Sunday, November 14, 2010

A tribute to my sister Ginny.

As the graphic says, this photo was taken on the occasion of my mother's second marriage, to the man we all came to call "St. Marty" (you had to know Mom
to appreciate this). At far left is my oldest sister, Barbara, then Ginny, then Marty, then my mother, then the guy with the crazy perm. Only Barbara and I remain. My father died in entire lifetime ago.*

FOR SOME TIME NOW, I've wanted to write something about Ginny, who passed away suddenly on July 14 of this year: four months ago today. After many false starts, I've decided that the best way to honor my sister is simply to reproduce here the eulogy I gave at her memorial service (mildly edited in recognition of the fact this is being read by people who never knew Ginny and wouldn't get some of the references). The memorial took place on July 26, which would have been her 68th birthday.

This, by the way, is another one of those things I do from time to time "mostly for me." But maybe you can find some relevance in it for your relationship with your own family. I've heard from one or two people who say they try to do a better job of "keeping in touch" with loved ones, now, after hearing this.


I could talk about my sister in generalities. I could talk about the fact that she was active in the church—especially back in the day before her body seemed to declare war on her, one bone or joint at a time. I could talk in generalities about how Ginny was a good person who tried to do the right things for the right reasons. I could talk about my sister's sense of charity—that she felt she had enjoyed some good fortune in life and ought to give back. I could talk about the fact that my sister had a spectacular sense of gallows humor. Most people wouldn't know this, because Ginny didn't share that with most people.

There were a lot of things she didn't share with most people. My sister was a private person who didn't look to be the center of attention and would frequently fade into the woodwork at her own parties. I'm sure that a day like today—being the focus of things—would delight and yet also embarrass her.

But those, as I say, are generalities. None of that has much to do with what my sister meant to me, personally. So I'm going to take a few moments to give you a brother's perspective of what it means to be loved by a sister like Ginny.

See, we all know what happens in families over time. We drift, and to some degree we lose touch.

We say we'll get together...and we don't, at least not as often as we could.

We say we'll call...and we won't, at least not as often as we should.

After a while, we can become pretty far removed from the day-to-day realities of people's lives. But of course you still love those people...and you count on the fact that those people are still there. That bond transcends the miles and the space and the time. And in some corner of yourself, you kid yourself into believing that they'll always be there, even though intellectually you know they won't.

I probably had more reason than most people to feel that way about my sister, Ginny.

It's awkward eulogizing one sister while the other is sitting there listening. So I have to say truthfully that I was blessed to have two wonderful sisters, both of whom showed me nothing but love, especially after my mother took a job and they were stuck with caring for me during the day. Now, it's also true that one of them would send me to the school bus with no socks and two pairs of underwear—I'm not mentioning any names (Barbara)—but it's fair to say I did not grow up deprived of love.

I was a weird kid: bookish, reclusive, socially awkward. I always felt that Ginny tried to look out for me. She would check on me, stop by my room—where I spent about 92.7 percent of my time back then—and ask me how I was doing, if I'd read anything interesting, if I wanted to talk. I think she sensed that we shared a common bond.

Certainly she and I were more alike temperamentally than Barbara and I. Barbara inherited the Yo-Yo gene for social interaction
—"Yo-Yo" being everyone's pet name for my mother, whose given name was Yolanda. But Ginny was private, shy, and tended to keep people at arm's length. So she identified.

If she sensed that I was down for some reason, she'd do things like ask me to get in the car and take a drive to Junior's, a famous cafeteria-type restaurant in Brooklyn. We'd sit there at the counter and she'd buy me cheesecake and a chocolate malted. From a dietary standpoint, I grant you, it wasn't the most inspired menu. What's more, she didn't have to do that. I'm sure there were times when she was tired after school or, later, work. As a young woman, Ginny was a very ambitious person with a full day. But she knew it would put a smile on my face, and that's all that mattered.

It was much the same after her long-time employer, Columbia Gas, transferred her to Delaware. I remember the day she invited me down to show me around. We must have driven on every arterial road within a 50-mile radius of Wilmington. Surprisingly little was said, but the words themselves were superfluous. She drove with a small smile on her face that I can still see to this day—occasionally pointing out a landmark or whatever—and I sat in the passenger seat with a smile on my face.

That was our visit. A couple of loving loners sharing quality time.

Except this time we ended up at Popeye's Fried Chicken instead of Junior's.

I got the sense from my sister that she loved me unconditionally, warts and all. As I got older I tested that love, often. Ginny knew more about my warts than most people did, and when it was just between us, she'd let me hear about it—her version of tough-love. To outsiders, though, she always made me feel that she was proud of me. The joy and excitement in her voice whenever I would manage to achieve some little insignificant something was palpable and sincere.

As many of you also know, Kathy and the kids and I lived in California for a time. For the most part, it was a 13-year struggle to stay afloat interrupted by just a few charmed years. Still, Ginny would unfailingly introduce me to people as "my brother, the writer"—she knew it sounded glamorous and exotic—even if her brother, the writer, had been short on the rent that month and needed to come to her for help. She wanted people to see me at my best.

In these last few years we talked more on the phone than we had in a while, and I'm grateful for that. I'd hear the pain or weariness in her soft voice and I'd feel terrible but try to make some stupid joke that, in my mind, cheered her up for a few minutes. Still, with all that she was going through, she'd put the emphasis on other things—usually what I was doing, what I was working on, how were the kids, how was my baseball team doing. To the end, she was that same Ginny that I grew up with.

I said before that the bond between families, at its best, transcends miles and space. Today—as we assemble here on what would have been her 68th birthday—I need to think that it also transcends death.

* The links will take you to pieces I've written about my family. Please, please don't feel obliged to read them or comment on them! (Or on this post, either, for that matter.) The links are just there because, well, the pieces exist. There was a time in my life when about 75% of my writing was of the "first-person memoir" variety.


RevRon's Rants said...

Beautiful piece, Steve. You were very fortunate to have such supportive sisters with which to bond. I can only imagine how comforting it must have been. Far too many of us had to wait until we were all grown up to find true "family." And far too many never feel it at all. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Very nice, Steve. You were very blessed to have that kind of family. It is not that common.

Jenny said...

Yes, I was touched by this piece as well. Thank you for sharing it on your blog, Steve.

"We say we'll call...and we won't, at least not as often as we should."

I received a call from my brother a few days ago, on the 10th. He is in Nigeria and said he will only be there for about a week this time. He is staying in an American hotel which is, well, apparently not all that American except in name. In the course of our conversation, I asked him about the food there. He revealed breakfast that morning had been goat soup and yams, which were white and unlike the orange yams here, with some doughnuts thrown into the mix to give the spread a more western appeal. Well, we talked for a good while. The first thing Bob said to me when I picked up his call was that he'd just wondered what I was doing and since it had been awhile (months) since we'd talked, the idea to call me just struck him suddenly. We have that connection and its associated closeness you describe, Steve. It transcends time and distance, is always there. This morning, I read a news blurb about military action in Nigeria. (My brother is doing work there for the American military.) When I read it, I was reminded of the sense I had at the end of my conversation with Bob on Wednesday. It was very much along the lines of "this might be the last time we talk or see each other." (Thanks to a Skype connection, we had video-chatted.) One never knows when a loved one will be taken away. Interestingly, Bob and I lost our father in 1978, too. Same year you lost yours.

Family is so precious . . .

Anonymous said...

Reading your piece I thought about the person, long since gone, who lives forever in my heart--not family unfortunately but nevertheless an enormous comfort when I am troubled.
I've since learned that there are good people everywhere, but it took that one, taking extra time and care, to open my eyes.

Ann said...

Nice tribute to your sister.

Yekaterina said...

I think of myself as very unsentimental and often...uh, always... have to force myself to read posts whose titles have a sentimental air to them. Without fail I find myself shaking my head (at myself) by the time I reach the end. They are always some of my favorite posts.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful piece.

Steve Salerno said...

To all who commented here: Thank you for your sentiments.

Once upon a time I approached these topics from the perspective that "family is family"--a universal constant--so what's the point of writing about it? "We all know what it is, and what it feels like."

I have since learned that that is not the case. I was very, very naive. In "our generation" (Baby Boom) in particular, the version of family I knew--tragically often--was not the family that others remembered.