Sunday, May 2, 2010
My sister Norma Jean
But this post is about my relationship to Norma Jean. Although there were six children in my parents' family, I was the firstborn and Norma Jean the second. We had two-and-a-half years separating us in age, so we grew up together. We could not be more different in many ways, and I think that our relationship has shaped many important ones in my life.
I have always been extroverted and outgoing, making friends easily as we moved from place to place, following our father's military postings. Norma Jean was not like that, since she has always been shy and introverted. It tore her apart to move, leave friends behind, and try to make a new life in a new place. I felt a little superior to her, thinking that my way was more natural. Of course it was to me; it was all I knew! I've learned that we are born with ways of dealing with life that shape our personalities, and I suspect that these characteristics can be managed but not fundamentally changed.
When we moved to Puerto Rico in the 1950s, living on the air base, I was an insufferable teenager, and Norma Jean attended what would now be called middle school. Nothing existed to me outside of my life with my friends, and after I discovered boys, I became obsessed with having just the right clothes, even coming home from school at noon to iron my dress! Norma Jean thought I had lost my mind, and in a way she was right. I remember this period as one where we had become involved in our own lives and didn't hang out in the same circles. What stands out to me is the distance that had come between two sisters who were otherwise very close.
This all changed when we moved back to the States and were thrown into our family life again. Whenever we moved, we became best friends again, partly out of necessity, and partly because it was our natural state. I have always been attracted to introverted people, which I believe began with the symbiotic relationship I developed with Norma Jean. Plus there's the inconvenient fact that other extroverts don't make the best audience, since they are too busy wanting to be the center of attention themselves!
When I married Derald and lived in Michigan in the early 1960s, Norma Jean came to live with us in a big house we rented. It was a time when none of us had very much money, but we were so happy together. We also had another friend of Derald's who lived there, Pete, and I had just had Stephen, so it was the family of four, along with Norma Jean, and Pete. I guess it really was my first communal living experience, and we supported each other in many ways.
This was where Norma Jean met Pete, who would become her husband and the father of her two children, Allison and Peter. As we made our own lives apart from each other, the bond between Norma Jean and I ebbed and flowed, but it was always there in the background. If I had some kind of problem, I'd call her, which I still do, even today.
Although our parents are now long gone, some aspect of them lives on in their children, and I can sometimes hear Mama's wisdom coming out of Norma Jean. It's funny how each generation carries a little something, maybe a combination of nature and nurture, that endures of our parent's way of looking at the world. It's not too far-fetched a statement to say that Norma Jean is the rock of stability at the center of my life. We have spent more than sixty years now sharing first our dolls, then our hopes and dreams, and now our enduring love for each other across the miles. When we call each other, our conversation picks up where we left off, as though it was just yesterday when we last talked, and I can feel her presence in my life, always.
In a few months, Allison will make Norma Jean a grandmother. Allison will have a girl, and she is likely to be an only child, since Allison is already in her early forties. This child won't have a sister like I did, close in age, unless Allison chooses to adopt, which she might do. I cannot imagine life without Norma Jean, but many people are only children and grow up just fine. My son Chris was pretty much an only child after Stephen died. Each family dynamic has something positive going for it.
We have other sisters and a brother, all of whom are important to me, but the relationship with Norma Jean is unique in my life, cherished and indispensable. I know she is only as far away as my phone, and for that wonderful gift, I give thanks.