My big sister. All the way through school, that’s what she was known as. I learned her name later. By that description, you would think she was a giant, or a very important nun. There are five years difference between our ages, so we were never in the same school at the same time, yet my teachers always remembered her. They barely knew I was in their classes but suggested I could work up to the bar she had set. That’s exactly the kind of encouragement an introvert kid is looking for.
Older siblings often blaze the trail for those who follow. They break-in the parents and you can see what works and doesn’t, and when it’s best to fly under the radar. As a kid, I followed my sister around, I know I was a pest, but she never seemed to mind. At that age you realize that you don’t have the knowledge or cultural reference as the older kids. You want to be their age but aren’t. It is one of the first of many disappointments in life.
One of the first things I learned from her was about pop music. She had a record player and 45 rpm records. That was like the key to modern culture. It was the language of youth. We had those 45’s for decades, in fact, my mother may still have them in a cabinet next to her upstairs fireplace. The Beatles, Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Marty Robbins, Alvin and the Chipmunks, all the early 1960’s artists in that box of 45’s. Music, popular music, was the window to a new dimension and began my lifelong love affair with music.
As the oldest child, you get to experience what it’s like to be growing up. The rest of us watch and learn. Unfortunately, the five-year gap is a big one, things changed by the time I came up to bat. Also as the eldest, you are called on to help out and years later, you must interrupt your retirement to take over family business. More on that later.
Growing up, I tended to get hand-me-downs from my sister. Thankfully, that didn’t include clothes. I inherited that record player I mentioned, and a few years later, her first actual stereo when she upgraded to an even better one. When she moved out of the house, I got her downstairs bedroom, how cool was that. The sense of freedom when you are on a different floor from your parents and younger sisters. It’s like your own bachelor pad before you even know what that means. Being second in the line of succession is not usually a good thing, but occasionally it had benefits.
After my sister was out of the house for a couple of years she got married. They lived very close to the college campus. That’s immaterial to the story, other than a few years later I lived on the same block, although they had since moved, and a rowdier crowd moved in – me. The story I am about to tell, is a story that invariably comes up at family gatherings, it’s a rite of passage thing. My mother and younger sisters went out of town to visit family one weekend. I stayed with my sister and her husband, when they were living in that college apartment. Now, I was not 21 years of age, or even 18 (which then was legal to drink beer), I was all of 16, and my experience with drinking beer was just about nonexistent. Hard liquor, no way. To this day, I’ve never had another drop of Southern Comfort. Just the mention is enough to give me a virtual reality hangover. Well, let’s just say that both beer and Southern Comfort were consumed that evening, with a side-trip to one of the local bars. By the end of the night I was very ill, and my sister was none too happy. I think my brother-in-law has finally emerged from the doghouse over that evening. That is an example of growing up a bit to fast with unfortunate results. I’m summarizing the story and leaving out some of the incriminating details. Live and learn. And then, live and learn again.
Last year, our stepfather passed away after a short illness. We had been working with him over the previous year to begin getting his rather complex finances in order. He procrastinated and then died without completing the family trust.
His departure left my mother in a precarious situation, and while each of us kids tried to help with the immediate matters, the longer-term problem of his business interests did not have a ready solution. Well, it soon did. My sister, who had been retired for a few years, stepped up and took lead.
When you grow up in a family where taking photos was on the scale of buying a new car, there aren’t many. Even in recent years there are few of the two of us together, usually we are in group shots. The one above may be the only side by side photo of us that exists. I’ll see if the Russians can find another picture somewhere.
My sister took over managing his hardware store, with no experience in hardware or running a business. This three-generation business had many quaint, old school inventory, record-keeping and sales processes, that were decades removed from a modern business. She ran the business until we were able to determine that no legitimate buyers were interested, then undertook the process of reducing the inventory and finally arranging an auction of remaining merchandise and fixtures.
Concurrently, she had to manage several other properties; including selling a historic house and a commercial building. Some of the properties needed improvements, like new roofs, and other repairs like plumbing and electrical work. Now, she is lining up contractors to renovate upstairs space in two buildings, to turn one area into offices and the other into a fashionable apartment.
When she isn’t answering fire alarm calls in the night, or emergency roof leakage issues, she closed out our stepfather’s federal firearms license, modernized the business book-keeping, learned how to file federal crop subsidies on the family-owned farm, moved money into the proper bank accounts for better accounting, and has helped get his financial affairs almost through probate. My stepfather had not updated the ownership of his family-inherited properties to include my mother. Complicated? You bet.
Officially, my sister became the property manager for the family, rescuing my elderly mother from a rather difficult situation. Being the eldest, the only one who lives in town, and retired, my sister fell into this challenging new chapter in her life. My mother does pay my sister a small amount to take on this responsibility, but it would be easier working the lunch crowd at McDonald’s or managing air traffic at a busy metropolitan airport. Someone told me a long time ago that this is what families do. It may be what families do, but she gets the MVP Award hands down.
You might be thinking why don’t the three others of us share in the property responsibility? That would be like the Corleone family having four Dons, three of which live elsewhere. It doesn’t work. Believe me, we do help out with some of the responsibilities that can be separated off, but these are all inter-connected pieces and need one captain or one Don. With all this activity, family interactions are like a Corleone get-together.
She was was the first in our family to graduate from college, and went on to earn her Master’s Degree. She got most of the extrovert qualities, she certainly got my share of them.
Families can be as alike as they are different. Kids develop certain roles based on age and personality. I’m happy being Fredo out in Las Vegas with Moe Greene. Stepping outside the Corleone family reference, if we were the Beatles, I would be George, the serious and dry humor member of the group. Don’t get me started on Beatle references.
My stepfather’s death removed a breakwater in my family. For many years, he was the emotional structure that provided relatively calm waters. His one failing was not preparing his assets for the eventuality of his death. This is what makes my sister’s contribution even more significant. In addition to the plethora of responsibilities, she has become the de facto breakwater, which she did not anticipate, but I believe understands.
Interesting story, for about 18 months, we worked in the same organization, and even in the same building. In our lives, there are often connecting moments, short periods when lives align, our journeys intersection. It doesn’t mean life stays that way, usually it does not. Family members often have different orbits. No matter the similarities, people have different lives and a variety of unique life experiences. You can be Sonny, Michael and Fredo Corleone, but have very different character arcs. Just remember, never take sides against the family, and never forget the cannoli.
I have not mentioned my sister’s name, obviously to protect her from association with me, but you already know I’m with Moe in Vegas.