Blue on Blue: A Memoir of Sisterhood
by Kristy Powell

Louise Wetherbee Phelps Award Winner-Honorable Mention

From the writer: When I left my family and my home to study abroad in London, I never thought (or hoped) it would impact me so deeply and profoundly. One of the heartaches that I dealt with was being away from my sister, who was studying in Italy. After I was assigned to write about a topic of my choice (considering the other writings I had done in the writing class I was taking in London), I found myself moving towards a piece--almost inescapably--about sisters. This piece was not written out of compulsion, but from the heart; I worked harder, with more tears, laughter, reminiscence and joy than anything else I've ever written. I feel it was always meant to happen, burning inside of me, waiting to be released.

From the teacher: When Kristy approached me with her topic idea for her major course project in my London WRT 305, she had two reservations. First, she hesitated because she knew I wanted students to do "primary research," and she couldn't see what she could do to "research" her own memory. Second, she was worried that a story which took place largely in the past wouldn't meet the requirement of dealing with her travels to London and beyond. In our conference, I pointed out that the personal essayist needs to let other characters "speak," must account for the experiences and memories of other people involved in the story. Further, I told her that travel, to paraphrase Paul Fussell, is about both the interior and the exterior journey. Kristy's unique technical solution to the first challenge makes this story far richer than it would have been as a monologue. Her worries on the second issue were unfounded, as her essay shows us just how a story focused on family and home can illuminate the complexities of travel and study abroad.

From the editors: Powell describes the intangible relationship between two sisters without being repetitive or over dramatic in clear language. The organization of the piece and the powerful voice of the narrator are what make it stand apart from other submissions. By incorporating outside voices of her mother, father, and sister the piece was transformed from writing without definition into a very organized, stylistic, and creative story.

HAVING
 


MOM: Heather has a compassionate heart (as you do) and more than once  when you were little, we would find you in her bed with her because you were afraid of something in your room at night.


It is the night before I am to leave, and while my entire body is rebelling against me, you are quelling it with laughter. You volunteered to sleep in my bed with me because you knew I would lie awake all night drenching myself in tears, shaking with dread and uneasiness. When we climb into bed, I immediately dissolve into weakness, and you hold me while I cry and tell you repeatedly that I do not want to go. You become strength for me and urge me to embrace the confidence that you know is tucked away inside me, although I do not see it yet. Soon you have made my tears dry and we are laughing like children, hushing one another so we will not be caught. Brian comes in and we all lay in my bed, nostalgic and carefree, enjoying each other and the memories we have created as siblings. I spend my few hours asleep right next to you, my arm draped across your body, listening to your breathing and matching it with my own . . .
 


DAD: Each of you is what the other needs in a sister. Heather to challenge you to be bold, secure and courageous, not afraid to work hard for what you value, to work at being sensitive to others' needs and to value friendships. And you to challenge Heather to be more patient and accepting of others and their quirks, and have a willingness to be more spontaneous and willing to change.


Heather is a muddled reflection of me, only she is more brave and confident. We are as different as the sky and the sea, but just as they share similarities, so do we. Pictures are often demanded as proof of our relation when people discover we are sisters. We look nothing alike. Where her nutmeg hair falls straight past her shoulders, mine bounces off my head in blond curls. Her voluptuous body sways when she walks, and her shoulders look as if they could hold the weight of any problem. Mine are hunched in anxiety that people are staring at how my weight is distributed in pockets that do not fit my frame. Flirting with ease and dauntlessness, she is quick to flash a smile or strike up a conversation with a good-looking man. My mouth always runs away from me, the words that come out never seem to fit what was intended, and I am sure my face is often pink. In many ways, she is the older sister although I am two years her elder.
 


HEATHER: During high school, although I was younger, I felt like I was the leader in our relationship, and you depended on me a lot for advice and even for approval. I felt like you were stronger alone in your heart than you knew, but when you were with me, you kind of let me dominate.


The photograph in the frame is blue on blue: blue sweatshirts that cover us from neck to fingertips, blue sky, blue jeans. We mix together like eggs and sugar until you cannot see which is which. Your arms are tight around my neck and I am holding you as if I never want to be separated. The wrought look of our hair, our faces, our bodies is evidence that this is not a vacation -- we are on a trip to Mexico with our church youth group. We smile typically -- me with my teeth showing, yours hidden -- but our smiles tell a story. They tell how blessed and overjoyed we are to have and know each other; they tell how much I need you and you need me, but in different ways, for different things. They tell of the difficulty we have endured this week: no sleep or showers, the windstorm that blew all the tents upside down, how much the people in this little village have come to rely on us for company and wisdom. However, our faces also reflect our feelings of inadequacy and a sense of being overwhelmed. All the challenges, hopes, accomplishments and weaknesses show although it is only a picture. Yet the joy . . . the joy blazes its trail through it all. Joy at knowing each other. Joy at our friendship and the bond we have that will last a lifetime--knowing that this moment will be one never forgotten. Joy at loving each other. Joy at being sisters. You told me you have this same picture sifting where you can see if everyday. So do I.
 


HEATHER: I am glad that you are my sister. Even though we have had inevitable periods of differing and incompatible personalities as we both traveled the path that has brought us to where (and who) we are, I am glad that we have each other. I think that we have a special bond. I enjoy how we can often read each other's minds when we are out together. It is odd how closely alike we think.


WAKING

I hear the alarm go off and I slowly come into consciousness, I have two seconds between the calmness that comes upon awakening and the dread that will soon hit. When it does, my first reaction is to roll over. I see you sleeping, your mouth agape, and your hairline dotted with beads of sweat. Your breathing is deep-throated and on the edge of a snore. I stumble down the hall to shower and let you sleep, all the while my body feeling unnaturally cold and detached. The sun is not even up yet and the house is quiet with sleep. I barely make it through my shower without giving up and letting myself slump to the tub floor.

When I come back into my room, wet and cold, with my towel wrapped around me, I stand by the bed where you lie wrapped in blankets. Eyes still closed and still half in sleep, you reach out, hold me, and say "shhh." You do not even mind that I am getting you wet.
 


DAD: Seeing how different you two are has been pure fun. You "rub" each other's rough edges off, and force each other to be a bit more tolerant and willing to listen to the other's view, especially from people who care about you and who you care about. It is not always on Mom or me to address, as you learn from each other. Mostly it has been good to see you maintain a friendship, learning to give each other space as needed yet studying close when tough times as well as fun times come. There is sure nothing like a sister, huh?


I have always liked being in charge and being the leader; the one who called all the shots and made sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing. This especially rang true when we were growing up. Part of me was the protector, another part wanted to have authority and the rest wanted to be led. Many times, I would become charged with direction and other times I would leave the plans up to Heather I have vivid memories of walking across the street to the playground -- I would play crossing guard and stop traffic before my siblings could cross. But once we were on the playground, Heather would put me in line and decide what game we would play. It has always been like that. I protect her, I try to boss her around, and as much as I would like her to follow me, I have always followed her. But in me, she was also able to learn and to see me go first in life.
 


MOM: Heather had an advantage in having you for a big sister because she could watch you and imitate you and so she learned quickly. You liked being the Big Sister and having the "authority" that comes with seniority, and bossed her around quite a bit. But Heather also has a mind of her own and became very good at negotiating to get things her way or to show you what she thought was a better way of doing things. Because Heather was younger, she . . . played right along with you and wanted to do the things you could do, but she became more of the negotiator to get her way. She learned to be very persuasive and since she has always been good with language and getting along with others, it was interesting to watch the two of you work things out. You learned a lot about life from having to work out your differences and by "conspiring" against the rest of the world.


RUNNING

We have had enough of this. I am eight years old and I am a big girl. We are not going to take this, right Heather?

Right.
We will show them. We'll run away and never come back.
Yeah, never!

We walk with our heads held high, stomping loudly to attract attention where there is none to be found. We are indignant. Our blankies (mine green and hers covered with pictures of Strawberry Shortcake) are thrown into a suitcase, along with dolls and teddy bears, a few clothes, and snacks from the kitchen. Then we are off to our runway destination: the side yard. We are unaware that Mom and Dad are watching us make our progressive trek through the windows and then watching us as we sit in the grass and weeds, chewing stems of sour flowers, discarding the yellow tops.

Ha ha! I'll bet they miss us s-o-o-o-o much!
Yeah! Can I have a cookie?
Okay, but just one, okay? We have to save our food.
Okay.

Time passes and the sun begins to go down. While our blankies protect us from the ground, we do not have anything to protect us from the dark. Our protection -- Mom and Dad -- is inside.

Hey, Kristy, why don't we maybe go back inside? It's getting dark.
Heather! We can't give up!
Come on . . . I'm sure they miss us a lot a lot and they will be so happy we are back. Maybe we will get more cookies!
Well . . .
They'll be really sorry, I know they will, come ON.
Okay.

We gather our things and slowly begin walking back inside, determined not to have the attitude of defeat. Upon our approach to the door, we see something taped to it.

Look, a note!
What does is say? Read it, Kristy, read it!
It says, "Mom and Dad have gone to bed for the night. We'll see you in the morning! We love you! Have a good time running away!"
Oh no!
Now what are we going to do?

We both begin to cry and wait until finally Mom and Dad come to the door, fully dressed, but yawning and stretching. We are let back in, but both have to take baths because there are little pieces of grass and weeds and gunk from the side yard all over us and our blankies. We don't get any cookies.

DOUBTING

I love this hotel. We can walk to the bar and order non-alcoholic drinks to the content of our heart. Since I am 13, Mom and Dad are letting Heather and I walk around by ourselves during the day while they read and sleep. Hawaii is great, and Heather and I have each other to fill the time. It is the day before we leave and for the past hour, we have been checking out some cute boys who look a little older. They both have blond hair and are wearing khakis with flip-flops. Every time they go down the stairs leading to the beach, we go up the stairs and make quick eye contact. We are sneaky, and follow them around, and they are following us, too. Although Heather is just 11, she is still bubbly and flirtatious, smiling big at them and suggesting we talk to them. No way! This is fun, but what would we say? She is egging this on and now it is coming to the point where we have to talk to them or find something else to do. We walk down to the beach and sit with our backs to the hotel. We are giddy with excitement, but I am a little nervous. Heather will have to do all the talking. Suddenly, we realize they are standing behind us. We can hear them whispering, but we cannot understand what they are saying. We know it is them. Since we are shoulder to shoulder, we can whisper without even turning our heads. We decide after a few moments of deliberation to just turn around, smile, and see what happens. Heather goes first. I turn my head a split second later and they are right there, smiling. We glow. We stand up, and they walk towards us. We say hello. They say "Ciao" and "Non parliamo ingleses." The language barrier is too much to do anything about. Cute Italians, but we are lost. We go back to our room. Eight years later Heather goes to Italy to study abroad.
 

Last year, I did not know what I was going to do with my life, feeling inadequate and confused. Heather was already halfway through her studies at Santa Clara University, and everyone was so proud of her, going to such a great school, doing so well in her classes. She was so smart, and there I was -- 21 and still in junior college. Everyone would always ask me what my plans were. I did not know. I did not think I could really do anything great compared to Heather. She was so encouraging, and so was my family. When I got 100% on my biology final, my Mom put it on the fridge. I still felt so inadequate. Although I was excelling at my junior college, it was incomparable to Santa Clara, and I was lost. Then Heather started talking about studying abroad, going to Florence. I had always wanted to go to London, but I knew it was something I could never do alone. Never. I turned to my best friend, Amanda, and we decided to do it together. Heather was so proud, so encouraging, always telling me I could do it, I would be accepted, she knew I would. But what about when I got back? Why not apply to Santa Clara, she asked. Hah! I knew I'd never get into there --  private school, very competitive, topnotch -- but Heather urged me to just apply, see what happened.

I sent out applications to Syracuse University's study abroad and to Santa Clara at the same time. I was slowly beginning to realize, too, that Amanda was not going to study overseas with me. I did not want to go alone, but again, Heather told me I could, she knew I could. The day I got word I had been accepted to Santa Clara, Heather was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, home for the weekend. I remember walking in and telling her. We both started crying and hugged for at least two minutes without letting go. I heard from Syracuse's department of study abroad a few days later. My future was set. It was beginning to form. I was going to London. I was going to Santa Clara, thanks to Heather and her encouragement, and the courage in me she always knew I had.

HURTING

There was a time when we hated each other. I hated Heather so much that I could not even talk to her, and she hated me to the point of speechlessness and tears. I was a stranger to her, and she was a memory to me that made me bitter. Before Seth became her boyfriend during her senior year, she was all mine. We were so tight and close, we even had a secret language and secret wall knocks to communicate. Heather was my lighthouse, my lifesaver, the one who had pulled me out of hard times of self-confusion and doubt. I was taken on as her mission when I made friends with all the wrong people my first year in high school and became someone nobody knew. She brought me back to my roots, poured her heart into me and gave me the self-confidence to break away from the friends and lifestyle choices that were causing so much pain. I was cutting class every day, sneaking off to meet boys I didn't know at 2 in the morning, and trying hard to make myself tough and sassy. She was my best friend, cheering me on. My only real friend in high school, she helped me become strong enough on my own to be a friend to her during difficult times. So when Seth came along unexpectedly and all of a sudden every moment, every breath, every ounce of her time was spent with him, I could not take it. I could not deal with or understand why she was being taken away from me. At first, I was consumed with sorrow and pain, and I remember times in tears begging her just to spend some time with me. Eventually that sadness, turned into bitterness, then into anger and resentment towards Seth, and finally, hate. I could not even speak to her, and where I thought she might try to get me back, she just hated me in return. I dove into myself, into all the things that just made me feel good and fun again -- things I had once got from Heather but now got from drinking.
 


HEATHER: I think the way I view you (especially in relation to me) has changed over the past Few years. I always had a great time hanging out with you (like during the times after you first got your driver's license). I guess it was my first year of college when you began drinking, etc. that I really felt the distance between us because I could not understand what happened to the sister I knew. You were so difficult to understand and talk to. I felt like it was not your authentic personality (although it may have been a necessary step to you figuring out who you were), and that bugged me. I felt like I could not stand you and when I would hang up the telephone with you, I was so frustrated I would burst out crying. I felt like you did not care at all what I said. I think Seth also obviously caused stress to our relationship when we first got together I was trying to figure out who I was as a girlfriend as well as balance all of the areas of my "former" life before I met Seth.


BECOMING

Finally, I am forced to get up and shower, dry off, get dressed. The morning moves quickly like water; I would prefer honey. Mom got up and made cookies while I was drawing comfort from you. Through every step of the morning you are right there, smoothing my hair, reassuring me with cheerful anecdotes, smiling, and never leaving my side. You are strength in weakness for me. You keep reminding me that you are leaving tomorrow to Italy, where they do not even speak English -- at least they do where I am going. You wish that the day were here for you, that you could lust get the anxiousness over with and leave. Will you be as scared as I am? As I put the last few things into my bag, I remember the picture . . . eggs and sugar . . . we mix together . . . I wrap it in scarves and slide it into my bag .
 


MOM: I used to worry when Heather was first born that you might hurt her because of the intensity of the feelings you showed toward her. You would put your face close to hers and say, "Hi, little baby! You're just so cute!" You would clench your teeth and tremble all over with excitement of joy or jealousy or SOMETHING that I had not seen before in you.


Everyone was worried about me, wondering who this person was that they could not relate to any more. It was like a repeat of high school, only this time Heather could not make me her mission and pull me out, because in some ways, she was the cause. I have so many regrets. They have welled and doubled over inside me like rising yeast -- I punch it and punch it, but it will not go back down. I can see Heather standing in front of me, looking at me with blank, dead eyes, behind them a pleading for a spark of the person she wanted back. There were days when I would consciously not speak a word to her all day. She would ask me a simple question like, "Do we have any butter?" and I would act as if someone I did not know had just coughed.
 


HEATHER: Now, I feel like our relationship has stabilized and matured. I am glad that you like Seth so much, and hanging out with the two of you together lets me be with two of my favorite people. I am glad that for better or for worse, we have reached a kind of synthesis about Seth where you like him and I like him. We can just be content to hang out and have a good time together. I am glad he takes care of you too. I am also glad that you decided to study abroad because I see the development in your personality. I have been so proud of you in the steps you are taking in applying For SCU and studying in London -- they are things that I always knew you were capable of and smart enough to do.


I regret my immaturity, my selfishness and my need to try to make her hurt as much as I did. I regret the way I treated Seth, my soon-to-be brother-in-law. I cannot say how lucky I am that he is so forgiving and does not hate me, because I deserve it. I regret my bitterness and my curtness towards her when she came walking back in the moonlight with a boy that had just given her that first kiss. My cold reaction was partly jealousy that she had hers first and the rest . . . I do not know. She was so happy, giddy, probably melting inside -- I will never know.

I turned her joy into hurt, embarrassment, and probably fury at me in an instant. I regret that moment. Where do regrets get us? They can never go away, be dissolved -- they can only show us what we need not do again. I have learned from my mistakes, as redundant as that may sound, and while I regret the hurt, the pain I may have caused, I do not regret the experiences. They have taught me about myself, and taught me about Heather's forgiving nature.
 


MOM: You have each had to learn lessons about life and you have faced challenges in your own ways. Although you probably irritate each other more than any of your other friends do, you still know that you can go to each other when you need a friend and some unbiased advice. You are not afraid to tell each other the truth. Sometimes you hurt each other and have to learn to deal with it. Sometimes it's a struggle, I think, to make your own decision contrary to what the other one thinks you should do, to be your own person. Although these are lessons that everyone has to learn in life, having a sister gives you a built-in, everyday way to do it.


BELONGING

In the car, I hold your hand tightly, not wanting that last moment to come, dreading that last moment when I walk away on my own. Amanda is there also, telling me she wishes she could come with me, she wishes we could have done this together as we planned. As the airport comes into sight, my body again rebels, and I start dry heaving, trying to purge myself of the fear. I cannot breathe. I cannot function. My body will not let me. You rub my back and keep telling me I will be okay. I will be okay. We check my luggage and walk to the gate. We have about 45 minutes until I am to board, and I just keep looking at you, at Amanda, at Mom and Dad and Brian . . . I will see you again in 8 weeks in Florence, but that seems like forever away. You smile and I can tell you are trying not to cry. When they call my flight to board, I lose it. I cannot hold the tears back. We walk to the gate and I push myself towards the plane. Mom and Dad are crying, Amanda is crying, you are crying. As I kiss everyone goodbye, our tear-filled eyes meet for one last time, and behind your tears I can read your mind, telling me to be strong, to be courageous -- you have faith in me. I take my final steps onto the plane, and with our eyes still locked, you slip something into my hands.

The traveling and endless landscape swirls around me as I try to focus on the tree in the distance, its branches donning red leaves as plentiful as sprinkles on ice cream. At the speed we are moving, the images rush past and hardly have time to register before the next is presented. My eyes could scarcely focus dry, and as they are moist with tears, the images only become more blurred. As we pull into the train station, I am not so excited to be in Florence as I am to see you. Will you look different? Upon seeing you, will I immediately feel a rush of something I am not expecting? What will you do, react to me? I am at the doors as they part, and out the train like a child racing for first pick of hot lunches. The train is late in arriving and I am nervous that you may not have been able to wait. My back is aching from the weight of my pack, but I propel myself towards the end of the platform, in earnest search. My eyes rest on the deep burgundy sweater and chocolate hair that brushes the shoulders and I register: it is you. You see me at the same time and we rush -- rush to familiarity, to embrace, to reconciliation. We hold, not parting, crying, smiling, touching faces, trying to bring back to memory what it feels like to put my hand on your hair, to smell you and see your eyes look inside me. Laughter chokes with words and tightened throat muscles as we express disbelief that this moment has come. You are so the same, but so different -more assertive, if that is possible, more confident and headstrong. My heart is swelling with happiness and nervousness -- if you see any changes in me, what do you think? Can you see that I have embraced my confidence, my new freedom, and have lost the fear that once gripped me so tightly? Is it visible to you that I am no longer afraid to walk towards the end of the plank, even if I am unsure of the outcome? I hope you see that I am finishing the puzzle that I have slowly been putting together, the puzzle of who I am, the sureness and the endurance, and the faith in myself. I will ask you about this later and you will tell me yes, you see changes, but they are not so much overt as they are inside me, at my core -- and you will be right. I love seeing you again, but I do not want to have another reunion. I do not want to part again.

REASSURING

Sitting in the silence
listening to myself,
I reveal the secret of my heart:
I say
"stop being unsure and remember your strength, the way it feels to be brave
and confident, full of individual glory and passion.
All these questions,
 let them come.
As much as you desire to suffocate them,
 embrace each one as it arises. Let them well and over flow."
     Who am I?
     Why am I here?
What will be
 awoken
fulfilled
 sparked
drowned?
Is there someplace I, this,
 will take me,
 into some part of myself
 I did not know?
Piece by piece,
 putting the puzzle together
     of myself,
     heart,
     soul.
"Refuse to miss the chance
 to gain another piece,"
I say
This--the tearing of self
and the re-stitching of it all -
is how the puzzle becomes whole.

CELEBRATING

I cannot open it on the plane. I cannot even look . . .
 


HEATHER: With all the history we have and all the history we will make in the Future as we live our lives together (we can have our babies together and live nearby), we always have each other. I am so blessed and grateful for that.


at the way you wrote my name on the envelope (with hearts all around it) without crying. There is a space inside me that is filled with you, filled with so much love, so much admiration, and so many memories. Sitting on the plane, I realize that no words could ever tell you how much I love you. I can say it over and over or I can just look at you and say it without using any words. There is nothing in the world like a sister. I know that our bond will never, ever be broken, no matter what. What comfort, what joy in knowing I have you for life. Finally, when I have collected myself and am in my room at the London hostel, alone and able to cry, I open the card.

     To be truly understood by another is to feel God's
   love.
There's nobody I would have rather
        shared with,
            fought with,
                 laughed with,
                         cried with
                                  For all these years . . .
Nobody l would have rather grown up with than you.



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