A Wedding Toast to My Little Sister and Her Husband

Adulthood, Family, Marriage, Sisterhood

As presented at their wedding reception on May 20, 2016, in Wheaton, IL

So I’ve known Stephanie for a long time. We’re talking way back in the day. In fact, I remember the first time we met. Remember that, Steph? It was a hot summer day in New England, 1988. I was wearing this ill-fitting New Kids on the Block t-shirt and pink jelly sandals. And you were wearing a cotton onesie that, frankly, did nothing for your thighs. 


I had been excited for months and months over your arrival but man, you were just so emotional back then. You cried so easily. Mom called it “colic” but c’mon. It’s not colic when it lasts for 27 years. I’m just kidding! This is your wedding day — crying is natural. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of debilitating terror as the weight of the day’s commitments begin to sink in.

Bottom line: marriage is a big deal. But John and you know that. I mean, how can you not? From the moment you became engaged, you’ve had a steady stream of advice from well-meaning friends and strangers about the “secrets” to matrimonial bliss. And really, few things are more gratifying to married people than dispensing unsolicited advice to unmarried people. We love it. It’s almost as fun as spending an entire Saturday together at the Tile Outlet picking out a new kitchen back splash. Almost.

Some advice you may have already heard:

“Talk less, listen more.”
“Don’t go to bed angry.”
“Always squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom of the tube.”
“Get an ironclad pre-nup.”

But seriously, between dating, marriage, parenthood, and everything in between, the effects of all this advice has to be taking its toll. We truly live in an advice-happy society. And though it comes from a place of love and concern, too much advice starts forming in your life these markers for success that only force you to compare your relationship against someone else’s standards.

Are you fighting correctly? Are you talking and listening to one another correctly? Are you going on enough date nights, saying I love you enough, holding hands enough? And if this person that you chose to marry just CANNOT figure out how to use a tube of Colgate correctly, is your marriage doomed forever?

I don’t know, guys. That’s up to you and you alone. Hopefully your attitude towards toothpaste is more fluid than that. But I’m not here to unpack all of that for you tonight. I don’t think you need me, a person who has been married for less than a decade, to give you any more advice than I already have.

Because when I look at you guys, all I see is mutual love and respect. All that lovey dovey stuff from 1 Corinthians – patience, kindness, humility, honesty, faithfulness – you have that in spades. You don’t have to be having the “correct” amount of date nights to enjoy these things. It’s here in your heart, and in your mind, and in all the people here tonight that get the privilege of being part of your life together.

Tonight, you’re going to feel overwhelmed by all these people who came here to celebrate you. The drinks, the music, the photos, all of the lovely details are going to soak right into you and you won’t believe the joy you feel over all these tangible things that have come together so perfectly. But when you take the time to really marvel at the precise timing of when you two first came together – well, that’s the real miracle. John, you came into Stephanie’s life when she really needed you – when we all needed you. Life was tricky and confusing there for a while. But that’s because our puzzle wasn’t complete. It wasn’t complete until we had our Johno piece.

You guys each found “your person.” Now just take care of your person in the ways that work best for the two of you. That’s the only advice I have for you.

Love to you both, tonight, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life together.

Cheers.

 

Recalibration

Family, Mornings, Motherhood, Parenthood, Working Mom

After the relentless five-day grind of the work week, I fall into my Saturdays like a warm down comforter. It exists as this glorious standalone entity – the laborious days before it seems to dissolve into oblivion and I pay no mind to Sunday. For Sunday is the day before Monday, and therefore is the most foreboding of all the days. And so, Saturdays are sacred.

For some people, Saturdays are about laughs with friends, concerts, rock climbing, and water sports — at least that’s what I’ve gathered from every beer commercial I’ve ever seen. And then there are others who spend Saturday eating things off toothpicks at Costco or pulling weeds from the cracks in the driveways of their starter homes. But for me, Saturday falls somewhere between jet skis and Costco meatballs. It’s about slowing down, clearing the to-do list, and recalibrating my lens.

All week, I am rushing, rushing, rushing – to work, to rehearsal, to an endless barrage of red lights and road construction during rush hour. And as I rush around, my children slowly become myopic figures in a picture of cluttered obligations. On Saturday, when my kids storm my bedroom at sunrise, I rub the sleep from my eyes and watch their faces sharpen while the rest of the world blurs in their wake. There are no conference calls or deadlines to steal my attention on Saturday.

On those Saturdays in which I’m feeling particularly fresh and maternal, I’ll commit to taking the kids to the park. “Who wants to go to the playground?” I exclaimed in my SUV one such Saturday, watching the kids’ faces light up in the rearview mirror. The words escaped my lips before I considered warmer alternatives like, “Who wants to lie on the couch and watch Mind of a Chef all afternoon?” It was February in Chicago, so the ground was frozen solid and the wind had a substantial bite to it. Of course, to children, this is of no consequence; their warm blood makes them tiny little space heaters that can play tag in below-freezing temperatures for a very long time before suddenly realizing that Midwestern winters actually suck.

We parked at the playground and I was very happy to see the place empty. It’s not that I’m anti-social, it’s just that while I’m recalibrating my life lens, I don’t want to have to passive aggressively correct someone else’s kid when they try climbing up the slide while my kid is sliding down. Like, don’t be a snot-nosed tyrant when I’m trying to harness my chi, you know? So there we were in this empty park, the sky a bright, saturated blue, the trees bare and cold-looking, my two in-focus children giggling on the swing set as I took snapped photos.

This is what being a parent is all about, I thought to myself. A whimsical weekend with the kids, making it count. This was work-life balance and I was nailing it.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a car pull into the parking lot. Shit, I thought. Other people. Now I can’t take a “Having fun with the kids!” selfie without looking like an idiot. It was a minivan with a variety of school bumper stickers adorning its rear window. Surely it would be packed to the gills with kids, cold and flu strains, and a couple of dogs. Instead, only a woman in her 30s slid out. She had the Suburban Mom aesthetic down – brassy blonde hair with smidge of dark roots grown in. Her skinny jeans were tucked into UGGs and she held a Starbucks cup identical to the one in my hand. She grabbed her coat from the backseat, which I saw filled with empty booster seats. I waited for the dogs – maybe she was taking them for a walk on the nature trail – but she slid the door shut and walked over to a nearby bench alone.

“Push me, Mommy!” my daughter yelled from her swing. I kept the woman in the corner of my eye as I gave the kids another push. Who voluntarily sits in nature if they don’t have their kids or dogs along to frolic in the winter air, I thought. That’s not whimsical. That’s just weird. Then, I watched her pull out a pack of cigarettes and smack them into her palm. She drew out one, placed it between her lips, and lit it with a match. Entranced, I watched her inhale deeply, close her eyes, and blow the smoke into the same golden sunlight that was blanketing our day of family fun.

Here we were, two women sitting 50 feet from one another in the quiet epicenter of the suburban sprawl. On the surface, we appeared to be doing two completely opposite things. But, as I sat there watching her smoke that cigarette with the same determined focus as that of an artist painting her masterpiece, it occurred to me that we were doing the same thing.

Recalibrating.

While my grueling work week tried its damnedest to relegate my family to fuzzy background of my mind’s eye, perhaps her days of car lines, dinner prep, and field trips had done the same – but in her case, maybe it was she who had become a blur. And isn’t that the perpetual cycle of parenthood? A tricky balance between the needs of self and the needs of everything (and everyone) else? Most days it’s a constant exercise in zooming in and zooming out, and every once in a while – if only for 15 minutes – it all lines up.  Sometimes it takes a Saturday trip to the park, and sometimes it takes a secret pack of Marlboros.  In the end, though, we’re all just trying to make it work.

As my swing-pushing hands grew cold and the kids’ teeth began to chatter, we began the slow trudge back to the car. Their whiny protests echoed off the trees as I buckled them into their car seats, and I felt my shoulders tense in anticipation of the cranky drive ahead. As I walked back around to the driver side, I exchanged passing glances with the woman before she got into her van. We drove off in opposite directions, headed to the same place.

saturday morning.jpg

 

If Woody Allen Starred in Twister

Childhood, Family, Weather

“If you don’t get on that microphone and tell everyone that a tornado is coming, there could be catastrophic consequences,” I shrieked to the receptionist at my office, one dark and stormy weekday afternoon. “No one’s told me to make any announcements,” she replied, flipping through a magazine.“I AM. I am telling you that this is serious!” My voice shook with fear as the clouds outside turned black and began to climb higher into the atmosphere. My eyes darted west to east across the huge skyscraper windows. That’s the direction the storm is moving, I thought to myself. Which corner of the building should I shuttle associates to in order to save them from a gory death of shattered debris? No storm alarms were going off outside, but I knew crisis was imminent.

“Rachel, you’re hysterical!” laughed one of my co-workers. I stared at her with wild eyes – hysterical with fear, yes. Hysterical, as in funny because I was a nervous wreck, was probably what she meant. Either way, I did not appreciate her observation and left her to be swept up into the ravaging winds that would certainly come. The storm began to rage, flashes of lightening and torrential rain wrapped our 40-floor building. Men from the engineering department stood at the window, pressing their foreheads against the glass. They looked down at the flash flooding below, showing very little respect for the force of nature that was surely going to kill us all.

“You guys are not God!” I squeaked, forcing a laugh so they wouldn’t think I was a total freak on the off-chance that we didn’t die and had to come to work the next day. “Maybe we should move away from the windows.” One of the guys asked me what my deal was. My deal? My deal?! My DEAL was that we were under a tornado warning in a tall building, and the only way I could keep from vomiting or peeing my pants was to pace the floor and spit dramatic one-liners to everyone in my wake. Like in the movie Twister, but with Woody Allen instead of Helen Hunt. That’s what it’s like to ride out severe weather with me. 

 

It all started when I was six years old. My family moved down to Alabama from New Hampshire over Christmas break in the middle of kindergarten, a month after the tornado of 1989 wreaked havoc through our new home, Madison County. To acquaint me with our new community, my parents took me and my baby sister on a scenic drive. Nice idea, right? NO, not when houses on that route had been reduced to rubble, and all of the pretty trees on the hillside were flattened like toothpicks. I stared out my window, mouth agape, dazzled and horrified by the impact of this new “tornado” thing I was learning about. “Do you think a tornado will ever come back?” I asked my mom. I don’t remember what she said, but knowing my mom, it was something along the lines of “Probably.”

Fast forward a couple months to kindergarten naptime. I don’t think kindergartners have naptime anymore, but I remember loving those plastic mats that smelled like Clorox and lemon juice. This was in 1990, when many teachers in the south still paused before and after lunch for “prayer or quiet reflection.” As thunder rumbled in the distance, I said a little prayer as I dropped down onto that smelly mat and tried to close my eyes. It had been a particularly trying day. In my opinion, we had spent way too much time working through the “th” sound – like, try to keep up, you guys – so I was eager to get some sleep. 

Just as I dozed off to the sounds of a Peter, Paul, and Mary record, a loud POP sound hit the window above my head. I shot up and looked outside – it was dark as night and a rock had been picked up by the wind and cracked the class. “TORNADO!” I yelled, panicking. All the kids around me who had spent 1% of the mental energy I had on severe weather looked at me very confused.

Our teacher urged us to remain calm. “What’s that sound?” cried one of the little girls near me. It’s a tornado, and it’s going to make this building flat, I wanted to say. But I was too petrified with fear to speak. Sure enough, a voice over the loud speaker instructed us to line up and proceed to the hallway. As we all crouched down on the floor with our hands cradling our heads, I began to sob uncontrollably. “Mommy! Mommy! I want my MOOOOOMMMMMMY,” I yelled. My teacher, probably regretting her decision to take in the neurotic Yankee kid, handed me a wad of toilet paper to wipe my nose. My terror then set off a chain reaction of crying kids.

“What’s going to happen?” the boy next to me asked to no one in particular. I raised my elbow and peered over at him and said, “The tornado is going to make this building flat.” It felt good to finally say it aloud, as if welcoming the concept of death like a little H.P. Lovecraft. We then cried together as the miserable scene continued to play out. I called out for my mom again and again. “Your mommies and daddies are not coming right now,” said my teacher, who, looking back on it now, was kind of an asshole.

Well, little did I know that my mom, also new to tornado etiquette, LEFT our apartment and drove to the school to get me while the sirens blared outside. Like a slow motion airport love scene in an 80s movie, she walked down the dark hallway, covered in mud, while the theme from St. Elmo’s Fire played over the speakers. At that point, I’m sure my teacher just wished we’d move back to New England. Incidentally, ever since then, I have expected my mom to come save me during every severe storm. It’s not really her thing 25 years later, but I still text and call her in unbridled panic every time there’s a warning. It’s probably pretty grating at this point.

Close calls happened over and over again during our 6 years in Alabama. Most notably was the time my mom was picked my sister and me up from school, driving directly into a wall cloud. “It’s just rain,” my mom said, ignoring all the years of meteorological training I had given her as the Weather Channel’s number one fan. No, no, it was not RAIN. It was the beginnings of a funnel cloud spiraling above our heads as we dashed from my mom’s sedan to a small roadside church for protection. I ran behind her with my black flute case above my head to deflect the hail. Yes, a concert flute was my only defense against Mother Nature’s fury, quite possibly the nerdiest way to die. Imagine me in pinstripe overalls, screaming in terror above the howling wind with a flute above my head, and understand my childhood.

Today, I suffer from what fear experts call lilapsophobia. Some might suggest that I am co-opting a real disorder, but I assure you this is not true. I literally go to the bathroom every three minutes during severe storm warnings, just like your old stinky dog who is afraid of thunder.

And what happened after my office meltdown? A tornado actually did touch down a few miles away. It was strong enough to knock down some trees, put out power, and flood local streets for two days. So who was the crazy one? Well, still me, probably. But one day a tornado is going to make your house flat and I’ll be safe and dry in an underground bunker, rocking around in fetal position, listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary.

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Culottes

Childhood, Family, Sisterhood

In a modest but tastefully appointed brick home in northern Alabama lived two little moon-faced girls, decked out in coordinating sponge-painted t-shirts and acid-washed ruffle skirts, rifling through a stack of cassettes. “Let’s play Reba,” decided the older girl as she adjusted her round, red, wire framed glasses. “The ‘Fancy’ song.” She popped Reba McEntire’s 1990 album Rumor Has It into a clunky Sony radio/cassette player, fast forwarding to the singer’s now-classic anthem about a young girl ascending from the depths of abject poverty into a lucrative escort career after her terminally ill mother transferred her into the care of an uptown strip joint. “That’s my favorite song!” squealed her little sister, tugging on her polka dot tights.

“I might have been born just plain white trash, but Fancy was my name!” they sang as they jumped up and down on ruffled Laura Ashley-inspired twin beds. Little Southern girls in the 90s had a distinct style – big bows on their heads, patent Mary Janes on their feet, and tales of tequila and betrayal on their tongues. And my sister Stephanie and I have always been nothing if not en vogue.

   Rachel Reindeer Sisters Stephi Rocking Chair

As kids, we couldn’t be more different. I was a dark haired, extroverted, talk-before-you-think type, while she was a blonde, shy, studious type. Four and a half years her senior, I was ever the domineering older child that child psychologists write about. A leader, I’ll call it. Even when my parents told me I’d be a big sister, I had a sense that I would need to guide that little fetus through life, position her for success. I would show her the ropes – how to fetch juice boxes for me and my friends, how always be “it” in hide-and-seek and count to 150 in the pantry while my friends and I found the hardest hiding spots imaginable so she would end up getting really frustrated and crying when she couldn’t find us, and how to always be the backup singer in my imaginary musical groups.

During the summer of my sister’s birth, my entourage and I had formed a prolific New Kids on the Block all-girl cover band but were struggling to fill the Danny Wood spot. This new little sister would be the perfect female Danny Wood, I thought. Sadly, when Stephanie emerged from my mother’s womb, she was small, pink, and wrinkly. Even Danny Wood didn’t deserve that. I was so disappointed. Yet, as a colicky baby, her lungs quickly matured, and a few years later, she was ready to play both guy parts in our Ace of Base tribute band, aptly named Ace of Base Two. She resisted these roles at first, which I didn’t understand. Why wouldn’t a four-year-old girl want to pretend to be a muscular, ambiguously gay Swedish man in a techno pop band? She would be Jonas and Ulf, or be nothing at all. She relented.

culottes-02

Ace of Base Two toured our Alabama subdivision for the summer of ’93 but fizzled out by fall due to creative differences. It was during that turbulent summer, however, that my sister started to wise up to the politics of siblinghood and began to build out her own arsenal of weaponry that she would wield rather proficiently over the next decade.

In 1995, we moved to Florida and were enrolled in a small parochial school with one class per age group all the way up to 8th grade. Having both children in one school is a parent’s dream – after school activities were more streamlined, the parent-teacher community was tighter knit, and your younger kid could be a mole, spying and reporting on the older, more rebellious child’s indiscretions. This was very convenient for my mother, as I slipped into a bit of a bad ass phase around ’96.  Oh, on the drive in to school, I was a picture of buttoned-up nerdiness.  My long, shapeless hair was pulled back taut with a gray scrunchie. “Keep your hair pulled back, Rachel,” my mom said. “So people can see your face!” My face? Eyes that were magnified behind rectangular glasses. Cheeks that were peppered with cystic acne caused by the fresh, new hormones coursing through my adolescent blood.

culottes-01

“You look so cute,” my dad said, as he watched me slide out of the backseat in the knee-length, navy blue uniform culottes that I paired with clunky Airwalk sneakers and a JanSport backpack featuring an assortment of parent-friendly punk rock iron-on patches.  I waved goodbye to car and walked my sister to her 2nd grade classroom. As soon as she was gone, it was goodbye, nerd and hello, hottie. As a sax solo played, down came the hair, off came the extremely necessary prescription glasses, and up went the hem of the culottes as I awkwardly rolled the waistband into what certainly looked like an inner tube of stiff fabric. I sashayed my way to homeroom like the squinty love child of Blossom and Gilbert Gottfried, excited to impress my friends with my femme fatale allure.

Yet every time I emerged from my cocoon, there was Stephanie, peering out from the behind the lockers, mentally scribbling her daily reports in her mental notebook like Harriet the Spy. My mother’s very own double agent.

Steph Diary

(My sister’s actual diary entry – May 3, 1996)

“MOM SAID YOU HAD TO WEAR YOUR HAIR BACK,” she hissed at me as she and her 7-year-old buddies walked by us on the way to gym.

“OOOOO! MOM SAID YOU’RE NOT ALLOWED TO ROLL UP YOUR SHORTS,” she called out to me as I was clumsily flirting with a boy that usually hated me but was clearly admiring my newly exposed kneecaps.

“HEY. WHERE ARE YOUR GLASSES?” she asked accusingly as she strolled by on her way to Wednesday chapel. I couldn’t see a damn thing but I knew that judgmental little voice anywhere.

“I thought you said you got contacts, Rachel,” spat one of the mean girls who was popular because her boobs grew disproportionately faster than the rest of her body parts.

This, among other offenses perpetrated by both parties, led to many after-school fights.

And when we fought, it wasn’t the girly sighs, foot stomping, “talk to the hand” nonsense of our peers. It was WWE Raw meets Real Housewives, with all the chokeholds of the former mixed with the emotional warfare of the latter. As quickly as I was able to apply an Indian burn to her forearm, she was just as quickly able to blackmail me with an inappropriate handwritten note she was able to skillfully obtain from my backpack the day prior. Screams were supersonic, piercing the balmy night’s sky, giving my father a veritable ulcer and a sense of cosmic retribution for some past dark deed he committed in some other life.

Yet, as often as we were at odds, we were also thick as thieves, spending hours and hours perfecting cannonballs in our pool, eating Dairy Queen flurries and watching Blockbuster movies on summer nights, making up original comic characters in secret sketches in the living room. Humor has always been the strongest common denominator between us, the thread weaving through all of life’s stages and growing pains. Sisters who watch Mel Brooks together, stay together, after all. While other girls were reenacting Coyote Ugly, my sister and I were lampooning Coyote Ugly and quoting Blazing Saddles and Best in Show.

Time sped along. I left town for college and my sister became more engrossed in her music studies at her performing arts high school (yes, it was just like Fame, except with way more Asian students). Our family relocated to Chicago. I got my own apartment and entered the corporate workforce. Stephanie went to college down in Nashville and became a bohemian singer-songwriter. Dairy Queen and evening movies were replaced by texts and check-in emails. We both came of age awkwardly, facing off with parents who were having a hard time accepting their daughters’ impending adulthood, as well as our own issues with a scary new world of fiscal responsibility, artisanal cheeses, and long-term relationships. Boyfriends came and went, all subject to sisterly judgment as scathing as the End Times. Some were bad, others abhorrent.

I knew my husband was the jackpot as he met my sister’s immediate and gracious approval.

He and I went on to produce two kids, also four and a half years apart — just like my sister and I had been. Our daughter is a spitting image of me, with all the sass to match. Our son is a serious, stubborn little whirlwind who, in many ways, is like my husband. Still, as I watch my daughter dance around the living room, giving choreography instructions to her little brother as he bounds around happily beside her, my mind wanders back to that moment during the summer of ’93 when my sister pretended to be a Swedish beefcake keyboardist because she loved her big sister.

I can only hope for that kind of love between my own children.

siblings

Illustrations by Kelly Riker