My little sister was born a couple days after the fourth of July. I remember standing with my very pregnant mother, a few days beforehand on a warm summer afternoon among the twisty dogwood trees on the bank over the lake dam. I asked her when the baby was coming. She told me soon. Again, we went through the what happens—I have a little suitcase packed, your dad will take me to the hospital, somebody will come to take care of you until your grandmother gets to town. Again, I tried not to worry about my mother leaving in the middle of the night. Again I wished for a sister. Boys ruined everything. If I had to have a sibling, it should definitely be a girl.
We called the baby “Robertini” in utero, because we’re the sort of family that has weird names for everything. I credit my father. Want to feel Robertini kick? What to pick out a toy for Robertini’s crib? I don’t think my parents knew the sex of the baby beforehand. But I remember she was always going to be Sara or Caitlin or Sara Caitlin. Even with the names, I still worried Robertini might be a boy. It wouldn’t be the first time my parents were caught unawares. My nursery had been decorated in a green and white with Peter Rabbit pillows. I was supposed to have been a boy named Thomas Butler. Tom for short. I turned out a girl, not even a proper tomboy, and my name always felt like an afterthought. I worried Robertini might suffer the same fate. And what might his name be? Mom liked Mitchell. Dad didn’t. I liked Octavius or Tiberius or maybe Ferdinand, but no one asked for my opinion. I figured they’d probably just go with Robertini. It sounded like a fine name to me.
I watched my parents set up the room across the landing from mine. They put together the crib, stacked fluffy things on flat surfaces, hung a mobile made of tiny wooden airplanes that played a music box version of “Fly Me To The Moon.” My mother said this used to hang over your crib. I tried to remember it so hard it made my head hurt in my nose. We opened Mom’s big steamer trunk, full of her old evening gowns and sparkling shoes and fancy keepsakes. She pulled out stacks of pastel baby gowns and bonnets, silver rattles, soft blankets. When you were little your Nana and I dressed you like a doll. We bought little French dresses and tiny shoes and hats and sometimes you’d wear five dresses in a day. You were the prettiest baby. I didn’t think it was fair that Robertini might get to wear my pretty baby dresses, even though I couldn’t wear my pretty baby dresses anymore. Mom cooed over them and I pouted because she wouldn’t give me a single one of my old dresses to dress my dolls.
I remember what I dreamed the night my sister was born. I was in an old hotel mostly empty, painted pale green and full of bright light through windows. A scarecrow lived there. Everyone was afraid of him, though he ended up being kind, just lonely and misunderstood. I played him the song from “The Rescuers” on a record player in the empty hotel dining room and told him we could be friends. I woke up crying and realized all of the lights were on and my parents were not in their beds. I padded downstairs and discovered that my best friend’s mother was in the kitchen. “Your mom and dad have gone to the hospital,” she said. “The baby is coming.”
I felt slightly annoyed that I wasn’t invited to come along, that somehow my father was deemed more useful than I. I went back to my room and shut the door and played paperdolls until morning and my grandmother’s arrival.
I had a dress picked out well in advance to wear to the hospital. It was white with red piping and cap sleeves, printed with tiny red apples and hand smocked by my mother. I wasn’t overly fond of it, as it lacked both tulle and sequins, but Mom had been awfully proud of herself for making it so I begrudgingly wore it in her honor. When Nana arrived she helped me brush my hair and manage the cowlick that created a tiny version of Natural Bridge out of my bangs in the center of my forehead. I was grumpy. Nana took me out for ice cream and records on the way to the hospital. She was genuinely impressed at my firm handle on local geography. What a good little navigator you are! I beamed and figured a superb sense of direction was quality that would compare favorably to Robertini’s limited skillset.
Mom was at the hospital without the nuns, which I found disappointing, because I liked nuns and I had lots of questions for them Are all of you good singers? What sort of underwear do you wear? How, in fact, do you solve a problem like Maria? Monks: actually kind of creepy, right?
I ran into Mom’s room. She seemed less excited to see me than I ‘d hoped.
Everyone looked at me like a crazy person so I asked louder.
“Your little sister is in the nursery,” said my mother. “Her name is not Robertini, but Sara. Sara Elizabeth.”
I thought it was supposed to be Caitlin.
“I couldn’t call her Caitlin. She wasn’t a Caitlin,” said my mother. “She was an Elizabeth. She came into the world like an empress.”
In retrospect, I’m not sure which part of this I took harder, the fact that I could no longer refer to my hypothetical sibling as Robertini or that my mother could look me, her firstborn, her already-alit-with-imperial-ambition-but-saddled-with-the-most-common-of-commoner’s-names child straight in the eyes and tell me she’d named her other daughter after the actual queen.
I was so mad that I threw a small tantrum on the way to the nursery. My over-generous grandfather bribed me to stop crying with M&Ms and pocket money. Settled down, I stood at the window looking at the weird squirming mostly bald humans in their glass boxes. My grandmother pointed out my sister. She had more hair than most Just like you when you were that age but otherwise unremarkable. The people around me all cooed. I sulked. I couldn’t figure out what made a baby so interesting. I didn’t know why anyone would want a baby. Babies couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t talk to you or perform song and dance numbers or navigate their grandmother across town. Stupid baby, I thought. Why would anyone need a baby when they have a me?
Truth be told, I was an asshole about the baby for a while. I’d been an only child for almost six years. I wasn’t a little girl particularly moved to nurture (I loathed playing house) and was, at best, befuddled by what I was supposed to do with this infant now demanding my parents’ attention. People came to see her; people brought her presents and seemed, in all ways, not interested in me. To add insult to injury, the older she got, the cuter she got. What an adorable child, they’d say in the line at the grocery store, talking about the baby riding on top of the buggy, not the one sitting cross-legged, sulking on the shelf beneath.
My mother exhorted me to spend time with her, but how do you . . . what do you do with a baby? She seemed as wary of me as I of her. She didn’t like it when I tried to hold her. She cried when I came into the room. It’s not personal. Babies cry, said my mother. And I’d go upstairs or outside or into the sunroom and put my fingers in my ears and know my mother was dead wrong. It was personal. The baby didn’t like me. And that was fine, I thought. I don’t have to like you either.
So it was and so it is that I don’t remember exactly when it was that I realized my sister was my sister, not just a random baby, not some inexplicable, inconvenient presence, but a person. I don’t remember the precise circumstances—where we were, what we were doing, how the weather was—but like most great love affairs, the start of ours came out of nowhere, the kind of crashing, dumbfounding epiphany that’s too clumsy to exist outside of a romcom or an undergraduate fiction workshop. I was sitting. She crawled over and sat beside me, sat against me, of her own volition. She didn’t say anything, but I felt her warm tiny body against my own lonely, weirded out stupid baby self and suddenly I knew, ineluctably knew, that I loved her, that I would do anything for her, that could never let anything happen to her and that she was precious to me in the most pure and perfect sense.
This is not to say that were instant friends and peaceful siblings from then on. As children, we were not much alike in interest or temperament. She liked numbers. I liked narrative. She gravitated toward the kind, soft and beautiful. I sought out vulgar, difficult and strange. She wanted control. I preferred chaos. She was superstitious. I was skeptical. She was stubborn, single-minded, prone to hold grudges. I was quick to explosive, uncontrollable anger, but fast to forgive and desperate to forget. Our childhood fights were epic. Our adult squabbles infamous. Love came like a bolt, an understanding on an almost cellular level, but liking was a whole other ballgame. It took us the rest of my childhood for us to become cautious friends. We wouldn’t become close friends of the soul-baring, drunk dialing ohmygodimissyousomuchyourcrazybastard variety until a sunny, boozy marathon tour of Europe sometime after her freshman year of college and my twenty-fourth birthday when I think we stumbled (perhaps literally) into the shared realization that we brought out the best in each other and usually had more fun together than apart.
Today is my sister’s birthday. We are each ages I could not have imagined decades ago when I twirled outside my mother’s hospital room in my smocked apple dress waiting for a sibling to change my life completely. And here’s what I can tell you about her: she’s an extraordinary woman—beautiful, smart, accomplished, hilarious, magical. She’s my confidante, my hero and inexplicably, my biggest cheerleader, even when I know I don’t I deserve it. I am genuinely her biggest fan, even when she thinks I’m just kissing her ass. It is my privilege to know her, to see her become all that she is and all that she will be. She is the greatest gift my parents ever gave me. And I love her. I’d do anything for her. I won’t let anything happen to her. She is precious to me, in the most pure and perfect sense.
Happy Birthday, Queen Robertini.