Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sunday's Column--Sisters

Bonds of sisterhood remain strong despite long separation

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
AUG. 14, 2016

The best thing, after 33 years, was that we were still us.

My sister Rebecca and I were born a year and three weeks apart. During those three weeks, she always gloated about her vastly superior age, chanting in our Amish-German dialect, for example, “I am 8 and you are only 6,” which sounds far less infuriating in English.

She was tidy; I was messy. She was responsible about housework. I tried to sneak out of doing dishes. She got along with people. I was all frustration and temper, even, on one memorable occasion in the fifth grade, taking the Lord’s name in vain at lunch break on the playground when Billy Allen, with his unbearable smirk, made fun of me for swinging and missing when I was “at bat” in kickball.

I remember exactly what I hollered back at him — not only the first and last time I ever cussed, but also “Why don’t you shut your fat face?” a useful phrase I had just learned from my brother Fred.

Rebecca always was maddeningly good when we were little, and she did things right, while I blew with the winds of impulse and fury and grand creative ideas. “But overall,” Rebecca says now, “I recall us being more like twins. I think I mostly saw you as an equal.”

By junior high, we had learned to be blessedly for, instead of against, each other. We both say the only way we survived being the only Amish girls in a public high school in Minnesota was by our sturdy support of one another.

All through high school, we shielded each other as the bitter winter wind whipped our dresses while waiting for the bus, left notes in each other’s lockers and discussed the day’s indignities, test scores and gossip over the supper dishes.

Living far apart for the first time was unsettling, especially when she was in college and I moved to Oregon to teach at a Mennonite school. Was I someone, apart from her? And if so, who?

By my second year in Oregon, our lives, so tightly similar in high school, were diverging. She was in her third year of college, busy with nursing and Campus Crusade for Christ. While her faith was as strong as ever, she felt called to leave our church and its culture to embrace a wider ministry and world.

Meanwhile, I was dating a Mennonite man and sensing a future in our faith tradition.

That year, we arranged for Rebecca to fly out for spring break, and for four days we stayed at a motel in Florence and reconnected as sisters and best friends.

We found, in those blissful days at the coast, that for every difference between us, we still had a hundred similarities. We explored the shops in Old Town Florence, walked on the beach, talked for hours, laughed a lot and made predictions about the future. She guessed I would marry Paul Smucker, which I did. I said she would marry someone named Malcolm Forbes, which she didn’t.

At night, we sat on the bed, ate celery and peanut butter, and watched “Gone With the Wind,” fiercely stabbing the celery into the peanut butter jar whenever the plot turned scary.

When Scarlett shot the insane soldier who came to the house, we leaped off the bed and made sure the doors were locked.

The next morning, we discovered we had left the keys inserted in the outside of the door that opened to the motel parking lot.

The two of us in 1983.  I'm on the left, Rebecca's on the right.
We had no way of knowing back then that she would spend most of her married life in the Middle East with her engineer husband, and I would spend much of mine in an old farmhouse in a restful rural setting in Oregon. We would each find our way apart from each other, and yet our lives would evolve with almost startling similarities.

Both of us married men who are exhaustingly driven and less emotionally attuned than we are. We both had families, lived with asthma and dealt with the genetic tendency toward depression in ourselves and our children. We both find ourselves constantly involved in helping others.

Back in the United States for her son’s wedding this summer, Rebecca had a chance to visit me, and I decided to surprise her by re-creating our visit to Florence 33 years ago. I found the motel online with its name changed but still sitting there by the Dairy Queen, and reserved a room. Her joy, when we pulled in and parked, made it worthwhile.

Not only did we catch up with each other for two days, but we also reconnected with those two young women from 1983 who were making high-risk life decisions and wondering how they would all turn out.

2016. Again, I'm on the left and Rebecca's on the right.
We didn’t have time for movies, but we still double-checked the locks for old times’ sake. We also ate healthful snacks, took pictures on the beach and gravitated toward secondhand stores.

She is still deliberate and tidy. I am still scattered and forgetful. I deal in the moment; she thinks long-term. But once again we connected on a thousand similarities, laughed at the same things, and empathized deeply with each other’s times of powerlessness and pain.

We ordered the same items off the menu, coughed with asthma and puffed our inhalers and, all unplanned, wore near-identical purple shirts the next morning. We didn’t eat at Dairy Queen this time, since sugary food triggers our asthma.

Riding in the car together, we recalled how I yelled at Billy Allen in the fifth grade and laughed so hard that tears ran down our cheeks.

“I wonder what those two young women would think of us now,” Rebecca said.

I think they would be proud of what we’ve survived and surprised at how much we are still them, still us.

We would tell them, if we could, that the big decisions of marriage and work and location mattered a lot, and we are both relieved that in spite of our naivete, we got those choices right.

But the little decisions of kindness, love and sacrifice are the ones that bring us daily joy, and we could have continued to choose them no matter where we lived or whom we married.

I think those young ladies would be happy to see that, while we are a lot wiser and more experienced, our personalities are still essentially as they always were, and even our weaknesses helped shape us into who we are today.

Surely they would also be glad to see that our relationship survived and that we continued to contact, support, listen, forgive and encourage despite years and miles and the differences that never went away.

Small, positive choices can accumulate into a really good life. To have a sister rooting for you through it all is a rare gift, and I am astonishingly blessed.

Dorcas Smucker is a homemaker and mother of six. She can be reached at dorcas­


  1. Oh my, your description of you and your sister when you were young reminds me of Laura and Mary in the Little House books!

  2. I read this Sunday in the RG and enjoyed it--love the added pictures here!
    Sue R.

  3. I love the pictures added to your story! You are both beautiful and fortunate to enjoy "sisterhood"!

  4. Sitting here reading and laughing. Wonderful column.

  5. I love the article! Especially the last sentence!! I don't have my sisters right close but the times we do get together...Nothing like it!