When Mom Called Me Sister

When Mom called me “Sis”

“Hey Sis,” she said to get my attention in the store.

She was more than double my age with white hair. She looked like my grandma.

“Mom,” I hissed, “don’t call me Sis,”

I always wanted a sister. Sisters giggle with you when you are supposed to be asleep in bed. They share your clothes and eat the stuff you don’t like. Sisters listen to your secrets and give hugs when you’re sad.

I begged for one for years, but mom was 43 when I was born, and dad 47.

They would look at me like I was nuts for asking for a sister, and shake their gray heads.

“You were just one little girl-baby,” Mom told me, “but you were harder than your three brothers put together.”

Friends said I was lucky. I got a room to myself. I didn’t have to wear hand-me-downs or get tattled on in a fight. But I was jealous of the relationship on the other side of the pink fence.

“Why do you call me ‘Sis?’’’ I asked her.

“Cause, you and I are the only girls in the family,” she said, and I watched the wrinkles around her eyes crinkle when she said it, and felt ashamed at my embarrassment.

Mom had plenty of her own sisters. She didn’t need me to be one of them. I never fully understood. In fact my aunts were one reason I wanted a sister. Mom told me stories about growing up with girls in her family. I pictured their tea parties under the low hanging tree and how they bled German and English and laughed at their twisted words. Mom told me about play weddings and real ones that spanned her large family. I heard the story of one sister that threw a shoe at the preacher.

Still, when everyone thought she was my grandma I cringed, and having her call me “Sis” in the aisle of JCPenny was humiliating to a girl on the crest of growing up.

She and her sister Irma were always extra-close. They looked alike, mirror images. When they got rolling one started the sentence and the other finished. It seemed they could see into each other’s heads. When they laughed, they swept everyone into its swell, I lived for the joy of it. Tears squeezed out their eyes and barreled off their cheeks. They shook out white hankies and wiped their eyes, foreheads and blew their noses. Watching made me laugh until my sides hurt.

Mom’s gone now. She’s been gone a long time. Maybe I’m going back to square one with the whole sis bit. Because, I miss the side by side we-get-one-another feel. I miss her words and her giggle. I miss the sister-hood of my mom.

The last time I saw her, she was in a nursing home.

“Irma,” she called me.

“No, Mom,” I said, “I’m Sylvia. Your daughter. Irma is your sister.”

But I couldn’t convince her.

She remembered the times she and Irma shelled peas on the west porch.

“No, Mom,” I told her. “That was me, Sylvia, your daughter.”

She remembered when she and Irma went to buy the wedding gown.

“Mom,” I said. “That was for my wedding, remember?”

At the end I didn’t argue anymore. Irma wasn’t just a sister or a daughter, it was a feeling of best-friend love and loyalty. It was belly-laughter tears, stories from long ago, and it was an honor.

I wish I could hear that “Hey, Sis,” in the store aisle again. Now I would “Hey, Sis” back loud and clear. Everyone would turn puzzled, except for Mom. She would smile because we were forged like sisters.