Dear Ellie — Your great-aunt Ellen celebrated her 64th birthday last month. Since you’ve only seen her once and she lives thousands of miles away, I want to write you so you’ll know more about her. After all, in my unbiased older-sister opinion, she’s one of the smartest, most fascinating people I’ve ever known in my life.
Ellen was born in Cushing, Oklahoma, a small prairie town where our father worked for an oil company and our mother was a housewife. I was three years older than she was and greatly resented her arrival (as an oldest child, you’ll understand someday). I sometimes used to pinch her when our mother’s back was turned just because I was tired of her getting all the attention from everybody; I mean, she couldn’t even talk, for God’s sake.
Our father kept getting transferred, so we moved from Oklahoma to a series of dusty towns in West Texas. We always lived in small, new houses on the edge of town, where the wind blew and the horizon was unbroken. Mother usually planted a sapling tree in each new yard, which had to be staked down so it wouldn’t snap in the wind. Since we moved so often, we never got to see the trees get big.
Our parents, both originally from Oklahoma, were very religious and conservative. Daddy went off to work five days a week as an accountant. He didn’t like to talk about his job or much of anything else. Mother stayed at home and was often deeply depressed; hers was a hard generation for women, with few opportunities for fulfilling work. Our entire household revolved around Mother’s ever-shifting moods. Home was always precarious emotionally.
All of which explained why Ellen and I read anything, all the time. It was our escape. We’d go to the library and return with armfuls of books so we could lose ourselves in other worlds. Even though Ellen was three years younger than I was, she often read the same books — which was highly annoying to me. It always reminded me that — smart as I liked to think I was, Ellen was equally smart. Maybe more so.
It’s funny to write about Ellen’s and my beginnings, which were, of course, much the same, then think about how widely our adult lives have diverged. Her life has been much more unconventional and adventurous than mine — radio school in Dallas, work at radio stations around the state, three husbands, long sojourns in Israel and Poland, conversion to the Russian Orthodox church, travels all over Eastern Europe.
For the past few years, Ellen’s lived in Gdynia, on the Baltic shore of Poland, working as an English teacher. I’ve never been able to get to one of her classes, which I regret, since I know she’s a spectacular, caring teacher.
After a shared childhood of constant fighting (we both used to end up with long, bloody scratch marks on our forearms), Ellen and I have become very close. It’s funny how that happens: Your childhood competitor becomes the person who understands you best in the world. It’s also funny, given that she and I have lived thousands of miles away from each other, on different continents, for most of our adult lives.
But, when we see each other — usually only once a year — that distance falls away immediately. We take up our long, intimate conversation seamlessly — laughing at the same jokes, comparing and quoting from the same books, remembering the same family stories and scenes. Even at a distance, sisterhood can be powerful.
She is the person who came and stayed with us in 1995, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, who sat and watched movies with me in the afternoon till I fell asleep, who came along when I got my hair shorn off before it fell out.
“You have nice ears,” she said, staring at the floor. She didn’t know what else to say, she said later; what a stupid remark. I felt differently. It made me smile at a time when I didn’t have much to smile about.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer herself last year, she wouldn’t let me come to see her till she was finished with treatment. But I did send her a great red-haired wig she wore for months.
Poland is far away from your home in Seattle, and I don’t know when you’ll get to see your great-aunt Ellen next, Ellie. But I did want you to know her a bit better, in the meantime.
All my love, Coco
(Copyright 2017 by Ruth Pennebaker)