This is part 3b in a series of “Family” posts. For the previous post, click here
Once, when my sister Susan’s daughters were very small, her family made a visit to Southern California. It was the late 90s, and both brother Jerry and I were living there—he in San Bernardino County, and me in Los Angeles. We all took a trip to Big Bear, and it might have been the first time niece Cece, just two or three at the time, ever saw snow.
I’ll never forget Cece’s reaction. Her big blue eyes lit up. In my imagination, she was delighted at the still beauty of the snow. Then she touched it, and her face fell, on the precipice of tears. Also in my imagination, it was the shock of the touch that prompted the reaction. How could something so beautiful not feel beautiful, too?
It’s a good analogy for my relationship to my sisters. Not the coldness, mind you—Mom was half Sicilian, and we all have the heat of that blood running through us. I think it’s the conflict between image and feeling. We all bear different traits of our mother, so in that way it can be like looking into a mirror. That’s the image. But the feeling is not pristine. The feeling is not beautiful—that word is not comprehensive enough to describe it. Because it’s messy. My feelings toward my sisters wrap up all the joy, frustration, empathy and sorrow that comes with love.
I’ve heard the Inuit have hundreds of words to describe snow. I think I need at least that many to describe my relationship with my sisters.
Our father wrote a book called Dances with Dragons: An Entire Family’s Insights into a Disability. It’s supposed to encompass the whole family, but it’s mostly about Dad’s efforts to prepare our brother Stephen to live as independent a life as possible. Independent and integrated into the community. The “Dragons” of the title were a metaphor for the social service, medical, and other professionals he encountered on this journey.
Dad could tilt at windmills, and there’s a section of the book where he defines all the different Dragon types. That part is definitely quixotic, in my opinion. But I think the point he was trying to make was a good one: we all will need these professionals in our lives, at one point or another—whether dealing with disability, illness, or anything we can’t handle on our own. He claimed that the approach is up to you—you can either engage like a duel, and risk having fire breathed on you; or you can approach it like a dance, and reap the benefits of that harmony.
To him, the very best of all the Dragon types was the “Puff”—“It is sensitive, a good listener, admits when it doesn’t have an answer, is there when you need it, gives accurate information and is not afraid to take the extra step to help you over a hump.” He went on to claim that every Dragon has a recessive strand of the Puff gene, “and part of our challenge is to help Dragons realize their Puff potential.”
Which leads me to this: my sisters are all Puff Dragons to me. I definitely need them, as much as I would need a surgeon if I needed something excised, or a physical therapist if I was healing from an injury. With Mom gone, I think we each have the opportunity to fill a little part of the huge gap left by her absence, each to our own strengths—those different traits we each carry in individual measure.
There is always that potential to have fire breathed on you, when an old rivalry flares up, or one of us runs smack dab against one of those old sisterly standards. But the ultimate effect is no worse than that caused by a hiccupy little belch of smoke. And well worth the risk. Because while there may not be adequate words to describe my relationship with my sisters, I still wouldn’t trade it for anything.
P.S. – My apologies to George R.R. Martin fans for the alternative title above. I have to admit, the story lost me after they killed Sean Bean Ned Stark. But the series’ title just seemed to fit this post so well.