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What do a cousin and two sisters have in common? A seven-year age gap. And nothing else.
By Kellie Lawless
When I was 10, my cousin, Ashley, came to stay with my family a lot in the summer. At the time, her parents were shipping her brother back and forth between hospitals, looking for answers to the unsolvable tumor in his brain. Her parents decided it would be easier on Ashley if she could stay with my family. I usually looked forward to having her at our house as she would paint my nails, do my makeup, and tiptoe down to the kitchen to steal my brother’s Pop Tarts from the cupboard while he was sleeping. She was seven years older and everything she did was just that much cooler. Except I hated that she always sat in the passenger seat in my mom’s SUV, forcing me to sit in the back.
This pissed me off for two reasons: for one, I was the oldest and it was my God-given right to have that front seat until I moved out of the house. And two, it was my seat. I liked kicking my feet up on the dash. I liked being able to hold my mom’s hand while she was driving. I liked popping in the Carrie Underwood CD, scanning the track for my favorite songs. And I did not like it when she got to do all those things. Once Ashley pissed me off, it wasn’t hard to notice all the other annoying things she did, like using up the rest of the Frosted Mini-Wheats.
Usually in those moments, the ones when I had my arms crossed over my chest and shooting daggers into the back of her head, she would glance at me from the corner of
her eye – which I would almost always try to avoid – and stick out her pinkie. This was our way of apologizing. I would give her a slight smile, roll my eyes, and reach out, intertwining my pinkie with hers. Sometimes we would hold hands like this, fingers interlocked, and it was when I felt most loved by my cousin. I would usually think of her as my big sister, one who was annoying and always took the front seat but I loved her anyway.
When I became a big sister at seven, I thought my sister and I would be best friends. I imagined teaching her how to play with Polly Pockets, dressing her in sparkly Limited Too shirts, and baking cakes in my Easy-Bake oven.
None of that happened.
My sister, Kendall, insisted on playing with my brother’s Thomas the Train set, upsetting everybody because my brother didn’t want to share and I wanted her to like girly things. She refused to play Polly Pockets and watch, Dragon Tales. Instead, she cuddled with my little brother to watch Pokémon. My brother, Aaron, didn’t care much for her loving affection. He has always been fiercely independent and liked to play Thomas the Train alone. After she chewed on his train tracks one fateful afternoon, Aaron marched up to my mom with fat tears rolling down his chubby cheeks, and declared he hated her guts. It didn’t last for long. They were only three years apart and liked to do all the same things.
Although I loved my sister, we were complete opposites. Part of this was because of our seven-year age gap, one that seemed insurmountable. There were moments, however, when the gap seemed smaller and we were closer. When my siblings and I would play Texas Hold ‘Em, he would leave his poker chips and hand unguarded and when he got up to grab a pack of deluxe Oreos from the kitchen, my sister and I would snicker as we switched the deck to play in our favor. We would crack up when he realized what we did and for a moment, I would forget our differences as I high fived her. It never lasted.
We grew up in symphonic lunacy, complete with screaming matches and rolling our eyes behind the other’s back. It was exhausting. We tried so hard to love each other but ended up in the same cycle no matter what.
So, I’m supposed to Skype her while I’m at college?
When I went to college, our relationship shifted. Partly because it is hard to argue with someone when you hardly ever see them. At 13, she was involved in dance team and volleyball team and if she weren’t at practice, she was hanging out with her many friends. I would usually only see her on late night weekends spent at home, when she was buried underneath her furry turquoise blanket, mouth slack with sleep, and I would turn off the flickering lamp next to her bed.
While I excelled in college, my sister struggled in school. She didn’t want to spend time studying for biology or punching numbers into a calculator when she could be watching makeup tutorials on YouTube with her friends. Since my mom and dad had been unsuccessful in motivating her to care about her homework, the task was given to me, the third parent.
“So, I’m supposed to Skype her while I’m at college?” I asked my parents.
“You could tutor her on the weekends when you’re home,” my dad said. He patted me on the shoulder, the deal already sealed. “It would really help us out.”
I’m not sure why I was chosen since I had no idea how to tutor her – much less motivate her to do well in school – but I always did what I was told and never refused my parents.
Kendall and I spent hours on the living room couch on weekends, mostly arguing, sometimes storming out, but ultimately trudging through math assignments and reviews. During a particularly hard assignment, Kendall threw her calculator across the room, the case snapping against the fireplace mantel and clattering against the tile.
I threw the math book against the wall five times before she started to laugh.
“What the heck, Kendall?”
“I’m just so frustrated,” she said, shoving her notebook off her lap.
“Part of it is your attitude,” I accused.
She just rolled her eyes.
Feeling myself starting to get angry, I took a deep breath, something I have learned to do when she acts like this.
“Why are you so frustrated?”
For a few seconds, she said nothing. Then the tears came. “I’m just stupid.”
“You are not stupid.”
“Yes I am,” she insisted. “You and Aaron get good grades but I am just dumb.”
I chucked the math book across the room, letting it fall by the broken calculator. She stared at me.
“Every time you say something negative about yourself,” I told her, “I will throw that math book, OK.?”
“OK,” she said, smiling a little.
I threw the math book against the wall five times before she started to laugh. My sister has a wonderful laugh. She throws her head back and smiles, the corners of her eyes squinting together and her crooked teeth on full display. It’s contagious and I can see why she has so many friends. Who wouldn’t want to make her laugh?
Months after my first semester at college, I learned that my sister, who didn’t cry once before dropping me off, cried the entire 45-minute ride home. She wouldn’t sleep in her bedroom for months because I wouldn’t be sleeping in mine, which was right across the hall. Meanwhile, I was missing my family at college. I missed how my brother and I would bully my sister into licking the dirt encrusted basketball pole after losing a pick-up game and how my sister and I could laugh until our whole bodies ached with joy. I never realized how much I missed, loved, and appreciated them until we were apart. Perhaps my sister and I were always close and loved each other, in our own way.
I’ve also realized that we are more similar than I thought.
My cousin, Ashley, now engaged, recently asked me to be the maid-of-honor at Panera Bread while splitting a coffee cake. She pulled a sash out of her massive purse that had “Maid of Honor” bedazzled in hot pink sparkles across the front. I laughed.
“I won’t be able to drink,” I told her. “And all your friends are older than I am.”
“Who cares? I want you there,” she said, already sliding a rose pink sash across the table. “You’ve always felt like a little sister to me.”
I noticed how different our lives are. She’s 27, has her nursing license, a fiancé and spends her free time sifting through Pinterest, looking at floral arrangements and pudgy babies. I’m 20, never have been in a relationship, and my biggest accomplishment of 2016 is making my Goodreads goal of 50 books read in a year. Yet, despite our seven-year age difference, I have always loved her, even when she took the front seat.
I continue to tutor Kendall, and although she hasn’t quite mastered math, we spend time together now, punching numbers and talking middle school gossip like how Olivia broke up with her boyfriend of two weeks. I’ve also realized that we are more similar than I thought. She puts her candy in the freezer before she eats it. She hums Sam Smith when she puts on her makeup in the morning. She likes putting her feet up on the dash when I let her sit in the passenger seat. But best of all, she smiles when I stick out my pinkie finger and my heart feels a little fuller when she intertwines it with her own.