She's bossy? She's embarrassing? She's irreplaceable? Yes, yes, and yes -- but not at all how you think.
By Sean Wilsey
First off, a little background. Wendy Wilsey-Magers is my half sister from the first of our late father's four marriages. I'm the youngest of his children (from marriage three) and when I came along I replaced her as the baby in the family. We lived in the same house, in San Francisco, briefly, when I was an infant.
From childhood I've wanted to be a writer, an artist, some kind of bohemian; and I am probably at my happiest when doing something dangerous, strange and/or provocative. Wendy spent her life training horses and is deeply religious. She signs her correspondence "In His Grip," and her voicemail greeting concludes by stating "Remember that Jesus is the reason for the seasons." When I recently suggested that she might change it, as the season was now summer, she told me, "It says 'seasons,' plural, because he is responsible for all of them."
And this correction typifies our relationship. What was feeling like a slightly irritating sibling moment, wherein I (like many brothers before me) would tolerate my kooky sister and her answering machine proselytizing, became one in which she suddenly had me seeing things in a different way. I don't know whether Jesus is the reason for any or all seasons, but I couldn't help admiring the attention to grammar. And this is when I realized that even if I am not in any way in His grip, that Wendy is perhaps the person on the planet in whom I find almost all seeming ridiculousness not just tolerable, but in fact a mind-opening delight. While, like every sibling, I am certain I have never told her that—or any of the following six things I know to be true of a sister.
1. Only a Sister Can Inconvenience You and Simultaneously Improve Your Standing with Your Commanding Officer.
When I was 24 I lived at the end of Manhattan's N. Moore Street in a small room on the starboard side of the Yankee, a 90-year-old, side-loading passenger ferry. I was obliged to work two days a month in order to live there -- scraping paint in the winter, grilling and selling hot dogs and burgers in a cafe the roguish, oft-inebriated captain, Jimmy Gallagher, had set up, pirate-style, on Pier 25. I was not just the low man on the Yankee but even slightly suspect because of my dubious carpentry and welding skills, and day job at a magazine (the rest of the crew were skilled craftsmen and took pride in never having been near an office).
Wendy lived (and still lives) in rural Oregon, and does not like to waste money. She called and said she was coming to New York with her husband and two daughters and wanted to stay with me. I said that was impossible, as my room measured 10 feet by 8 feet, and only had one bed. She said that if that's how I felt she would "rent a van and sleep on the street." No mere hyperbole—she would have. I capitulated after asking Captain Jimmy, who said, churlishly, it was okay with him provided everyone who slept on the boat worked on the boat. Fine by Wendy, who, with her family (and their sleeping bags), spent one of her four days in New York cooking and cleaning at the pirate cafe. Afterwards I took her to dinner at a restaurant and bar in the East Village staffed entirely by transvestites, where, as Jesus might have, she engaged our server in a compassionate discourse -- about the challenges of passing as a woman, with special emphasis on depilation.
When she'd gone, Captain Jimmy told me, "Your sister can come back and stay any time," and my cabin boy status on the Yankee was permanently upgraded. My sister, it turns out, made me one of the crew.
2. She Will Be Brave in Ways You Will Never Be.
I grew up skateboarding the hills of San Francisco. One time I wiped out so hard I grated the skin off my palms and slid beneath a parked car. But Wendy shows me up: before I was born she had been a trick rider in Wild West shows. Her specialty was Roman riding, standing with legs on the backs of two horses that galloped alongside each other. She was recruited for the Olympics but could not go because she'd already made money as a professional. Speaking of this period she told me, "By the time I was 18 I'd received 11 marriage proposals, several of them from stuntmen."
When I learned this about her I realized that never, even at the height of my skating abilities, would anyone have considered sponsoring me. And, it was clear that there was another Wilsey in the grip of extreme compulsions. I felt a combination of jealousy and kinship (possibly the definition of what we feel for our sisters).
3. You May Actually Have the Mirror-Like Blind Spots.
Our father's fourth wife, Dede, hates my guts. Wendy maintains a relationship with her. I've struggled to understand this, and at times I hold it against my sister. How can she feel anything other than disdain for a woman who kept our father from us in his final years?
"Doesn't it bug you?"
"It was Dad's decision."
"Not exactly an in-his-right-mind one."
"I don't want to focus on that."
It was hard for me to argue. I didn't want to focus on it, either. I thought this was a blind spot in Wendy for many years, but when we discussed it recently she said, simply, that she had had many similar issues with my mom: "I knew how much you loved her and she's your mom, but I definitely had issues. That conflict within me -- I think it kept me away from you." She then added, "I'm learning how to come into your world. Ha ha. Not bad for 64."
That's the sort of forgiveness that's only available between siblings. Wendy, even if I wanted her to -- and for a while I really did -- is under no obligation to hate somebody on my behalf. And there's something freeing in accepting each other's sometimes profound, sometimes paradoxical, differences. She told me recently that she had an "issue" with my childrearing: "The way you raise your kids is great, but I raise my kids with more discipline." She said it was hard for her to be around my style, and not to interfere. But, "I just need to realize that everybody is so different." (Okay, I'm still wrestling with that one.)
4. Brothers and Sisters Are Capable of Embarrassment Jujitsu.
She may have upped my cred on the boat. But recently we took a trip to Italy together. Walking through Venice she asked if I'd buy her an obscenely large meringue (seriously the size of a Frisbee) at a pastry shop. I did. It came in a brown sack and, after Wendy had eaten it, she stopped in the middle of a crowded street and tipped the bag into her mouth to consume the crumbs.
Venetians dodged around her. I told her not to do that in the middle of the street. She ignored me. So I said it was un-Christ-like behavior. She wasn't remotely buying that. So I said she was maybe not in that moment the best ambassador for America. She replied, mouth full, that nobody knew she was an American. I then started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," at which point she laughed so hard meringue shards flew everywhere. My sister is the only person in my life who can somehow embarrass me without really embarrassing me, by which I mean I somehow enjoy being embarrassed by her, and feel proud and humiliated at the same time.
5. She Will Do Things That Reorder Your Whole Conception of Who She Is, and Even (How Is This Possible?) Shock You.
As a teenager Wendy was hired to ride a horse on a beach beside a Ford Mustang for a TV ad. At the end of one take, ignoring the director, she jumped her horse over the car. I shouted, "What?!" when she told me this story. Then I hit her with a barrage of questions: What if she had damaged the car? What if she had hurt the horse? What if she had been sued?
She simply said that she'd been jumping for more than a decade. "I knew exactly what my horse was capable of." Then she laughed, "But the director didn't."
And it was a reminder that even when you think you know your sister, you don't. She'll jump over a car.
6. A Sister Is the Only One Who Will Give You What You've Always Wanted.
Our father had a 1942 Jeep that he bought from the U.S. Army after World War II. For his kids it embodied the adventurous spirit that we loved most about him. After Dad died the Jeep became my stepmother's -- a woman (see above) with whom I do not have any relationship. But because Wendy does, my stepmother gave it to Wendy. My sister had some fun with it in Oregon, and then she towed it down to West Texas, where I live, and gave it to me as a present.
As Wendy said, "You got the least time with Dad, so you should have this." What astonished me was not that she got the jeep from my stepmother, or that she herself towed it a thousand miles, or even that my father wouldn't have thought to do this. It was that sometimes only a sister knows what you've always wanted and maybe understood -- even better than you -- why exactly you should have it.
Sean Wilsey is the author of More Curious (McSweeney's).