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, February 13, 2011

Constant companions

When we were growing up, Norma Jean and I were together most of the time. She's here on the left and I'm on the right. I was the older sister and tended to torment her now and then. I thought that was what older sisters were supposed to do. We are a little more than two years apart in age, the first- and second-born in what would eventually grow to be a large family. But our next sibling didn't arrive until I was seven, so for five long child years, we were our parents' only children.

From the beginning, we were very different. I was extroverted and adventurous, and Norma Jean was introverted and shy. They say that birth order is important in the development of personality, but I know that from the very beginning, we approached life from very dissimilar vantage points. It made our interactions predictable, though: she was my little sister and as we explored our world, I would often imperiously make decisions for both of us, and she would look up to me as her big sister.

One thing that grew out of our interaction is that I learned to enjoy an audience, finding her introverted personality easy to manage... that is, until Norma Jean figured out how to torment me back! She knew what I loved and when she was given something that I coveted, she would quietly withhold it until she had extracted concessions from me. I think in growing up, we both learned to appreciate the other's differences and how to use them to our advantage.

Almost every one of the most important people in my life have been introverts, as we fall into a comfortable and known dynamic that started with Norma Jean. Smart Guy is as far on the introvert scale as one can go, while Norma Jean married an extroverted guy, Pete. They started their life together in what must have been a similar dynamic for them. We grew apart in the years that followed our marriages, moving to different parts of the country, but whenever we would see each other, the time apart would fall away and we would be together again as though the years apart had never happened. They changed nothing.

Norma Jean was the first family member I called when Chris died. I still remember her voice on the other end of the phone, and she was there for me one hundred percent. I had to hear my sister's voice to share my grief, to make it real to me. That was in 2002 and, although we didn't see each other at that time, I needed to be reminded of her presence in the world to find any comfort. We saw each other during the following Thanksgiving in a family gathering in Texas, where most of our siblings reside.

Now Norma Jean is a widow, Pete having died this last Thursday of pulmonary emphysema. It was expected, he was able to make peace with and say goodbye to all of us who loved him, but Norma Jean is now bereft. She is a strong person, nobody knows that better than me. She has her son Peter and daughter Allison with her, surrounding her and buoying her up.

I talked with her yesterday, uncertain as to how I might best help her during this time and wishing I could simply hold her hand and allow our tears to mingle. She said she would think about what she wants me to do and is considering a trip to Texas where we would all reunite in the most gentle way possible. At first all of us Stewarts wanted to descend on her at once, but now that our family consists of six siblings with all the concomitant family members, it just didn't make any sense. I think we as a family have come to an awareness that the right thing to do is to let her decide when, where, and how.

Norma Jean is a natural caregiver, and during the last decade or so, she was Pete's rock. His illness dictated many aspects of her life. She traveled a great deal during the last few years of her working life, while he stayed home and kept in touch with her using Apple's iChat feature, and she spent many a night in a hotel room by herself. I think in many ways that forced separation showed her what it would be like when Pete was gone, and her strength of character will carry her to a new place in her life. I have no doubt that it will be a good place.
When we were both small enough to fit into the kitchen sink together, we shared everything. We still do, really, because our lives are intertwined right at the soul level, and nothing that happens to one of us fails to impact the other. I am so grateful to have my sister's love and she knows without a doubt that she has mine.


Teresa Evangeline said...

This reminds me so much of my sister and me. She is a year and a half older and we were inseparable, but are quite different people in many ways. We both fit in the kitchen sink, too. :)

Linda Myers said...

My sister was born on my seventh birthday. We were competitors for most of our lives - I was the smart one, she was the creative one. Those roles seemed defined for us by others, but they stuck.

Our mother died two years ago, and now there is no competition between us. My sister will enter nursing school in August at the age of 56. She has discovered she is smart. And I am exploring and writing. I have discovered I can be creative. We talk often by phone or email. Finally, at the age of 62, I can say I have a sister and that we are close friends.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

What a moving tribute to your sister, Pete, your entire family. Just beautiful.

Robynn's Ravings said...

You always write in a way that makes me feel like I'm walking through everything with you. How beautifully this was written. I'm so sorry for Norma Jean's loss and for all the losses you've experienced. My sister died ten days before my 13th birthday and I know I miss her more now than I even did then. The older we get, the more we need our anchors. I LOVE the pictures of you two, especially the sink. I can still remember baths in the kitchen sink. :) What little dolls you two were. Where do all the years go.......?

Anonymous said...

What a touching story! It brought tears to my eyes. My condolences to you and your family.

Linda Reeder said...

Once again your Sunday post causes me to contemplate. But first let me say that a death in a family is a hard blow to take, especially for the widow, but she is fortunate to have so many supportive, loving family members, including amazing you!
I am the second sister, and the seriously introverted one. But I had a third sister, the three of us being each two years apart. I was the shy one, and eventually the peace maker between two waring sisters. They still have trouble getting along sometimes.
My family didn't stop there either. There was a fourth sister, born with Downs Syndrome, who has been gone a long time now,two brothers, and finally a fifth sister, who died at a young age of alcohol poisoning. We had hard times, being rather poor, and the five of us remaining are scattered about from coast to coast, but we do know how to rally round when there is a crisis. That's what families do.

Buz said...

You're both so very pretty in those hats.

Sally Wessely said...

I loved your post about your sisterhood. I feel exactly the same way about my sister. I was the older, outgoing sister who led the way for my three year younger shy, more introverted sister.

We've been there for each other through thick and thin. At times, the relationship has been strained, but our differences in personality and in world views have always been overcome by our sister bond that is very strong and lasting.

She was the first one I spoke with after Julie died. Usually, I am the one who has supported her in hard times. This time, I needed her.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

I loved reading about your close relationship with Norma Jean. My sister and I, separated by about four years, never developed a lot of common interests as kids, and she has lived thousands of miles away all of our adult lives. Still, if one of us needs the other, I'm sure we will come together in an instant.

Jo said...

Oh, how wonderful. I always wanted a sister, but I never had one. You and Norma Jean are so fortunate to have each other. It reminds me of the song, "Sisters, Sisters"...

"Sisters, sisters
There were never such devoted sisters,
Never had to have a chaperone, no sir,
I'm there to keep my eye on her
Caring, sharing
Every little thing that we are wearing."

I was very sorry to hear about Pete, and I am sure you are you sister's Rock of Gibraltor right now. :-)

CiCi said...

Having those few years together before more siblings came along would indeed give you both a solid rock relationship. And I applaud your family for knowing to step back and ask what and where would work best for Norma Jean.

Far Side of Fifty said...

You are fortunate to have a sister that you can communicate with and count on...it is a marvelous relationship of give and take. I am envious, I do have that same relationship with my brothers but my sister is an "I" person:(

The Retired One said...

Soooo sorry to hear of your loss. It is very sad. Those pictures are adorable of the two of you. I am sure she feels your love and support as you did when you lost your son.

Gigi said...

I've always wanted a sister - and your post tells me how much I've missed not having one. I'm so sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you and Norma Jean.

Red said...

Tremendous tribute to your sister and a detailed description of her. I'm sure she will appreciate what you have said about her at this time.
I'll bet she doesn't have a blog?
You show a tremendous amount of love and support to her.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry about Pete, but I'm glad you can be there for Norma Jean. I loved your post. As an only child, sibling-hood was always a foreign territory for me. I didn't know whether to envy it or be glad that I got all the attention in my family. But when my mom had her strokes when I was 18 and my dad died when I was 24, I would have given anything for someone who could share my pain and how I felt about them. You're so lucky to have that relationship. Take care ... Love, Vicki

#1Nana said...

DJan...the photos are priceless and you have written a lovely tribute to your relationship with your sister. I'm spending the Valentine's weekend with my granddaughters in Texas. I always wanted a sister but was cursed, I mean blessed, with two brothers. When I watch the two of them I see what I missed. You are both fortunate to have each other in the good times and in the bad. I hope you get to see her soon.

Whitney Lee said...

I love the pictures. It's quite obvious which one is you! Your relationship is so similar to mine with my sister, with her being the extrovert. I think you're right about falling into our known roles with people; my husband is also the extrovert. I tend to gravitate towards those whose personalities balance my own.

I am sure you're a great comfort to Norma Jean. You probably know her better than anyone alive now. I'm sure having someone who knew who she was and has been every step of the way will be important. And you can remind her of who she's been and how much strength she possesses should she start to falter. My heart goes out to her; I can't fathom what she's going through. I'm so very sorry.

Friko said...

How I wish I had siblings. There is nobody who will share my joys and sorrows, I have no family of my generation left.

it must be wonderful to know that there is somebody who will always understand, who remembers the same things you remember, who laughs at the same family jokes and uses the same family language.

Even in your sorrow, I envy you.

gayle said...

This is such a beautiful post about you and your sister! The love you have for her and your closeness shines through. My daughter are so much closer to each other now that they are in their thirty's. My wish is that get closer and closer as the years go by.

Donna B. said...

Oh DJan, I am so sad to hear of Pete's passing. Just reading his blog, made me feel his presence and how he could fill a room with his personality.

Your post was so close to my heart, as you know how close I am to my younger sister.

My heart goes out to Norma Jean. It is always hardest on the one left behind...I know you will be there for her, including traveling to be with her, if that is what she needs.

I am sending a huge family hug to all of you...

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

What a way to celebrate the living and show affection for the ones gone!
It's true that family ties seem timeless. My sister and I are ten tears apart.I do not share the same deep closeness but there is a bond of sorts. I think the spouses we selected played a role in our distance. She had no kids and that too made a difference, though she's always had a big heart for Buddy. I think your meditation is wise. I think I'd better try that too. God bless.

CrazyCris said...


We were 3 sisters pretty soon, and I don't remember much before the youngest was born (I was a couple months short of 6), so for us the dynamic was always "oldest" (me), "middle" and "youngest". I got to be the bossy one, Gabs the shy middle kid, and Kat the extrovert youngest who let herself be ordered around by her adored older siblings who took advantage of her having absolutely no fear when it came to talking to strangers and having her go ask where the toilets were, or for the dessert menu, or trying to sneak ahead in a cinema line... :p

I'm reading this after all your other recent posts on the "main" blog, so I've already reacted to your brother-in-law's death, but I think even knowing that an event is coming - although it helps to prepare - doesn't help to lessen the blow much. The loss is still heartbreaking. Perhaps the recuperation time is shorter?