Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Benefits of a Sister

“My sister taught me everything I really need to know, and she was only in sixth grade at the time.” – Linda Sunshine
I had just turned two when the above photograph was taken, obviously excited about the prospect of diving into the birthday cake and proud of myself for having successfully blown out the two candles that stood in the way of yet another sugar buzz. My sister Linda, 7 ½ years old, stands beside me, her bright smile and innocent looking face betraying a slightly devilish spirit. I have no independent recollection of this precise moment in history, but I have only fond childhood memories of my sister.

“A sister is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost,” wrote American author Marion C. Garretty. Though we were always in different schools or stages in life, Linda remains a solid presence in my life and the lives of my children, someone we can turn to for a kind word or listening ear.

My earliest memories of Linda are of her seated to my right in the backseat of our family’s Ford station wagon whenever the three of us kids, with me stuck in the middle, traveled anywhere as a family unit. It was the station wagon in which we took long vacations, pulling a Nimrod camper and driving for hours on end until reaching an inexpensive campsite somewhere between New Jersey and Utah, where the most excitement was finding some rocks to climb, a lake on which to skip stones, and the local canteen from which to buy candy and soda. Each morning, with Mom and dog Peppie aboard, Dad would announce when it was time for the three kids to cram into the backseat, where we stayed for the duration of the eight hours it took to reach our next destination. 

Although my parents would contend that I was placed in the middle because I was then the youngest and smallest of the three siblings, I tend to believe it was more of a strategic decision. Linda was only two years older than brother Steve, and they had a more traditional and competitive sibling relationship. At times, they got along about as well as the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland back in the late sixties. Stuck in the middle seat, I was a bit like Switzerland, acting as the neutral intermediary and physical buffer between Steve and Linda.  

It has been rumored the genesis of their tensions was the time Linda “accidentally” slammed the basement door shut precisely when Steve, then only two years old, stood at the top of the basement stairwell. What Steve was doing there and why he was standing unsupervised at the top of the stairwell has never been adequately examined. Nonetheless, the force of the door at the hands of Linda’s swift gesture abruptly sent Steve tumbling down the stairs to the cement floor eight steps below. None the worse for wear – the Doctor said it was likely because Steve was “relaxed” when he fell – Steve never quite forgave Linda for the mishap. Linda insisted in later years, without benefit of counsel, that she did not know Steve was standing there and that it was a mere accident. Steve is not so sure, but no charges were filed and the statute of limitations has long since expired, so we will never really know.

Linda was always nice to me, her youngest and more angelic brother, and for that I am forever grateful. When I was six years old and our family lived in Moorestown, New Jersey, Linda often walked me up the hill on Parry Drive to the local library or Woolworth’s on Main Street. Five-and-a-half years my senior, she possessed an air of authority that I admired and respected. Unlike siblings closer in age, there was never a sense of competition or rivalry between us. She was my friend and defender, my counselor to the ways of the world. As I grew older, she would teach me how to treat girls, what new foods to try, what classes to take, and how to maneuver college life and newfound independence. She helped me through my divorce many years ago, and she has been a wonderful aunt to my two daughters and a good friend to Andrea.

Born in 1953 when traditional notions of femininity prevailed and girls were expected to be teachers or nurses before succumbing to the life of a suburban housewife, Linda came of age in, but never totally embraced, the revolutionary sixties. In high school, she was the captain of the Cheerleading Squad, which brought many added benefits to me as a younger brother, especially when her cheerleader friends stopped by our house, as they often did. By the early 1970’s, with the mini-skirt in fashion and various social revolutions underway in the United States, I quietly endured these female invasions without complaint.

As someone who emphasized the “mini” in mini-skirts, Linda was a rather popular girl with the guys. Not yet realizing the ways of the world, I had a tendency to “hang out” with Linda and her boyfriends whenever she invited one of them over. The boyfriends were invariably polite at first, tolerating my presence as a means of impressing Linda with how nice and thoughtful they could be with this little brat she called a brother, but after a while I sensed a touch of annoyance. What could they have possibly had against me? But Linda was exceedingly patient with me, not wanting me to feel unwelcome. And besides, if I didn’t like the guy, she would eventually ditch him.

But time passes quickly and memories fade. I was only twelve years old when Linda left home to attend Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. As the daughter of parents who had met at Wittenberg, and impressed by its southern Ohio charm, off to the Midwest she went. Linda was the third member of my immediate family (after my mom and dad) to embrace the bucolic, tree-lined, grass-filled campus of that small but friendly liberal arts college. I looked forward to her brief returns home during winter and spring breaks, and I listened attentively to her tales and stories of college life, of football games and frat parties, the challenges of coursework, what the professors and students were like, when and where she studied, and where the best parties were.

During her sophomore year, Linda took a philosophy class with Professor Bob Long, who had been friends with my dad in college. On the first day of class, Dr. Long looked over the student roster and saw the name Ehlers. He looked up and scanned the room, pausing when his eyes spotted Linda’s familiar looking face. “Are you the daughter of Ed Ehlers?” he asked. Linda nodded. “Well, you’re a lot better looking than your old man!” Political correctness having not yet infiltrated the halls of Wittenberg, his remark was met with hearty laughter – at my dad’s expense, of course. 

Linda graduated college in 1976 in an outdoor ceremony on a beautiful, sunlit Ohio day. I can still remember the sense of pride I felt when she received her degree in full graduation regalia, a milestone that continues to mean something and which set an example for Steve and me. It is Linda I credit for my decision in 1977 to also attend Wittenberg. Linda was my cool, hip sister, and when she told me that Wittenberg would be a good fit for me, with the right mix of academics and social life, I knew instinctively it was where I wanted to go. When I graduated from there in 1981, I was glad I had listened to her advice and counsel.

The memories of childhood soon fade and our lives move ever so swiftly in chaotic directions. Linda married her college sweetheart at the young age of 22, gave birth to two boys, and moved to places far away – Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. Her first marriage ended in divorce and she has had some rocky times, with health issues and disappointments in life and work. But through it all she has raised two admirable young men, adopted four stray cats while caring for a rambunctious dog the size of a horse that she rescued from Hurricane Katrina, frequently buys lunch for homeless people on the streets of New Orleans, and generously offers her kindness and friendship to all smart enough to accept it.

Through life’s many challenges, Linda has retained her sense of humor. When my daughter Jennifer visited Linda in New Orleans during a college spring break, I called to see how they were doing. Linda answered the phone and said that she and Jen were sitting on the deck enjoying the weather and talking things over. Sensing that wine or other spirits may be involved, and concerned that Jen was not yet of legal age, I asked, “You’re not corrupting my daughter, are you?” There was a momentary silence on the other end of the phone, a little shifting around, until finally Linda replied, “What happens in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans.” And that was that. She would repeat this line when daughter Hannah visited New Orleans last spring.

I am always amazed in looking back on my life at how quickly time moves and how different is reality from our imagined dreams. Linda is 60 now, although she doesn’t look it, and life has passed us by with ineffable swiftness. Linda did not become famous, develop a cure for cancer, or win the Pulitzer Prize, but she has succeeded where many others in life have failed. For if everyone possessed the kindness and caring ways that Linda has maintained throughout her life, regardless of what fate and the Gods bequeathed her, the world would be a better, more refined and friendly place.

“There can be no situation in life,” according to the English writer Mary Montagu, “in which the conversation of my dear sister will not administer some comfort to me.” Distance and time have separated us for most of our adult lives, but it is because of Linda I understand still the benefits of a sister. 


  1. As the brother who was "accidently" pushed down those basement stairs by this sister who was adored so by Mark, I'd like to relate another incident that he does not mention.

    While we were camping in the Nimrod mentioned earlier, somewhere in New England, the three of us were expelling some energy after one of those long stays in the cramped station wagon. Simply, we were running around the camper.

    Suddenly, I am "accidently" bumped by the same sister who tried to get rid of me so many years ago. I fell onto a tent stake and cut my leg to the bone. I still have the scare.

    Coincidence? You be the judge.

  2. Steve,

    Could it simply be that trouble tends to find trouble? Just saying.

    "I don't go looking for trouble. Trouble usually finds me." -- JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban