ailing mother, May lingered in Europe to continue painting.There she met a young Swiss businessman named Ernest Nieriker who encouraged her art. The two fell in love and married, although their happiness was brief. May died in childbirth and never had time to become the great artist she dreamed of being. Perhaps she never would have reached that goal, but at least she had a chance at it, and she found love and happiness through the generosity and companionship of her sister Louisa who made her travel possible.
Traveling to Europe became much easier for American women as the years went by. When I graduated from college, my sister and I went on a summer-long student tour of Europe. Today I posted on my website the journal I kept during that trip in 1951. If you go to the top of this page and click on the link to “Europe Summer 1951” you will find that journal, including the black-and-white photos of a postwar Europe much less crowded and much less prosperous than it is today.