Some months before my sister Lynne was turning 60, she made her birthday wishes known to me: She wanted to celebrate her big birthday in Aruba with me and my mother.
The three of us hadn’t been in one place for a so-called extended period of time since…I can’t remember. Over the years, due to physical distance, work, raising families and general busy-ness, our times together were never enough. Lynne and I would meet in Manhattan (a halfway point for us) for an occasional Broadway show and lunch or dinner. But then, we’d go our separate ways. I’d visit my mom, or she would come here. But then it was time to say goodbye after just a few hours together or a sporadic overnight. When Mom’s macular degeneration worsened, she lost a chunk of her independence and spirit and could no longer could get behind the wheel to drive out to visit.
And of course, there were family gatherings where we had opportunities for togetherness – but it’s quite impossible to have serious, meaningful conversations when you’re in a room full of relatives of every age, including young children. Don’t get me wrong – I love these types of parties – but they don’t exactly foster anything beyond pure fun.
Aruba would give us an opportunity to spend precious time together. Just us. But I was a bit…worried (although I don’t know if that is exactly the right word). Would we all get along? Would we travel well together? Would we be able to be together for so many days without getting on one another’s nerves?
While it’s true that my sister and I grew up in the same household, my memories of our time together are sparse. We were (and still are) very different people, not only physically but emotionally. My nature (I was a “crybaby” and tended toward introversion) – compared to hers (quite fearless and bold) – precluded much closeness. In spite of being close in age – we are just 20 months apart – I remember more times being separate, rather than together. My recollections are limited to a few key moments: sitting on the floor as young children playing with our dolls; standing in our grandparent’s bathroom together while she hacked off my hair (that’s a story for another time!); her lesson in how to wear a sanitary napkin when I (finally) got my period at 15.
Many childhood recollections of my mother have faded with time, perhaps dimmed even more by the trauma of my parents’ divorce when I was a teenager and my mom’s subsequent move out of our home, where my dad and my sister and I remained. What memories remain are coaxed to the surface by viewing old photos or being reminded of instances long forgotten.
Yet memories can be unreliable and oftentimes selective. That’s why it’s important to form new ones.
Our four days together in Aruba were wonderful; full of closeness, affection and support. I learned that despite differences, past disagreements or disappointments, it’s possible to strip away what existed and dig down to the layers of simple truth: that we are family, connected by a deep bond that is tough to ignore. Our shared history is part of the glue that holds us together.
This time, my sister and I played with our IPads, not our dolls, heads down in concentration, sharing the latest aps, music and books. We caught up on each other’s children and her grandchildren. And when tears sprung to my eyes when we talked Dad’s recent death, I didn’t have to hide my tears for fear of being called a crybaby. All was understood.
I got to enjoy every meal in the company of my family. I got to hold my mother’s hand and guide her through the unfamiliar pathways, returning the favor of long ago. I got to share laughter, ask questions I hadn’t been able to ask, gain a deeper understanding into our past.
Our DNA is more than just the sum of the genes that biology distributes at birth and carries through the generations. It’s also what makes us unique: our individuality, our perceptions of the world, and our willingness to share and accept what is not ours, as well.