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Siblings - Nature's Way Of Creating A Slightly Different Version Of Us

For miles around, I believed, there wasn’t a finer sister than my eldest sister, Esther. She was made of a different stuff and was everything we three younger siblings were not, everything we ever wanted to be. I was proud of my sister Esther, and my greatest frustration was that I could never be quite like her.

She was special in every way, but I thought the most special thing about her - the one thing that I secretly coveted most - was her creamy, almost flawless skin. The slightest insect bite had the most devastating effect on us younger siblings. We were plagued with skin rashes and allergies which festered, leaving their ugly, telltale trademark stamped on our arms and legs. It was nothing unusual, really, every other kid we knew suffered the same fate. But not sister Esther. She always managed to escape unscathed from the hordes of fleas and mosquitoes that accompanied our childhood. Or, if she did get bitten, it didn't show.

Slant-eyed and light-complexioned, she could have been a Chinese mestiza, and sometimes she was mistaken for one. When she was in grade school, there was this program where she was perfect for her role as a little Chinese girl. For the occasion, Mother made her a Chinese collar and a pair of pants which looked like pajamas. I can still see her braided pigtails and bangs that reached down to her eyes, and hear her voice as she bravely recited her lines: “My name is Ah Wang. I am a little Chinese girl. I live across the sea.”

The three of us younger siblings - well, we were regular brownies, and no matter how hard we tried, we never succeeded in making an impression.

Sister Esther never had a problem with her weight. She could feast all day and not put on an extra, unwanted pound. She was always trim and slim, unlike the three of us who struggled endlessly and hopelessly to attain some kind of figure.

She had high cheekbones and perfectly formed teeth. Her favorite snack was candy made from molasses which she was an expert in preparing but I don't think she knows what it feels like to have a toothache. And while we younger ones suffered the rounds of tooth decay, dental fillings and extractions, she was smiling with close-up confidence all the time. Me, I had crooked teeth and refrained from smiling. When I did it was with a painful self-consciousness.

As if all that was not enough, she was taller than the rest of us. She's over five-four. I am barely five feet-two, my sister Eunice is a bit shorter, and Merli is less than five.

She was just the right size, the right shape, and the right color while we younger three were mostly the wrong. Queen Esther, no less, or the beautiful swan in a brood of ugly ducklings.

Well, she could have been somebody else's sister!

The differences between sister Esther and the rest of us transcended the physical. She was smart, too, and possessed a lot of skills important to growing children. For example, she was an expert in catching dragonflies by the tail, or stealing the shy mimosa leaves before they could fold up. She knew the very places where we could find firewood and guavas at the same time. She could play a little, one-octave xylophone by hitting its keys with a couple of dried beetlenuts fastened at the end of two sticks, and she was often asked to do so during homeroom programs. She knew a great many stories about giants and kings, fairies and ghosts, monsters and witches, and she spent long hours spinning tales for us as we sat in the flowerless flowerbox in an upstairs window waiting for the moon to rise.

When it did, she'd sneak us out of the house, down through the window and over the fence, to play with the neighborhood children in the street. But first she had to teach us to fix our beds just so, so that should father decide to conduct an on-the-spot check, he would find us “asleep” in our designated places.

If there was a long list of the great things sister Esther knew and could do, there was an equally long list of the simple things she couldn't do. But it never occurred to us as a lack on her part then, only as a difference. A difference which only served to set her apart from the rest of us ordinary mortals, making her even more special to our young eyes. A difference we believed inherent in her birthright.

She couldn't go upstairs or downstairs alone at night; it was S.O.P. (standard operating procedure) that one of us younger ones would be in tow. “Come and hold the lamp while I look for my thing,” she would say.

She couldn't go to sleep at night until she'd personally checked and double checked the wood stove for live coals. One night while father was away on a trip, she poured a whole pailful of water into a few dying embers; the next morning, mother could not start a fire.

She couldn't eat fish, big or small, without almost always managing to get a bone stuck in her throat. Several times we had to summon our nurse neighbor, her namesake, to remove the offending fishbone. Other times we took her to uncle Fred, who was born with his feet first. Peering with his one good eye into my sister's wide open mouth, he would lick his thick, short fingers, touch them to the afflicted throat, and the pain would vanish just like magic. Sometimes our cat did the magic trick. Father would take the cat and rub its paw on Esther’s throat. But our favorite trick was our simple, homegrown, tried and tested remedy of secretly slipping a fishbone on top of her head. Someone would hand her a banana and a glass of water, and after she had washed down a large, half-chewed chunk, the bone would be gone. We had done it countless times, she knew and would automatically reach a hand up to brush the top of her head as soon as it was over. On one occasion Father had to take her to emergency when the combined efforts of the cat, our nurse neighbor and uncle Fred, as well as our secret method of deboning, failed to bring relief. One time, we had a fruit for viand, but no matter, she also managed to get a bone in her throat - a fruit bone, no less!

One fairly simple thing she couldn't do was run a sewing machine. We had lived with sewing machines as far back as I can remember (my father sold and repaired them), and we girls learned early and easily to operate one. But not sister Esther. She'd try again and again but just couldn't make it go; the machine would keep going back and forth.

Another thing she couldn't do was take a “no.” Once we didn't have money to spare for beauty parlors, she asked my younger sister to trim her hair. She didn't want to do it because she did not have the expertise. But you don't argue with sister Esther. So she did my best. When sister Esther got a good look at her handiwork, she was so mad that she started screaming and pulling my younger sister’s hair. She never trusted her to cut hair again.

But she did trust me to do something more important, like going to the library at the university where she was a medical student to do a research job for her.

Sister Esther seems to stay forever young. To entertain me and my family while we were visiting in the US, where she and her family had gone to live, she took us to the casinos in Las Vegas where we tried inserting a few nickels into the slot machines, just for the hang of it. There was a sign which read, “Minors Not Allowed in Casino,” and a guard who had been intently watching approached her. “Excuse me, Miss, but are you 18?” he asked. “Oh, yes, I'm more than that,” she replied, blushing lightly. She was all of 40!

There are five whole years between us, but when she introduced me to her friends as her younger sister they didn't believe her. They accused her of kidding.

When it was her turn to come visiting not too long ago, I had the chance to see her in a different light, but nonetheless special. In spite of the differences between her and me, and between her world and mine, I found out that we do have common interests. These commonalities must have been there all along, but I had probably concentrated too long and hard on the differences nothing else seemed to matter.

One common interest is love of the outdoors, a passion born out of our lifestyle while we were growing up. As children we climbed the hills, roamed the woods and swam in ditches and rivers, and my heart is still out there. I have yearned for the excursions of my youth, but my family does not share my obsession. There is this river a little distance from our home which I look at with longing each day we drive past, but my suggestions - sometimes pleadings, other times naggings - to go for a dip have invariably fallen on deaf ears.

The first thing sister Esther asked me to do during her brief interlude with us was to accompany her to the hills, which I was only more than happy to do, naturally. On her last day, it was a bit warm in the afternoon and I asked her - tentatively, not wanting to impose, fully aware that she has a well appointed swimming pool and a jacuzzi in her backyard - did she want to go to the river?

Of course she did!

“Why did we not come here earlier?” she said as we soaked in the cool, clear, sparkling waters and contemplated the woods and mountains that surrounded the place. “I could stay here forever.”

I smiled secretly. I could, too. Sister Esther may be different, but at heart she is very much like me. The 30 years she has lived in the US as a medical practitioner might have reordered her life and her wardrobe, but not her soul. The next time she comes to visit, I know where I'm going to take her: to the woods to gather fruits. I'm sure she'd love it.

Well, she could have been somebody else's sister, but, you see, she's mine. And am I glad!

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