My younger sister, Betsy, just left to head back to Washington, DC. She came to visit me in Chattanooga for the weekend to celebrate her 37th birthday. It’s crazy when your younger sibling turns 37. Not only do I keep thinking I’m 37, I feel more like 27. Funny how the mind needs to be convinced that the body is not what it once was. I wake up with cricks in my neck, not from a night out of dancing, but from sitting on the couch in a slightly different manner than my usual lounge posture.
With my husband out of town for the week and a freezer full of pre-made dinners, I had plenty of time on my hands to prepare for her arrival. She’s been living alone since the beginning of the pandemic, and while she is the strong one in the family, I know it’s been really hard on her, if for no other reason than she often feels like she has to be the strong one. Being that I’m the middle child, I often had no problem flailing my emotions about, making it very clear I needed attention. I have since grown out of it, for the most part, but I still have my moments.
I was 28 years old before I realized that being a MIDDLE child meant I had a YOUNGER sister… meaning I wasn’t just a middle child, I was a big sister, with some one to look after other than myself. It was groundbreaking. We’ve been close ever since.
I set my intentions ahead of time, I had recently read the Art of Gathering and I learned that a good gathering isn’t just about the decor or the food, but about the intention you have for the gathering and how well you carry it out. My intention for her time at my house was to create a space for her to feel celebrated, but more so, loved and special; knowing this helped me think through what might make Betsy feel that way.
Since she lives a busy life in DC, she doesn’t often have time to do the things she’d like to do: cook, decorate, take a bath. Living alone means she’d probably even more so like to be on the receiving end of someone cooking for her, someone decorating her space, and… well, the bath she can do on her own.
I spent the week preparing for her arrival, from making the decorations and hanging them, to making the cake and the cake topper…
Though Josh and I have been living in Chattanooga since November, we have to yet to find a kitchen table we like… partly because Josh keeps saying he is going to make one, but we’re going on month four of that not happening, so I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I went down to Wal-Mart and grabbed a cheap folding table to cover up.
Betsy and I used the table once the whole weekend and spent the rest of the time eating at the kitchen counter or on the couch. I guess it’s true that decor is a mere addition, take it or leave it, compared to the over all purpose of the gathering and being together.
The day she flew in she had already spent an extra three hours in the DC airport due to delayed flights. She was getting in much later than planned and I knew she’d be tired, not just from the flight, but the work week she had just come off of. I wouldn’t be able to fix her energy levels, but I could certainly make her feel welcome, and hopefully get her laughing after a long day.
I dressed for the occasion and awkwardly waited for her to come down the escalator in the Chattanooga Airport…
After waiting a while, enduring stares and little girls saying “Mommy, look” while pointing at me, Betsy finally started to come down the escalator. As soon as I saw her I began playing the Sisters song from White Christmas, you know how it goes…
And in no time, though tired from travel, delayed flights and a DC work week, she laughed out loud as I continued to sing and act out the song until she reached me.
“Welcome to your birthday weekend!” I yelled, and proceeded to keep playing and singing the song until we reached the car. I may have overdone it a little, but I’m still a middle child, sometimes I can’t help myself.
When she got in the car I had snacks and an itinerary for the weekend, letting her know she didn’t have to think about or plan a thing, it was all taken care of, all she had to do was enjoy it.
I’m not sharing all this to say “look at all I did!” (Maaaaybe the middle child part is saying that), I’m sharing it to say, it took me 38 years to do something like this for someone who’s been a part of my life all 38 years. It was long overdue and I’m grateful I was allowed the space in time to make it happen for her. I’m sharing it to say, I realized it’s never too late to make someone feel loved and special.
I played Hanson when we walked in the door, our childhood obsession. With the house decorated at each corner, she’d let out a little scream as she’d see something new. I had snacks at the ready while I finished making dinner.
After dinner she took a bath, an often daily ritual for her until pipes in her apartment burst and she hadn’t been able to take a bath for weeks. We joked about how anxious she must be since she’s only been able to take a shower, “yea,” she laughed, “sometimes I take two baths a day!” I suppose that’s what happens when you live and work in Washington, DC… you take two baths a day, not just to relax but to wash all the politics off!
She thanked me for everything and turned in early. I knew she was tired, but there almost seemed to be a sadness about her, not a heavy sadness, just a sense I had that she couldn’t fully express excitement. Times before I may have asked what was wrong, but this time I had a feeling she just needed to be where she was at, and I didn’t need to take any of it personally, wondering if she expected more or if I got the right kind of cheese. It wasn’t about me and so I let her go to bed, telling her I’d have homemade cinnamon rolls ready by 9am.
On the day of Betsy’s birthday I woke up early to prepare breakfast. Hot yoga was scheduled for 10am so I figured she’d be up much earlier to have time to drink coffee and eat. At 9:20am I still didn’t hear any stirring upstairs so I started to text her. Just before I hit send I heard her bedroom door open and her slowly walking toward the stairs, “ow, ow, ow,” she said, “I think I need help.” I ran over to the stairs, “what the heck happened?” She was slowly trying to maneuver her way down and began laughing when she couldn’t make it.
“It might be from sitting all day, but just before I went to bed last night, I felt a pinched nerve and I couldn’t go to sleep, I just laid there in the happy baby position.” We both started laughing. “What do you need?” I asked, “want to get back in bed and I’ll bring you coffee?”
“I think just water,” she said, “I’m going to take a bath and see if that helps.” I was pretty sure her taking a bath meant we were going to miss yoga, but she managed to make it in-and-out in time for us to go, stretching her hamstrings out before getting in the car, “ow, ow, ow.”
“Welcome to your late thirties!” I said.
After yoga we went and got smoothies, returned home and Betsy decided to take another bath. We both laid down for a nap, her having been up late with a pinched nerve and me having been up early making cinnamon rolls. Wow, I thought to myself, baths and nap time, we really are getting older.
I took her to get a pedicure at 1:30, during which she fell asleep and upon returning home again she took nap number two, after which she took bath number three. I guess that’s how she celebrates her birthday, I thought, lots of baths! To each their own.
After all the baths and naps, we got dressed up and went out to dinner downtown. We talked about previous birthdays, what our family looks like now and if she had an ideal man, what would he be like. “I don’t really have a type,” she said, “I’ve dated a South African, an Israeli, and a 50 year old. I’m open to any type of person, I only have two requirements: that he be emotionally intelligent AND available, and that we share the same spiritual beliefs. I’ve loved people who haven’t shared my beliefs, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s just too hard on the relationship to differ on your core beliefs.”
We were home by 9:30 pm and dressed for bed shortly there after. I had her blow out her birthday candles, being too tired and full, she passed on having a piece of cake. She opened the present I made her, a corgi birthday crown in honor of our family corgi (who she is obsessed with), Benny Boy.
After she went up to bed I sat on the couch with my own piece of cake and small glass of champagne. Josh called to say goodnight and we talked for a while. I told him I knew Betsy was glad to be here, I knew she was enjoying it, but it didn’t feel like she was. I wasn’t getting this excited reaction I would assume one would get when they’ve done everything I did.
Josh reminded me that sometimes people just need a safe place to be themselves no matter how they are feeling. “She might not be able to express it right now,” Josh said, “but you know she loves being there.” “I know,” I said, “I guess in some selfish way, I just want to feel it!” I knew doing things for her wasn’t about getting a specific reaction from her, and that if it were, I’d end up transferring my disappointment onto her, creating an uncomfortable environment to be in, all because I wanted more recognition. “Let her be where she is at and keep loving her there,” Josh said, “you’re so good at that.”
The next morning I had a Dollywood mug with her name on it and a Dolly Parton card sitting by the coffee maker. I wanted to set the tone for the day that this was it… the day we go to Dollywood!
Now that I live in Tennessee, Dollywood is my happy place. I’ve been three times since moving here four months ago- that’s about how many times I went to Hollywood living in Southern California for eight years! The week before Betsy’s visit, I went to Dollywood for Passholder’s day (Yes, getting a season pass was one of the first things I did as a Tennessean), and unbeknownst to everyone, DOLLY PARTON WAS ACTUALLY THERE! She waved at me when she saw one of my homemade Dolly crowns and I momentarily forgot to keep breathing.
Before coming, Betsy had said the one thing she for sure wanted to do was go to Dollywood. Piece of cake.
I was laying in bed drinking my coffee when I heard a knock on my door. Betsy popped her head in, “I LOVE MY MUG!” she said and she scurried over to sit on the end of my bed. We sat there talking for hours, there she is, I thought to myself, not because she expressed something I wanted to hear, but because she was finally expressing herself, talking, asking questions, laughing, the Betsy I know when she’s not weighted down by work, family drama, or living alone.
Had I made a comment like “oh you finally decided to show up,” or “nice to see you finally being expressive,” I think it would have killed the moment. A comment like that would have shamed her for simply being tired or worn out from life, making her feel unsafe to feel however she feels. Unnecessary commentary is what I am learning to discern, and I knew making a comment about her suddenly seeming lively would have made her feel bad about the days prior; something she didn’t need to feel bad about because there was nothing wrong with the days prior.
We drove two hours to Dollywood and spent the rest of the day there feeling like kids all over again. We both wore our crowns that donned our favorite things, hers, a corgi and mine, Dolly.
We drove the two hours back to Chattanooga listening to Dolly Parton’s America Podcast the whole way. Betsy had not only officially caught the Dolly bug, but she had finally felt rested and able to enjoy herself. “Next time I’m gonna take a vacation before my vacation so I don’t feel so tired on the vacation,” she said. We laughed and I was relieved I never made an issue of what I perceived to be her lack of enthusiasm. We had another day and a half together, relaxed and fully enjoying each other’s company.
By the time I took her to the airport she started crying, “I had such a good time,” she said, “I don’t really want to leave.” I made some stupid comment I read off of Pinterest in response, “Oh, don’t cry cause it’s over, smile cause it happened.” It kinda makes me gag now, especially when she responded while still crying, “well, I can do both.”
I laughed, “yes, you can.” She was right. And that’s what makes her the strong one, not an avoidance of emotion, but realizing she can be sad and grateful at the same time. She can be tired and lonely and worn out AND still enjoy herself and every opportunity she is given. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that life is a mix; a mix of emotions, not always compartmentalized by seasons, but often times experienced simultaneously.
Perhaps Betsy wanted her birthday to happen at a different time, when she felt more rested and had more time to enjoy it, but life just happens, without asking if we are ready, rested, or prepared. She turned 37 when she did, and I could either meet her there and love her, or I could complain that she wasn’t acting as happy as I’d like her to be.
When I returned home she left a note on her bed, thanking me for the whole weekend, for every thought and detail that didn’t go unnoticed. “I will never forget this weekend,” she said, “you made ME feel loved and special…
I will always love you!”