1974. I’m 15. Jackie is 17. Joey is 12. Joanne is a five years old.
Jackie and I fight like cats and dogs trapped together in our bedroom. Me and Jackie giggle together over some event at school. We fight over whose turn it is to use the hairdryer. I iron her curly locks into temporary submission. She brushes my long red tresses until they shine. We fight over … Dad divides the room with a strip of masking tape, making us promise to respect the other’s space. I lay items directly on the tape, but on my side.
We fight. She throws a hairbrush at me. I smack her legs with a wet washcloth.
When she promises our parents to be responsible, Jackie drives us to the mall, to downtown Johnstown, to the McDonalds in Indiana. We flirt with boys from our country school, letting IUP college boys vie against them for our attentions.
1974. Carly Simon releases Hotcakes.
Mockingbird is fun, the anthem I haven’t got time for the pain is evocative of teenage angst, and Older Sister sums up everything I feel about Jackie. Has Carly met her? Or is the woman born on my birthday—15 years before—cursed with the same flawless Older Sister that haunts my every day?
The first paragraph describes us perfectly:
She rides in the front seat, she’s my older sister
She knows her power over me
She goes to bed an hour later than I do
When she turns the lights out
What does she think about?
And what does she do in the daylight
That makes her so great?
The song goes on to illustrate who we are as teenage girls trying to grow up, to move beyond each other’s sphere and yet, somehow stay close.
1989. I move from California to Montana.
My marriage finishes dissolving as I spend time with Jackie and her family. They cradle me in warmth and praise my achievements, gently leading me back to who I am—away from the corrosion of a controlling husband.
Jackie and I become friends. In ten years of residing near each other, we have one epic battle to end every battle ever fought—to stave off any other battle that could have been. Every good war deserves a good name and we call ours The Saga of the Impossibly Skinny Levi Jeans.
We play Carly’s repertoire on LPs, then CDs, we amaze her daughter with remembering the words from when we were barely older than she is now.
We bond. We evolve. We become each other’s best friend.
1994. I write Ode to Jaculyn.
I’m not known around town for being shy. That’s my older sister.
She is the quiet one, calm and rational.
As children, she was held up for me to emulate, imitate, grow up to be like.
It didn’t work that way.
Growing up with her was difficult.
She and girl cousins left me behind as they toured the woods on great escapades. Girl escapades. Talking about girl things.
I played with younger brother Joe and boy cousins.
We had fun.
I learned to catch crawfish with my bare fingers,
cold from the fast running creek.
I climbed trees and swung from the great vines woven within them.
In winter, we made forts of snow and dare deviled on sleds and toboggans on terrain I wouldn’t go near on runners today.
In the hot, sticky days of summer, we built forts of rocks and sticks,
Tim and I against Joe and Tom,
older against younger.
We did flips and cannonballs into our pool,
walked on our hands,
holding our breath underwater like Houdini in his escape tank.
Always an adventure, always the Tomboy,
and always, from the corner of my eye,
watching the petite and quiet one.
resolving not to be like her,
talking tough and skinning my knees,
all the time, wanting to be like her.
She with gentle nature and beautiful green-blue eyes.
My plain hazel orbs adoring and
hating her in a constant pendulum of emotions.
Teen-age came and still she was the favored one,
never questioning authority,
doing as told,
following the rules.
Like Pig Pen, I left a trail of chaos and unrest in my wake.
There were years, in high school, when she and I did not speak.
Sharing a room,
the silence a burden like some cold tomb,
we lived together,
we didn’t know each other.
I, the wild one, departed home first.
Gone four years, to prove myself—what?
More than her, or simply as worthy as?
I chose my path,
or rather, the multitude of paths they’ve turned out to be.
While she, followed tradition and married.
I was shocked when she chose me to stand up for her,
perhaps that was an opening gambit.
Over the next ten years,
we found ourselves working on our sisterhood,
one composed of individuals so different that if not related,
they would never be friends.
We discovered many things about each other.
While I saw her as demure perfection
greatly loved by our parents for her subdued nature,
she saw in me the outspoken rebel she wanted to be.
Wise now, we shake our heads with humor
at what each of us remembers of our first 18 years together.
We bring laughter to what,
if dwelled on separately,
would be painful to recall.
No, I’m not known around town for being shy,
that’s my older sister–
the one with the wonderful husband, daughter, son–
that’s not me,
it’s my sister.
She says, “I’m not her,” when people say they saw her dancing at the Snow Creek saloon.
With our differences so apparent to us,
it is humorous for people to be confused.
We’re always saying, “That’s the other one.”
But sometimes, just for kicks,
we pretend to be each other.
So if we fool you,
don’t get upset,
it’s just that every now and then,
introversion feels good on me,
and extroversion feels good to her.
What fun being sisters with a woman who loans me her personality once in a while.
1999. My heart again broken, I move back to western Pennsylvania.
My plan is to regroup. To set a path taking me where I decide I should go. I will not let a man uproot me again. I will be in charge.
2008. Our mother dies from lung cancer. 2009. Our father dies from ALS.
With a heart shattered more deeply than any man could ever have caused, I quit a difficult boss and spend six months wintering with Jackie and John. I refer to myself as a Grown Up Nanny.
I write. And I write. And writing heals me. And sisterhood heals me. And I continue learning the lessons of unconditional love developed as we nursed our parents through their illnesses.
And I love.
2010. I move to Pittsburgh. I marry Alex. I chose the right path.
The writing continues, but it is wistful in the distance away from my best friend. I write Jackie another ode and wonder … if Carly and I met and I shared these poems with her, would she wisely nod in commiseration and say, We feel the same?
I write Ode to Jaculyn #2
She’s there, been there, my whole life. Torturer, tyrant, idol, albatross.
My older sister has gone through as many stages of her life with me as I with her. In childhood, we played. In adolescence, we fought. We were apart for years. We both moved to Montana, leader-me trailing there behind follower-her. The closeness of this time allowed us in adulthood to cautiously circle each other like warring factions striving to find peace.
Over ten years shared in the mountains, everything changed.
We disputed remembered slights; we forgave them over glasses of wine.
We stayed up snowy nights in our flannel pajamas, laughing and talking long after her family had given up on us and gone to bed. We threw logs on the fire and sat next to each other on the couch, sharing ourselves.
We giggled together like Betty and Wilma.
We became best friends.
Jackie is a source of stability for me, even with the physical distance of these last years.
We explored, we grew into parts of each other so integral that sentences went unfinished (verbally, heard as they were mentally), answers evident.
We walked in sync, became twins, different but so fundamentally the same that we each developed a new wholeness. Some level of completeness grew to be, something untouched by any other person.
I moved 2,000 miles away. My world fell to shards. Color left hers. Words couldn’t convey the loss we felt. Until one day, one of us said (I’m sure it was me, she is sure it was her.), “It feels like I lost my right arm.”
Those are the words to describe our relationship—sister and sister—one soul in many ways. So much to each other that separately, I function missing … well something as fundamental as my right arm. And she, walking around the town I left her in, says every so often, I miss you like I lost my right arm.
Integral, internal, invaluable.
The years brought us to where we are, able to miss each other with a depth usually left to desperate lovers. I wish every woman had this breadth of sisterhood.
2019. Twenty years apart and we are still together.
When Older Sister plays, I call Jackie and hold the phone to the speaker, not uttering a word for at least two choruses. Then we laugh and chat through the rest of the music, enjoying the tune as background to us.
I hope Carly and her older sister became best friends like we have, inspired and encouraged by her song.