My Big Sister

April 8, 2012

Together from the start.

I have a big sister. This probably does not make me unique. That my big sister is who she is, however, does. I am certain there is no one else quite like her.

Her name is Laraine. There are not many Laraines anymore, nor were there ever, for that matter. The name comes either from Latin, meaning ocean bird, or French, derived from Lothaire, the ruler of the region Lotharingia later known as Lorraine, depending on which source you chose to believe. Neither really matters, though. She was named as I was, for no other reason than our parents liked the name.

I look through my old photo albums, and those brittle black pages are filled with pictures of Laraine and I through our years together in the small Cape Cod house in Bergenfield where we grew up. A floodgate of memories opens. Over the sixty-five years of our existence as siblings, my sister has been many things to me: protector, tormentor, playmate, mentor, confidant, and confider. We have shared a room, a childhood, secrets, and both extreme joy and heartbreak. There are twenty-two months and sixty miles between us, but still we share our hearts.

Little me with my big sis.

There are so many memories of small moments in our lives that remain vivid in my mind. They tumble forth in an avalanche of emotion, each a story unto itself. Our battles over putting the tinsel on the Christmas tree. Enacting imaginary fantasies with our next door neighbors Chris and Ceil in the driveway. Our “squeaky bed song” as we jumped up and down on the mattress at the old Tenafly house of our grandparents. Almost burning down granddaddy’s garage while playing with matches. Trick or treating together, Laraine in mom’s homemade creations, like the year she was a slice of watermelon. The night we chattered long after lights out and then called Mom a witch when she scolded us. The time we bravely hid dad’s booze.

And oh, the many dilemmas of growing up: Laraine so desperately wanting braces, the drama of trying to make cheer leading, the manipulations over prom dates. Then the real challenges began — adulthood and marriage and parenthood and changes almost too drastic to cope with and aging and too many sorrowful departures. In other words, life. It was in this connected life that I saw the strength and integrity and conviction of my big sister.

Laraine, Robbie, mom, and dad visiting the college freshman

I’ll never forget the worst day of our lives. The phone rang early that Saturday morning, and it was Laraine. I knew something was terribly wrong as soon as I heard her voice. She solemnly told me that Robbie, Laraine’s first son, my Godson, was in an accident on the way home from his first eighth grade dance. He had been struck by a car while crossing the street. He was in the hospital, and it didn’t look good. She asked if we could go to mom and dad’s and tell them for her in person; she just couldn’t bring herself to do it over the phone. Bernadette and I did that, and the pain of that day still weighs heavily in my soul. Robbie didn’t make it, and through those difficult days, Laraine bore the most unbearable of all possible grief with such incredible grace.

After dad had his debilitating stroke, he could no longer communicate, at least not in words. But he and Laraine had their own language borne of that special connection between fathers and daughters. He felt so helpless, and not being allowed to drive was such a significant degradation in that time of desperation. One day they went off together in his old Ford for some errand or other, and she let him drive in a large empty parking lot, allowing him a confirmation to himself that he was still at least in part the man he thought he was. When she shared this with me, I was so proud that she had done that with him.

When mom died, the bittersweet task of clearing out the house fell to my wife, Laraine, and I. We laughed and we cried as the items taken from closets and bureaus brought back memories and stories. I am glad we did this together, for no final communion with our common past would have been satisfactory otherwise. Each supposedly mundane thing was a precious reminder of how special this place was because of the times we shared in it.

After the house was sold, I made one final trip by myself. I sat at the dining room table in the fading afternoon sun and let myself drift into the past, vignettes playing out of all the time we had spent there as a family. Though I was alone, Laraine was with me in spirit, for this was our life, not just mine. For the last time, I walked out the side door and down the tiny brick porch where the milkman once set his bottles, down the driveway of all those wonderful days of hopscotch and roller skating and make-believe. I drove away, my heart broken, yet full.

As I look back now so many years down the road, I view my lifelong relationship with my big sister from a perspective that is steeped in pure affection. Though in the course of our lives there have been separations in time and distance and experience, it matters not, for our souls are forever entwined. We have been siblings for six decades. The bond between us is eternal.

Growin’ up, but not apart.



  1. That was beautiful. Happy Easter.

  2. Each time I read a new entry I learn something else. You really should publish these memories for everyone to read. So many of them relate to all of us.

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