On Being an Older Sister

I have two sisters. One is 3 years younger than me, and one is 10 years younger. I call them my Middle and my Youngest sister.


Here’s the most recent picture I have of us (Middle on the right, Youngest on the left), and here’s one from last year where we’re flipping our hair like we’re related or something.


My Middle Sister and I exist on opposite sides of the family spectrum. She has the body type of all our Foley cousins, and physically I’m more on my mother’s side of things. She’s an extrovert, I’m an introvert. She’s more mainstream culture and I’m more indie. She follows trends and I stare at them in bafflement. My parents got one of each and then a compromise, because my Youngest Sister is an exact split between us.


Here’s me and Youngest Sister on the plane to New Zealand last month.

It’s my Youngest Sister (YS for short) whose development I’m more concerned with, partly because she’s more similar to me and partly because of the age difference between us. For these reasons I feel more responsible for her, and want to be a resource to her as she grows.

When I was growing up we lived in Seattle with our extended family, whom we saw once a month, if not more. Additional to these visits, at least once a month my Foley grandparents would come and take me/and or Middle Sister out for some adventure. We would go to the Pacific Science Center, see a movie, go to a museum, or just hang out at their condo and play on the beach. My grandparents fostered reading and learning, exposing us to different cultures and making us pay attention to what’s important.

It was this Grandmother who took me to my first writer’s meetup, where I shared a short fable I’d written about squirrels and eagles (I intended to write a book of fables just like Aesop’s fables but never finished). Looking back now I’m so grateful for all the time and energy they put into us, and especially how they supported my dreams of being a writer, midnight releases of Harry Potter and all.

When I was 11 these Foley grandparents took my male cousin and I out on their boat for a week-long tour around the San Juan islands, which was the most amazing thing that had happened to me thus far. Living on a boat, swimming in the ocean, exploring islands, and plotting out a never-written book with my cousin called The Prophecy of the  Stones.

But both my grandfathers passed when I was sixteen, and Grandma Foley a few years later. My family moved away from our home and the extended family, to be strangers in a strange land in Chicago, then a year later starting over again in Alabama.

I felt the burden of my position as oldest sister so clearly as we drove away for the last time from our house in Auburn, Washington when I was sixteen. We moved there when I was five and my Middle Sister two, and YS had been born there, so the two of them knew no other life. We’d had a barn with horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, and pigs, a forest full of trails, a pond we poled around in a raft, and even our own playhouse my father built in the backyard. Leaving Washington was leaving everything. As we left our everything behind I sat in the middle in the backseat, one sister on either side of me, leaning into me as we cried together.

In Chicago we had no one but ourselves. I felt a duty to step in and perform the caring and development my grandparents were no longer around to provide. Of course, I went about this in my own way.

Living in the suburbs, we were terrifically bored a lot, and antidotes manifested themselves in different ways:

sister in tree

Sometimes I duct-taped Middle Sister to a tree.

One time I directed a sporking offensive against another kid in our neighborhood, sticking hundreds of plastic sporks into his lawn in the dead of night. Don’t worry, my mother was aware of this (the same mother who helped me dye my hair blue, and called me out sick from school if I wanted to stay home and write), and we didn’t get caught or get in trouble. Actually someone in the family must have discovered our prank very early in the morning, because when we got up for the bus the next day all the sporks were gone.

When I got my driver’s license my relationship with my sisters intensified. Suddenly we were capable of going Elsewhere together, and I tried to take them on outings as much as I could, even if those outings usually consisted of secretly going to McDonald’s and hiding the evidence in a public trashcan before going home.

I took them to a little town nearby to shop at the boutiques, and to the local parks. I had two CDs in my car, a mix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and a mix of The Killers. To this day if we want to jump-start nostalgia we’ll play The Killers’ Read My Mind, and if I want to annoy Middle Sister I’ll put on the The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

It wasn’t always great, of course. Middle Sis and I shared a bathroom, and fought horrifically about who had to clean it. She was a freshman in school when I was a senior, part of the preppy crowd when I was hanging out with the anime nerds. I’m not sure who embarrassed who more. There was the unfortunate incident of the time we both liked the same guy, which blew up in our faces in spectacular fashion, as I’m sure you can imagine. This happened shortly before I was stuck with her in the car for the 10-hour drive to Alabama, where we were in a car accident together for the first time.

I wrote a lot of poetry in those days.

1930359_22571064054_6371_nIn Alabama we continued our sisterly outings as we explored our new home. Here we are getting ice cream in the little town of Athens, AL our first summer there. I had just discovered asofterworld.com and with my shitty digital camera went about making my own comics.

1930359_22571049054_5417_nI took my sisters to the Huntsville Botanical Gardens, which was putting on a dinosaur event, and we experienced a moment of terror when the local Redstone Arsenal proceeded with a rocket test, which, if you’ve never heard one, sounds like some catastrophe blowing up in the distance. We sat on a bench together in an isolated part of the gardens, certain we were about to die from a nuclear holocaust, while I called home and asked mom what disaster had happened. The answer was, ‘nothing.’

Everything changed, though, when I met Chris. My sisters and I had several fights in which they accused me of abandoning them. I did. I bought a house and moved out a year after meeting Chris. The house closed on Wednesday and the plan was for me to move out that weekend, but on Thursday night I felt this overwhelming impatience, and so Chris and I moved the last of my stuff out unexpectedly.

As we drove away from my parent’s home I had to pull over before we even left the neighborhood, to sob for a minute until I got control of myself.

Six years later, we are all very settled. Chris is a part of the family, it’s ‘normal’ for me to live away from the nuclear family. Middle Sister got married in September and has expressed the need to go about her own life free of my advice, and so I find myself focusing more on YS. She turned 15 a few months ago, and experienced a rapid maturing, blooming into a young adult right before my eyes.

Because she is like Middle Sister, she is very social and emotionally-intelligent, and has over 20k followers on her instagram account dedicated to horses. Because she is like me I know how to talk to her about the strangeness of being semi-famous on the internet. Didn’t I go through the same thing on FictionPress? But her ‘fame’ in her particular niche area has eclipsed mine. People send her fan art and letters; she even landed herself a hate page after announcing that her horse idol, a very famous woman in the horse world, would be coming to stay with us for a while.

She and I have long discussed my writing life and the difficulties therein. So I’d like to take some credit for how she handled that situation, which had the potential to be full of so much anxiety and outrage — she was simply proud of herself for getting so big on Instagram that someone’s jealousy caused them to make that hate page. It was a sign of how far she’d come. An unfortunate but common milestone for Instagram celebrities that proved how well she was doing.

And then of course there was New Zealand. My parents have always been very generous, but with the new horse facility they’d built and were now running, the airfare to New Zealand so YS could live with her idol and train under her for a month seemed impractical. Not to mention the anxiety of sending a 15-year-old across the planet on her first international journey.

There have been many wonderful opportunities in my life I’ve bought into and counted on, only to have them taken away. (Many more that have come to fruition, lest you think I’m whining here.) Listening to YS speak of how much she wanted this, and of how heartbroken she’d be if this fragile dream was crushed, I spoke to Chris, and my boss, before approaching my parents with the idea that I would escort her and pay my own way–anything so long as she was able to go.

She’s a lucky girl. She’s homeschooled so she has a chance to spend more time on her passions than I was able to do at her age. She lives literally next door to a brand new horse facility she can work at and play in. She’s found her passion in life and been a conscientious caretaker of how her social media platform develops. Recently she was even on the cover of our little town’s monthly magazine, after they did an article on my parent’s horse facility.

Just before we went to New Zealand I brought her to my friend’s house to stay the night and have a Lord of the Rings marathon, as neither of us had seen the films and we were going to the place where they filmed it. Over the next day and a half I came and went from my friend’s house, sleeping in my own bed but having breakfast with them the next day, watching part of a movie then flitting off to buy groceries for the week, etc. My friend is ten years older than me, so she’s twenty years older than YS, but they get along well. We feel it’s good for her to be exposed to adulthood outside of the nuclear family, to see other ways of life and hear philosophies and opinions different from what she hears at home.

Especially because my sister is homeschooled, and all her friends share her passion for horses, I fear sometimes she’s not getting exposed to enough of the ‘real’ world, and all the diversity it can offer. She works closely with Middle Sister, and I see them going through the same conflicts I went through with Middle Sister, so it’s nice to get her away from that for a time, too.

So I’ve made it my continuing mission to act in place of both my grandparents and the extended family, taking her on trips and exploring new things. Buying those Pegasus earrings because life is short and my sister is broke, while I am not. Taking her to see The Fault in Our Stars because reading is important, and if she reads a book I’ve promised to take her to the movie version. Discussing my adult life and career with her so she knows the hard work and self-work it takes to pursue your passion. Coordinating with the family so we all contribute the right gift cards on her birthday so she can buy a version of Photoshop for her photography hobby.

at cemeteryLast weekend I took her to Maple Hill Cemetery to photograph the foliage. Cemeteries are kind of my thing. Aside from the bad habit of taking first dates into cemeteries to see how they react, in Chicago I picked my bedroom specifically because it faced the local cemetery, and YS is my acolyte in enjoying horror films. So what I’m saying is, taking her to the cemetery for her photography was a perfect mix of things I like and things she likes. Then we walked through the historic district in downtown Huntsville and took pictures of the houses and leaves.

She particularly likes photographing animals, and flowers. I haven’t told her yet how uninteresting squirrels and flowers are to the general public, because I see so much of myself in her at that age. The emerging of talent, the wide, amorphous dreams not yet crystallized, the pursuing of art to please one’s self and not yet weighed down by the knowledge of technical skill and comparisons to others and a standard we aspire to but can’t quite seem to reach.

She’s ten years younger than me, after all. She’ll get there. And one of the things I’ve learned from being a big sister, to both Middle and Younger Sis, is that you can prep them and guide them, but the best lessons are the ones they learn themselves. The best thing I can do is offer support: car rides, my adult income, mediating with mom and dad, sharing my own lessons, and just listening.

maple hill

 How about you? Are you an older or younger sibling, or only child? What do you feel your role is in interacting with your siblings?

<3, Savannah

Edit to add:

Here’s a picture YS took of me that day we went downtown:

sav leaves

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