Mary is eight years older than me, the oldest of three. Mom used to tell me how delighted Mary was when I was born. Mary insisted that my crib be installed in her room so she could take care of me at night. I'm sure my sleep-deprived, breastfeeding, postpartum-depressed mom didn't argue that one with her. Apparently Mary was like a second mother to me - except for the two (or was it three?) times she dropped me DOWN THE STAIRS. Yep. (Of course, the words that always follow that story are, "Now we know what's wrong with you!" Hardy har.)
But like all well-fed children, I grew. And like all younger siblings, I became a pest. I vividly remember Mary having friends over one day and playing Barbies in her room. I'm not sure how old I was, although I couldn't have been much older than 3 because then Mary would have been 11 and isn't that too old for Barbies? ("Now we know what's wrong with you!") Anyhoo, Mary threw a fit because I kept bugging her and her friends. She didn't like me much for a few years.
When I was in late elementary school, some firefighters came to talk to our class about safety and the importance of having a home evacuation plan. Around that same time, I had snuck out of bed and watched a made for TV movie about this Army guy who killed his wife and two kids and blamed it on hippies who broke into his house. The possibility of a fire and the thought of my dad killing me sent my imagination into overdrive. I refused to sleep in my room alone, so Mary started letting me sleep in hers. It turned into a habit. I think I must have slept in her room for a good six months - long enough for my parents to just install a cot in her room for me.
One Christmas, Mary offered to read Dickens' A Christmas Carol to me. I was floored and so excited to have her offer to do that. I think she was a teenager by then, and I knew the gesture was monumental - which made it even more special to me. She read a few chapters to me every night, and I think that finally cemented our bond. We formed a united front against our stinky brother Jackson, and have (mostly) stayed united since then.
That doesn't mean there weren't a few times when Jackson and I ganged up on her. I remember one LONG car ride to Canada, when Jackson and I tormented her (and everyone in the car) by singing one of Run DMC's songs that had the line, "Mary, Mary, why ya buggin'?" in it. We repeated it over and over, to our own delight, cracking up every time. Mary was fit to be tied. Later on, she used me as bait so she could go flirt with boys. Not much of a payback, since I didn't mind being the icebreaker.
Growing up, Mary was always the sentimental one. For every Mother's Day, Father's Day and birthday, she bought those sappy Susan Polis Schutz greeting cards. The ones that always make you cry and say, "Awww!" She adored those things. When my dad toasted me at my wedding, he even made a crack at Mary's expense about how Mary used to cry if you stepped on a cockroach.
But somewhere in the past decade or two (Good gravy! Have I been alive THAT long?!), Mary and I switched in that respect. I think I'm now the sentimental one, and she is usually more flippant with her emotions. That may have something to do with being a military wife. I think she's learned to just turn off the tears and buckle down and get through each day. That must be the only way to survive a deployment sometimes. Maybe all the drama in our family also turned her off to emotional outbursts. Okay, wait. Let me take all that back, lest you think my sister is some brick wall who is unfeeling and stable. I think she's still emotional and can go off the deep end (it's in the Steele DNA), but I think she's also better at turning it off too.
When I was scheduled to deliver my son by c-section, I asked Mary to fly in and be with me. Because of her teaching schedule, she said she couldn't make it but that she would come a few weeks later for spring break. I convinced myself that was okay, that she didn't need to be with me for the birth. But the night before, she surprised me and flew in for the delivery. I burst into tears when I saw her, and only then admitted to myself how badly I needed her there with me. She was in the operating room when Jackson was born, and I think that's one the coolest bonds I have with her.
Now, after 34 years of being sisters (and some incredibly tulmultous years), I think Mary and I have a deeper bond than even some marriages do. Sometimes we even act like an old married couple, nagging and griping at each other. She's still a bossy older sister, even when she's calling me for advice. But, man, I do love her so.
She was my matron of honor. She's the one who walked the journey with me in laying our parents to rest. She's the keeper of my memories now, since she and I are the last surviving members of our family of five. She's the voice I need when my confidence is failing, and the one who always keeps me in line when I start venting too much about how unfair life might be. She's made an amazing life for herself, and stuck through the hard and gritty parts to do what is best for her husband and her two daughters. I got some of my first parenting cues by watching her. She's the person I call when I need to hear someone say they're proud of me; she's the stand-in for Mom and Dad. She's the one I clung to when they played Taps for my brother. She drives me NUTS because she knows which buttons to push. She keeps me grounded and tethered by reminding me of my roots. And she convinced me to sneak into our old house one night so we could be alone to see its rebirth.
Sometimes I hope that I will die before Mary does, when we're old and gray. I don't think I can be the sole survivor. We're all each other has left of the "old days." The last ones who remember what it was like riding in the car and stealing Oreos from under Mom's seat. The last ones who will laugh out loud remembering how Dad tried to scare the hiccups out of me at West Point. The last ones who remember riding the Pink Pig with Mom at Rich's in Atlanta. She's the last of my family of five who saw my brother alive. And the only other person who would laugh at my stupid "Why did the tree fall?" joke.
Thanks for being my sister, Mary. I'm grateful to you and for you. I love you!