(istock)

My teenage son and I left the house to walk the dog just as my phone started buzzing. “It’s Aunt Bren — I’ll call her back later,” I said, letting it go to voicemail. My son wondered how long it had been since I last spoke with my younger sister, and encouraged me to return her call that afternoon.

“Have you always been close?” he asked. I opened up and told him about our stormy relationship as kids. His fun-loving, attractive aunt was the one who got blamed for everything that went wrong. Guilty or not, she bore the brunt, and was probably punished numerous times for things I’d slyly pinned on her.

As adults, however, our relationship is amazingly warm and strong. We’re now officially in midlife, as the moms of teenagers and the adult children of aging parents. It’s a challenging time. We need each other, and share our highs and lows over the phone. She lives on one side of the country, I on the other, and we rarely see each other. But we fall into easy conversation no matter how long it has been since our last chat. She still has her characteristic spunk, but now I also see her bighearted compassion, which I didn’t notice as a kid.

She recently texted me a photo of a note I wrote her when we were young. It reads: Please be kind to one another. Don’t be mean. Be kind! It is more fun being kind! I wish you would be kind! Please be kind as we go to Kan(s)as. I Love you!! 

I laughed even as my eyes watered, because God only knows what motivated me to admonish my sister repeatedly to be kind. Looking back, I’m ashamed at how I was preaching something I wasn’t practicing. I know I wasn’t always kind to her. She was a little firecracker, but she didn’t deserve most of what she got.

My son hadn’t heard this story as completely as I now told it on our walk. If anything, he has witnessed only my devotion toward my sister over the years. Along with the rest of the family, he has directly taken part in my tradition of sending annual birthday greetings to her, my other sisters and their spouses. Spring and fall are especially busy, with many birthdays clumped together. During these cluster weeks, several birthday cards and a pen are often lying on the kitchen bar, awaiting everyone’s signatures. This is, I’ve maintained, a family affair.

My kids have been doing this for as long as they can recall. “It’s for Aunt Bren!” I’d say, pointing to a blank birthday card. Depending on their age, they’d think of something to draw or write, even though they often couldn’t recall the last time they had seen their aunt in person (and sometimes asked to see a picture of her first). Occasionally they shared random jokes. My daughter’s favorite was, Knock-knock! Who’s there? Hair combs! Hair combs who? Hair combs the bride.

It didn’t matter to me if their greetings had anything to do with birthdays. I just wanted them to participate in feting my siblings.   

Over time, I realized that maybe I was modeling the sibling relationship I hoped my two kids would have. Crazy life being what it is, would they reach out as adult brother and sister at least once every year, and remind each other of family ties?

Years from now, I hope they will remember each other on their birthdays, and on random days as well. There are signs that they will, such as the private Snapchat conversation my son shares with his sister, who is thousands of miles away at college. I’m glad that he may know more about her boyfriends than I do. I believe that their relationship as siblings, if it endures, will come to their rescue during tough times. Their relationship should be singular, offering understanding and a stubborn belief in each other.

I hung up with my sister later that afternoon after a full hour of conversation about kids, marriage, work and parents. I realized for the hundredth time how smart and sensible she is, and how much better life is with her in it. I also realized that day how closely my son has been observing the way I regard my sister. My example was teaching him more than words ever could.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including Literary Mama, Story|Houston, Scary Mommy, Mamalode and the Briar Cliff Review. She is a contributing author of best-selling anthology “Feisty After 45.” Connect with Kathryn at kathrynstreeter.com, on Twitter @streeterkathryn and on Instagram @kathrynstreeter.

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