This weekend my sister Jennifer celebrates a birthday. I wish I was in her zip code so I could celebrate this milestone. This birthday will make her eligible for social security, and so in the weeks to come, she will also be stepping away from a teaching career that she has loved. These rites of passage will unquestionably result in torrents of tears from my sister, as soft hearted and iron willed a woman as I have ever met. I am determined to mark the retirement/birthday tandem over the summer, but today I just wanted to send her a bouquet of appreciation.
Though we are from a family of 6, we were clumped in duos. Jenny and I were a pair. I ended her solitary reign as princess just 17 months after her birth, and she accepted the diminished attention with grace and kindness. Little did she know that from that day forward, she would be the Little Mother to all who came after. Never again would she sleep alone. We were folding diapers at age six, ironing at 8. She was stuck babysitting for a tribe until she was in high school. Worse, she was stuck with me.
Jenny escaped her crib at 18 months with a rotating airplane move, and I have no doubt that she did it to check on her new baby sister. I was a burden, subject to bad dreams, wild imaginative journeys, and tons of crying. I’m sure she was thrilled when Mike came along 16 months after I did, because he was congenial and a novelty as a boy. She taught me to help take care of him; in fact he went to kindergarten never uttering a word, because Jenny and I would follow him around and anticipate his needs.
Jenny was always a nurturer. I hated school, she loved it. If I had a nun-driven panic attack, she would calm me. When I went to camp and suffered miserable homesickness, she would prop me up. When I has an asthma attack at the same camp, she visited me in the infirmary, and wangled a call home from the nurse. I ordered my parents to come and get me. They ordered Jennifer to make sure I buckled down and stayed. I stayed.
We shared a small bedroom in Royal Oak, Michigan, the only one that accommodated twin (not bunk) beds. We had our worst fights there. I was a slob, she was pristine. I could sleep in the light and she needed dark. I liked noise, she needed quiet. My clothes sometimes tiptoed to her side of the closet. Sometimes I did not lower my assigned window shade. We would explode in pushing matches and word blasts. Mom and Dad would intervene, threaten us, and it was over. She would turn on her bonnet hair dryer to muffle my noise and stew; I would fall asleep within moments. She was a softie, and I was careless with hateful words. She should have shuffled me out of her life. She did not.
I remained a loner/homebody during high school. I was content: I had a boyfriend, a big family, and I had a best friend in Jenny. We shared late night drive-bys of the boyfriends’ houses. I watched her practice smoking and declared it gross, but I never tattled. As soft as she looked, she had a strand of daredevil in her, and I marveled at all the adventures she took on. Not me. She failed to convert me to cool kid, and I remained an outsider nerd, while she had a cabal of friends. She still has these high school friends in her life.
When she left for college, I was on my own. A year behind her, I had decided to stay home for college or go to Eastern Michigan University, the closest state school. When my advisor told me that was a bad fit, I decided to bootstrap off Jennifer (again) and join her at Central Michigan University. I hated it. She consoled me, visited me, let me live down the hall in Woldt Hall. She included me in her Friday sub orders, sun lamp adventures, dining table and extracurriculars. Her college friends were kind to me. I settled in.
Since that time, we have been separated by our geography, but never our hearts. We both married men who loved their alcohol. We commiserated and counseled each other. She eventually had to step out of the mayhem, returning for her Master’s in education while teaching preschool. There was fear in her life, and finally, I could be a rock for her. She gave her husband a second chance. When that was a FAIL, she left a beautiful estate home for a doll house that Mom and I scouted with her. Her first night there, she slept better than she had in 5 years. She lives there still. In peace. Her circle of high school/college/professional/neighborhood friends is ever-present in her home. She’s magnetic.
We still fight now and then, and I have said harsh things, which roll off her back. She feels comfortable ignoring my advice about remarriage and such, because she knows I will love her unconditionally no matter what roads she travels. I owe her. She still knits me into her gigantic circle of friends, letting me tag along (again/still) when she travels to Europe with her rat pack. They love her so much that they welcome not only me, but my friends. She has built a hive, and all kinds of people fly in and out to share her. I am lucky enough to have the longest continuous relationship of my life with her. It’s like I have dibbies.
For the last many years, she has been a master teacher, working a two year loop of Kindergarten-first grade at Pembroke Elementary in Birmingham, Michigan. (Yep, that movie stars Jenny, in front of one of her frilly bulletin boards. She looks tired. She IS tired. ) She is the teacher that we all dream of, living four blocks from her school so that she can return and work into the night. She meets her kids over the summer at the playground. They love her animated, kid centric world. She has survived eight rounds of school “reform” yet still does essentially the exact same thing she did when she started: she figures out where her kids are in September, and drags them to where they need to be by second grade. She loves them, loves their families, and loves her colleagues. School is her second home. She has adopted bunnies, chicks, guinea pigs and hamsters, sometimes all at once. One visit to her home jangled me, because all her rodents danced through the night, as befits their nocturnal nature. Their cages were lined outside my bedroom, and I fully expected company. Jenny apparently has learned to sleep with a modicum of noise.
A couple of Jenny anecdotes: One August she sent her students a Welcome to School postcard bearing her bunny’s face with the message that Fluffy was excited to see them. But Fluffy croaked before the first day of school. Jen wouldn’t go with a doppleganger bunny, so September launched with a memorial service. In Spring, Mrs. Deckrow took the kids to the farm and they decided to hatch little duckings for the spring. You know all those cute books with downy baby ducks? That was the goal. When their eggs hatched, there were ugly, scrawny brown birds of some sort. Scary at first glance. Those kids learned a few ancillary lessons when their expectations were confounded. They still loved those hatchlings, and they said sweet goodbyes to their bunny. Jenny is proof positive that you learn everything important in Kindergarten. With reading, math and a million other things piled on top. She has outlasted four principals and almost every other staff member at Pembroke. She knows she makes a difference.
Hundreds of parents will be heartbroken that their children will not benefit from her calm, wise teaching. It is time, though. The desks are too low, her back is sore. Her pay has been frozen for the last bunch of years, and her insurance costs have risen: Michigan wants their teachers young and cheap. Their pension is a defined contribution plan, and when linked with her social security, she will have security. After a life of deferred vacations, summer tutoring, continuing education, seminars and such- she is going to have time off. No clock alarm in September. I will distract her by spiriting her to Lake Michigan. She can take time for herself.
Of course, she never does anything just for herself. She teaches Catechism, makes layettes for babies born into bad circumstances, answers anyone’s call for help, serves Communion on Sundays, helps with her 10 (almost) grandchildren, works a soup kitchen if needed. Loves her girlfriends, loves meeting them for any reason or no reason. She has ants in her pants. When I stayed with her last weekend, she had her flower boxes full of pansies, for God’s sake. She does more in a day than I do in a week. It is Steve’s intention to marry her if I pre-decease him, and I approve. A few dominoes are all that stands between Steve and his Joliat sister fantasy.
I joke. But not about my sister. She is the best gift my parents gave me, steady and loving, generous and sunny. Happy Birthday, Jennifer.
I hope everyone reading here has a Jennifer. And I hope you let them know that they mean the world to you.
DO come back, please. I have a million stories. Some are even about the world at large, not my family.
Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time. Like if I don’t lighten up.