I can’t write only about my brother. I have a sister, twelve years my junior. And I have stories about her, too, although they have a difference cast than the ones about my brother. Since my sister is more than a decade younger than I, and since I stayed in the United States when my parents, along with my brother and sister, returned to Zimbabwe, distance separated us. Subsequently, many of my stories have that quality—sweet stories that are made more poignant by the distance that separated us.
My sister’s arrival is the first specific instance I have of having my prayers answered. I don’t remember exactly why, but I became obsessed, at age twelve, with having a sister. As I alluded to in a previous post, I had a sister, three years my junior, who died. Since I had a living breathing brother, I guess I must have thought I needed a sister to complete my sibling portfolio. Anyway, I began praying. Fervently. Please, Lord, give me a sister. Imagine my absolute delight when my parents picked me up from boarding school at the end of term, and my brother blurted out—“Guess what, Mommy’s going to have a baby!” As I recall, he got punished for that premature announcement. I suppose my parents wanted to tell me. Of course, I was absolutely convinced that prayers are answered.
While my mother was pregnant, I developed rheumatic fever. Because I required intensive nursing care, and because my mother did not have the energy to provide it, I temporarily moved in with one of the missionary women who was a trained nurse. (She remains one of my hero role models—a strong independent single woman who, in my child’s eyes, could do everything!) In due course, my mother went to the nearest town, Bulawayo, to have the baby. When she returned home, to the mission station, she brought along my sister—a wizened, wrinkled, red-faced baby. I was crushed. This is what I prayed for? Really!
Well, it didn’t take long for her to turn into a very cute toddler. When she was three, and I was fifteen, my parents returned home (that is, the United States) and when they left to go back to Africa, I stayed behind. Thus began my long distance relationship with my sister.
My parents would periodically make tape recordings that they sent to me, to keep us in touch. My brother would dutifully and breathlessly report on the goings-on at school. When it came time for my sister to contribute, Mother would prompt: “Say hello to Donna.” My sister Denise would balk. NO! Then she would query in this small tremulous voice—is Donna inside that machine? My mother, with clear amusement in her voice, would say—no, but if you talk, she will hear you. PAUSE. NO, Denise would say. And so the conversation went, back and forth. Mother cajoling, Denise resisting. She never did say anything directly to me. Of course, the whole conversation was caught on tape.
I heard stories about my sister, of course without witnessing them. She was, as they say, “a pistol.” She crawled out of her bedroom window, while she was supposed to be napping. When my father caught her, and brought her back to the bedroom, he cautioned her. If she did it again, he would punish her. Well, of course, she did it again. And when Daddy retrieved (from across the busy street they lived on, no less), he began to spank her. NOTHING. No crying, nothing. When he investigated, he found she had prepared herself for the inevitable punishment by putting on multiple pairs of training pants, thereby padding her bottom.
When my parents returned home, and we all lived together again, I was twenty, Denise eight. The house we lived in had three bedrooms. So, Denise and I shared a room and a double bed. I was not prepared for a kicking restless pre-teen sister thrashing around the bed. I complained to Mother, but the sleeping arrangements were unchanged.
Now we are older (much!). And the age distance between us seems insignificant. As for the geographic distance, half a continent, we can overcome that through email!