Advice for My Little Sister

Advice for My Little Sister January 25, 2013

Twelve years passed, almost to the day, between my birth and the birth of my sister.

When she was born I was a bony adolescent—what I call gawkward—who wore bifocals, DARE t-shirts, scrunchies, and fluorescent tracksuits. I left my sixth grade class early to go to the hospital to meet my new sister, who was round as a piece of gnocchi and as white, with a soft down of light red hair on her head like a smear of sauce.

I could have eaten her.

My mother, groggy from medication, asked worriedly if the baby’s nose was as big as it looked on an ultrasound photo from weeks before. I told her it did not. It was a tiny nub of a nose. She was beautiful. Perfect.

Last year my sister and I both celebrated milestone birthdays; I turned thirty and she eighteen. Because I am poor, thoughtful, and guilt-prone, I decided to give her a homemade gift: a small book of advice upon entering independent womanhood. A list of what I wish someone had told me when I was eighteen.

Why did guilt enter into this? Because I left home when she was only seven, and wasn’t close by for much of her childhood.

While this is probably normal for siblings separated by twelve years, the home I left and in which she remained with my brother was sometimes unstable and turbulent. And while there was nothing I could have done to change that, I still struggle with knowing I wasn’t present.

I wasn’t present because I was figuring out what a grownup is, and how one survives in the world with little support. The first in my family to attend college, paid for by scholarships, I navigated that world largely alone. I bought a car when I was seventeen with money I won from an essay contest, and kept a change of clothes and essentials in it because I spent most of my time outside class working at the YMCA.

When I was nineteen and a sophomore in college, a plane hit the Twin Towers and less than two months later I said yes to a friend who, in the parking lot of a Waffle House, asked me to marry him. Two years after that, I did just that. I had never applied for a credit card. I had never had sex. I had never cooked with garlic.

I didn’t know what questions to ask when renting an apartment. I didn’t know what a co-pay was. I didn’t know that white wine should be chilled but red should not. I had never driven a car on the interstate. I had never written a resume, never used liquid mascara, never lived alone. I didn’t have any close female friends.

You might be wondering if I am a reliable authority for my sister—someone from whom she should take advice about making her way in the world.

The answer to that question is: I am not.

Knowing this, I made an appeal to the strong, capable, creative, successful, faithful women of many ages and backgrounds that I have had the privilege of coming to know in my adulthood. I told them of my sister’s upcoming birthday and about my idea for her gift, then asked if they had advice to contribute.

Their responses were as varied and as generous as they are, and ranged from general comments like “Never stop learning,” and “Pray often,” to the more specific “Give Celtic music a chance,” and “Remember that, in a recipe, pickled beets cannot be substituted for regular beets.”

Learn how to say you’re sorry. Mend relationships as soon as they are broken or if there is any ill-will. Make friends with people who are younger than you and who are older than you. Embrace your quirks and imperfections. Hang out with nuns. Don’t be afraid to walk away from people who are mean, crazy, abusive, manipulative, or untruthful—in romance, in friendship, or at work.

My friend Jo Anna responded with a message quoting an essay that urged, “Please do not close your mind to the not-small epiphany that epic joy exists.” She also wrote:

I love Olive Garden and football and my family and my dog and Mary Poppins and pretty, yellow flowers and long hair on little girls and holding the Bible my parents gave to me when I graduated from high school in a church where we still sing old hymns. And I love my family and my old truck and cowboy boots and blue jeans and embroidered skirts. And I love God.

Don’t not love something just because someone says it’s not cool. Love with everything you have.

Even with all of this thoughtful, valuable advice, I never completed my sister’s gift. From time to time I pick it up, and think of something new to add. As I’m writing this, her nineteenth birthday is a few days away, my thirty-first a few days after.

I think I knew from the beginning that the project was doomed to fail. What I wanted it to be, really, was some way to protect my sister from pain—from the same extravagant missteps and stumbles I experienced. But of course the truth of the matter is that there is no way to prevent pain.

I keep reminding myself, too, that my sister is not me. She has the same parents, is going to the same college, and laughs at the same things. But where I was meek and naïve and unsure, she is brave and savvy and strong.

Although I realize the impossibility of protecting her from the world, nothing can prevent me from trying. And, twelve years her senior, I have earned the right to give a little advice. I start by echoing Jo Anna: Love with everything you have. I follow it with this: Accept the love you are offered.

And here, sister, you can start with mine. Because I offer you all the love I have. Accept it, please, because it is all I really have to give.

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  • How beautiful, Dyana. I love the varied advice your friends offered. And your concern for your younger sister is a gift–for you both.

  • I so enjoyed reading this. This is a wonderful gift for your sister—just this essay alone, Dyana!

    Thanks so much for sharing your story. The gnocchi/sauce bit is just wonderful imagery, and very memorable.

    I feel similarly inadequate to instruct my daughter in so many things because I’ve been so clueless in so many areas of life. But I think when she’s old enough I’m just going to say, “I really don’t know everything. All I can do is tell you what I think I know, and love you. So take my parental advice for what it’s worth, and know that I’m doing the best I can.” Ha! 🙂

    Thanks for being a beautiful soul, and for making yourself a little more transparent here. Best wishes to you and your sister!

  • Betty Alia

    Lovely. I can so relate to it. Sometimes I wonder how I even found adulthood–I was so lost as a young adult. I wonder, too, if words could have reached me. It seems that the maze was part of the pruning.

  • This is so lovely. And although you can’t shield your sister from pain, this advice, and your love for her, is a great gift.

  • Dyana Herron

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and for your kind words.
    If you have any advice you wish someone had given you when you were eighteen (or so– my sister’s nineteenth birthday is tomorrow!), I’d love to hear it here.

  • Brenda cuts haw

    This is beautiful and inspiring. You have a special talent that touches people’s hearts.
    My advice would be to treat each day as a celebration: use your favorite perfume each day, light that special candle you have been saving, wear lovely undies, and realize you are worth it and deserve good things each day.

  • Cody Herron

    Blood is thicker than water. Meaning family will always be there for you even when your closest friends are not. I love you Darla!

  • Jennifer

    your sister is very lucky to have you and your love!

    When Jon, at work, turned 30, he asked me and many others what he should be thinking about at this milestone. I thought about it and answered that it would be good for him to consider what he really wants to accomplish in life, sort of what he might most regret not doing. Then, figure out how to do it. So, I give that to you, even though 30 is quickly passing.

    For a younger woman, turning 19, what do I wish someone had told me? Maybe that people are, for the most part, good. Maybe that most people are broken, and that most people probably don’t know they are broken. We’re broken, we’re good, we do our best.

    And, ma’am, for you, I’m happy to serve as an advisor, a big sister of sorts. And, as the youngest of three girls, I’ve never had a little sister. . .

    • Dyana Herron

      Thank you, Jennifer!

  • Marcos

    Dyana, this was beautiful. A gift to your sis and to us all.

  • Tyler McCabe

    T h a n k you for sharing this.

    I wish someone would’ve told me at 18, Take time to call or write your parents and siblings.

  • Justin Cook

    Loved the article; I’m excited to share it with my high school students. I think it makes a nice companion piece with Suzanne Wolfe’s “This Is My Body” from Image’s Winter 09/10 issue. My female students (in lieu of no younger sister?) have appreciated Wolfe’s narrative invitation to find a right kind of hunger. Wolfe offers George Herbert’s poem “Love (III),” at the end of her essay, and I think it makes a nice gift with this article as well.

    • Dyana Herron

      I do love S. Wolfe’s essay and this poem, Justin. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • David Thomas

    I wish someone would have told me

    1. Sometimes “That’s the way it is” is all you can say even if, much of the time, you should resist the sentiment.

    2. Don’t keep books or important papers in boxes on the floor–all ground level apartments can flood.

    3. You won’t and shouldn’t have everything in your life figured out by the time you’re thirty.

    4. Mt. Dew from a can is better than the bottle or fountain.

    • Dyana Herron

      You’re right about #4.

  • I’m the oldest in a family of 9 kids and also left my home and siblings to head out into the world, ill prepared with little support and less direction. My youngest sister was born when I was 16 and I spent the two years between her birth and leaving for college spending as much time as I could taking care of her. I even decided not to work the summer before going to college so I could spend time with her before leaving. It’s been 20 years and it still stings to realize that she doesn’t remember any of it. I’m just the big sister who went away and screwed up at life. She’s 22 now and has just graduated from college. I think she’s fine, but I don’t really know. I went from knowing the smell of her baby head and the curve of her nose to not knowing if she’s ever been in love.

    But the one useful thing which I have told my other siblings and which I will tell her one day when she needs to hear it is that part of the work of being a young adult is dealing with the baggage you leave home with. All parents send their children out into the world with baggage, scars and beliefs which have to be painfully unlearned. If you don’t deal with that baggage while you are young, it will color everything you do for decades to come. And you will pass it on to the next generation no matter how hard you try not to. I have a son who turns 18 this year and as much as I wanted to be a perfect mother, I know this is work he will have to do as well. But I also know that his baggage will be a bit less daunting than mine was. And that if he chooses to ask or allow me to, I will help him unpack it the best I can, just like I did with my younger siblings when they came to me with theirs.

    • Dyana Herron

      Wow. I can’t imagine being an older sibling for nine younger brothers and sisters– there really is a large sense of responsibility that goes along with that. One’s successes and failures set a precedent. Thanks for sharing, Rebecca.

  • Pat

    I’m just wondering why you don’t give your sister the “advice” that you have collected so far. If perfectionism is keeping you back from making a gift that is not yet perfect, please think of the sadness if that gift is never given because you die or never received because your sister does. What a loss. It is such a shame that you are holding on to something so beautiful. Better an imperfect gift than none at all.

  • Dyana Herron

    That’s a great question, Pat. Probably part of it *is* perfectionism, which is bad, because this project is way too subjective to ever be “perfect.” But you’re right– I should move past that. Thank you for the encouragement.

  • pagansister

    I too am much older than my 2 younger sisters. I’m 8 and 11 years older than they are. I married just before I turned 20, (and 48 years later am still married to the same man) and my husband (their brother-in-law) is like the brother to them. After we both graduated college, we had our first child, and moved 2 driving days away. They are certainly a different generation than mine with that age difference. For whatever reason, we have managed to be close—though we live in 3 different states. We now stay in touch by email, and try to get together at least 1 time a year, alone, to just be sisters–not wives or mothers. It isn’t easy being “the oldest” and sometimes I wish our age difference was not so large. My sisters “grew up together, being only 3 years apart—and they share things that I will never be a party to since I left for college and then married while they were still very young. We do share a love as sisters, and I think they know that no matter what, I will always be there for them.