My mother’s only child, I have always wanted an older sister, someone wiser and cooler who could hip me to the ways of the world.
I had replied to a cousin’s status update, an action that has become as commonplace as eating my morning bowl of cereal.
When I perused the other status replies a few moments later, there was a name that I immediately recognized, but never expected to see. Clearly this was no ordinary morning.
Just a few weeks ago, I searched for her on Facebook with the little bit of information I have. But to no avail.
Her reply was an immediate acknowledgement; she greeted me, calling me by name, as though we were old friends, who had run upon each other unexpectedly.
Perhaps, I have longed for her because I have known, since my daddy proudly announced her presence to me at age 4 that she exists.
Even though yesterday was the first time that I put a face with a name, it is not the first picture I’ve ever seen, or the first encounter I’ve ever had.
The first time I saw my sister’s picture, I was four. My daddy gave it to me.
I remember all the gifts my daddy ever gave to me: two fancy yellow bows with ribbons for my hair, a green purse for my fourth birthday, two half-dollar coins that I still have. And a picture of my sister.
It must have been a school picture. I remember skin a little bit lighter than mine and a huge smile, perhaps a blue shirt, maybe an afro or some other kind of hair that seemed really big. Daddy said with pride, “this is your sister, Niki.” Then he stuck her picture in the corner of another family photo that sat on our bookshelf.
That picture has been long lost, but it’s presence, the only tangible connection between me, her and our dad has remained with me.
In fact, it is one of the very few positive memories that I have of him, buttressed on all sides, by alcohol induced fits of rage. His pride, his smile—my smile, on that day, is a memory that has remained neatly tucked away, resisting any urge I might have to read the man who brought so much turmoil so early, as anything other than human.
I was seven or eight the first time I saw her. As I had done on many other Saturday mornings, I accompanied my mom to the local corner store. In line in front of us was a short, curvy teenage girl. I think she was wearing a skirt, that she had a short hair cut. She made her purchases and departed. When we came to the counter, the store clerk, my mother’s friend, leaned in conspiratorially, whispering in the kind of way that always peaks the interest of only children used primarily to adult conversations. “That was Niki.”
My mother turned to look; so did I. My precocious, nosey, walking-encyclopedia self, quickly filing away what few details I could remember. But there was only the memory of the back of her. My sister once again slipping just beyond my grasp.
At age nine, our father passed away; my sister did not come to the funeral.
At every family event that I have attended over the years, sparse though they have been, one of my father’s sisters has given me some tidbit about her. “She has a cute little girl.” “Did you know Niki got married?” “She does hair.”
I held onto all these tidbits, filing them away as mosaic pieces in a story of my other family.
The pieces I do have – my father’s face, skin tone, and smile, and according to my mother, the peaceful (if crunk) temperament of his sober self, his family’s stories; an old photo album; and now my sister, her life, her children, our family resemblance and whatever memories she is willing to share—are forming a complicated chiaroscuro, a life of bright and dark contrasts that give each other fullness, meaning, texture and flare, dramatizing the contrasts of loss and rupture; reunion and reconnection.
The whole thing may never come into view, as brilliantly as my sister’s smiling face did yesterday, the photo album that is facebook, bringing into fine focus, a friendly visage that has eluded me for so long.
The pieces I do have, I will cherish, as I cherish the long lost photo.
As my big sister said yesterday, “ I don’t believe so much in making up for lost time; we can’t get it back. I do believe we can make better for the time we have left.”
Wiser words were never spoken.