The Matriarch(s)

My family is my foundation, my rock, my catalyst, my comfort, my soul. I have been blessed with amazing parents, who not only provided (and continue to provide) unconditional love and guidance for me, my sister and brother, they have proven to be role models to many, from cousins to neighborhood children.

A few years ago, I posted about my amazing mother, Martha. Since then, she has amazed us with her determination in healing from a very bad fall in August. While she is slower to get around, continues to deal with a lot of pain on a daily basis, and has become hesitant walking in crowds, her physician and orthopedic surgeon praise her recovery as “remarkable for a woman in her eighties.” My mother is tough, inside and out.

And she has handed down that toughness to my sister, Shirley. My sister is eleven years older than me, so she has been more than a big sister; she has been a second mother. Her innate ability to nurture and protect has endeared her to her own children, as well as her little sister and even littler brother. When I am with my sister, I feel comforted. Not many people can bring comfort to others by just their presence, it is a gift. Maybe this sense of security comes from our life together, but I believe my sister emanates an aura of comfort. If her aura could be captured in a photograph, I think it would appear to the eye of the beholder as whatever brings them their greatest comfort, like a warm glint of sun through the leaves. For me, her presence is like a familiar blanket, one I’ve carried since childhood, its plushness still evident within the worn threads. I know every inch of this blanket, from the tattered corner to the blue-black stain from a ballpoint pen. It smells of my childhood and careful washings and from 688 miles away I feel its warmth.

I was proud and somewhat jealous of my sister when I was a young. An incredibly beautiful young woman, she was adored within our family and community. I considered her royalty even before she was crowned queen during the Mexican-American tournament. And yet, she remained untouched by the attention, always with a soft smile, ever caring of me and my brother. We shared a bedroom until the day she married and moved from the home. Thinking back, I can’t imagine how she shared a full-sized bed with a little sister for almost ten years, especially one who hated to brush her hair and whose pet hamster escaped and found its way to her big sister’s pillow in the dark of the night. But, she did. And while she claimed the room by painting its walls in red and navy blue stripes, including the shelves that held her bronze incense burner and eight-track tape player, I never felt as if I were intruding. As a matter of fact, I can’t imagine a childhood without falling asleep listening to The Moments or Love Unlimited Orchestra, even with the ca-thunk of the eight track player as it switched from one channel to the next, and the soft form of my sister next to me in the bed.

When she married and moved out, I was excited to have a room to myself, especially since my dad and Uncle Louis had built an addition to our two-bedroom home that included a bedroom for my parents, a recreation room with fireplace and a much-needed basement. That bedroom for my parents meant my brother and I would have our own rooms. I’m pretty sure I was picking out wallpaper as my sister walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Perpetual Help church. But that night, lying in bed in the dark, the shelves empty, as well as the tiny closet, I never felt more alone.

My sister married and began a family of her own, eventually moving to Illinois. We made many family trips to Illinois and I stayed with my sister for weeks at a time during the summers. She raised three children, built a home, and created a large circle of friends, all the while remaining in touch with family and friends back in Wichita. I continued to admire her, how she settled in Illinois after a few bumpy initial months, rooting herself and her children, and tackled the everyday tasks of being a good mother with her own mother so far away. She was the cool mom, the one who invited neighbors over to sit in lawn chairs and splash their feet in the baby pool while their children played in the yard. She wore leopard print, loved shoes, and took a limo with friends to see Prince during his Purple Rain tour. Her Halloween parties were legendary, as well as the hand sewn costumes she created for herself, her husband and kids. And when I moved to Illinois shortly after graduating from high school, our relationship reached a different level, as we became good friends. We shared many a beer, popped popcorn to watch Knot’s Landing, drove to the city of Chicago to hear local cover bands, and danced on our chairs during a John Mellencamp concert at the Rosemont Horizon. When I returned to Wichita five years later, my chest ached for weeks with the absence of her.

Her life has been full, but also tragic. My sister has faced what no mother should ever experience and that is the loss of a child. Andrea, her first, left us on Christmas Eve 2007. There are no words, no sentences to describe the anguish or the hurt, the pain we still carry. And as our family lives with this grief, I still cannot imagine the grief my sister carries. I can see the sadness in her eyes, sometimes hear it in her voice, but my mother’s strength she inherited fills her and carries her so that while she is incomplete, she remains a constant to her other children, Holly and Jeff, as well as her husband, Mark. I’ve read many people do not survive the loss of a child, be it their marriage, their relationships, their own being. But, I never doubted my sister. As she stood upon the shakiest of ground, she remained a comfort to the rest of us, forever that glint of light through the leaves.

So, on this Mother’s Day I pay tribute to my sister, my second mother, my best friend. She has a grandson now, a little boy she cherishes and who has brought back that soft smile to her beautiful face. He is an energetic ray that illumines her family. And one day, he will recognize and understand the comfort of his grandmother, how she blankets him in ease, assures him like the Sponge Bob nightlight in his bedroom, warms him as the fuzzy slippers he wears to bed. She will be the rhythm of his life, her heartbeat against his own as she rocks him to sleep. Just as she has been to me and to all whom she has touched, nurtured, comforted. Hers is a quiet strength and one I cannot imagine being without.

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