We threw a surprise party for my sister this weekend. It was the second time we were able to do this, the last time being eighteen years ago. My goal, on her thirtieth birthday, was to make sure she realized she was not number two. She has gone through life doing everything after me—and with a big mouth, a matching personality, and a demanding (judgmental?) demeanor, I imagine my shadow was pretty intense.
Lucky for her, she was pretty triumphant at standing out in the dark.
But this was 1/11/11 and she was turning thirty—and Goddamnit, I was going to celebrate my sister’s birthday. Every year she thanks me for being born, since the story is that I asked for her. I remember saying I wanted a baby sister. My mother says I used to look into other baby carriages longingly and give her speeches to the tune of, “Well when Grandma and Grandpa die you’ll have your brother, but I will have no one. I will be left all alone.”
Of course I don’t know if I remember it because I actually said it or because it was retold so many times it has become a vague part of my collective history. Nonetheless, when I was six and a half years old, baby Reena came into my life. For me. I took this responsibility seriously. She was my sister and—according to my parents and as thirty years would teach me—she was the closest person to me in the world.
I struggled at different stages of our relationship about whether I was the big sister/mother character versus the best friend character. I often walked a fine line, walked on eggshells and cried at night that I was doing the wrong thing or not enough or too much.
For thirty years, we’ve been quintessential sisters, living and breathing the sister bond you read about in greeting cards. As life brought us together or pulled as further apart, we still spoke almost every day; we shared everything. My biggest heartbreak was that my baby sister didn’t always have peace and happiness in her life. It seemed to me she was struggling when she didn’t need to be, angry when she could so easily forgive, and lonely when she had people all around her.
Recently this has changed. Love entered her life and she seemed touched by fairy happiness dust. I know the kind and have been lucky to be sprinkled myself. She walks with a hop in her step and smiles so it hurts. The best-friend sister in me beams warmly; the mommy sister in me is cautiously optimistic (with a dose of Russian cynicism stirred in).
My father planted the seed a couple of months ago. “Reena is turning thirty,” you know. “It’s a big number.” And by “big” he was translating the Russian description, which really means “round date.” Not sure why our culture gave special occasion to the birthdays that end in zero or five, but somehow those are cause for exceptional celebrations.
I had debated about whom to invite. Do I invite immediate family only—one side or two? Do I dare do both sides of a divorced family? It was my cousin who urged me. “We’re all adults,” she said. “My parents will come to—no matter who will be there. We’ll all be there for Reena.”
And in the end, they all were.
It was the first time that I had my whole family together in a decade. By “whole,” I mean both sides of the divorce. My parents split up after twenty-five years of marriage. Since then, I pretty much flushed the dream of family Sunday dinner or Thanksgiving at my house down the toilet. This is especially sad since we have a very small family. Each of my parents only has one sibling with one child; I only have two first cousins.
The party was a success on so many levels. Mostly because the birthday girl was (a) surprised and (b) super duper elated. She glowed, and even said, “This was my best birthday ever.” She seemed joyful; I was utterly pleased.
Another byproduct of the party is that it served as the gateway drug. It opens up the door to future family parties. Events where old family can leave old baggage at home and focus on today; creating new memories and passing along the collective family history to the next generation. It is our responsibility and our privilege.
For the last few years, I have given each year a name. For instance, there was the Year of the Frittata, where I devoted many Sundays to brunches with friends. There was the Year of the Baby, where baby booms erupted like asterisks all around me—and Hollywood. Finally, last year was the Year of the Circle, when all lessons kept coming around again.
I’ve declared 2011 the Year of the Family, and I will happily appreciate and rejoice in—and with them—daily. (And that means going to visit Grandma in Queens more often!)