I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, May 2, 2010

My sister Norma Jean

Since I know Norma Jean reads my blog sometimes, I'm using a picture of her for this post that I know she likes, since she used it as her profile picture on Facebook. Standing next to her is her daughter Allison, who is a career officer in the Army, shown here in full dress uniform.

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.


CiCi said...

This is a nice picture, no wonder she has it on fb. The dress uniform for the Army is impressive.
You are fortunate to have a sister you are so close to in your hearts. This is a nice post and congrats to your niece on her upcoming birth.

Marla said...

Such a lovely post. There is not much else that compares to sisters and their relationships. Thanks for sharing this.

CrazyCris said...

Lovely! What you write about the ebb and flow of closeness between sisters reminds me of my relationship with my own... 4 and 6 years younger than me... at one point inseparable, at one point insufferable, then closeness again once we'd all passed through college.

It's one of the nice things of modern technology, the people we love and depend on are only a phone call away... :o)

I get a laugh when you write:
" 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!"
It's like you're describing my parents' relationship! My dad the quiet one ("why talk? Paquita talks for the both of us!"), my mom the outgoing, easy to connect with people. In fact when we lived in Mexico my dad was known in the US Embassy (his employer) as "Paquita's husband", instead of the other way around! So as they say, opposites attract! :p

Anonymous said...

I am the eldest of 5 children, but am not close to any of them. Too bad. However, we do see each other at family functions - usually in my large home. There's never a dull moment with 4 siblings!

Linda Reeder said...

I have two surviving sisters, one two years older, the other two years younger, and the three of us are the oldest in a family of seven children. We grew up together, loving and hating each other, all three of us very different, and yet sharing that common bond that always ties us. We are there for each other if need be.

Far Side of Fifty said...

It is nice to hear that you are close to your sister, I suspected as much! Great post DJan, I enjoyed reading it..extrovert and all!
I am sixteen years older than my sister, we are not close. However I do adore my brothers!! :)

The Retired One said...

You are very fortunate to have a sister. I have an older brother, who is very nice, but I think it would have been great to have a sister in the family to be close to.

Historical sites with charmine said...

D-Jan, What a lovely relationship,you are so blessed to have such a sister.Congrats to your niece & sis in advance.I will be back to read more.Enjoy your day.

Stella Jones said...

You are very lucky to have so many sisters, but then you know that, don't you D-jan! You have written honestly about Norma Jean and your love for her shines through. How interesting that you are attracted to introvert people. I've never heard an extrovert say that before.
Blessings, Star

Jo said...

You're very lucky to have a sister. I always wanted a sister, but instead I have two big brothers who are older than I am. They're wonderful, but it's not the same as having a sister.

Please give Norma Jean my regards. :-)

Whitney Lee said...

This sounds so much like my relationship with my sister. It's a really touching post. I know what it's like to have that close relationship, and I feel blessed to have her in the same town with me. It means that I get to see her several times a week.

In our family my sister is the extroverted one and I'm the introvert. I always feel comfortable in social settings with her by my side, and I've created the hearth and home that everyone circles around. We each have our strengths.

I wanted another daughter so that my children would have the opportunity for that same relationship. I have to believe that you are right when you say that each family dynamic has positive aspects, and I'll keep my eyes open to see what that is with a brother and sister.

gayle said...

You are very lucky to have such a stronge bond with you sister!! I wish I had had one!!

Norma Jean said...

Well, I have been remiss in reading your blogs lately and am very sorry I missed this one when it was posted. I know you know I feel the same way about you. I have had many a vicarious adventure just talking to you about all the exciting things you do in your day to day life. There have been times when I was very jealous of your life, but I now realize that I am not, nor ever will be, an adrenaline junkie. Over the years I have come to realize there is nothing wrong with either of us. We are very different people and that's part of what makes our relationship so special. We fill in the "holes" for each other's personality. It helps us to understand each other and also to see the good in people that may not be just like us. I treasure our relationship and feel incredibly lucky to have you in my life.

Lucy said...

I'm glad you have such a good relationship with your sister. Isn't it interesting how two people can come from the same parents and grow to be so different?

California Girl said...

Your situation with your sister is not unlike mine with my brother. He stayed put and I did not. We were not close as children. There is a three year age difference and I'm the oldest and we always fought. We're very close now and speak weekly by phone. He's on the West Coast and I'm on the East. I usually go home once a year although he and his wife did come out for the very first time in '07. They stayed a week. He's great. She is...not so much.

So, I totally get what you say and I appreciate and empathize.

Unknown said...

It's nice to know a sis is only a phone call away and eveready to listen, talk and share.