Being My Sister’s Photographs

By Ferida Wolff

Being My Sister’s Photographs

The phone rang at 3:20 am. I was jarred out of sleep, gasping at the insistent, harsh ring. “Easy,” my husband said from his side of the bed. But my heart was already thumping wildly. It is a rare call that brings good news at three o’clock in the morning. My mind immediately went into high mother gear. Did something happen to my daughter who lived three hours away? Was my son in trouble? Could I get to him soon enough to help? My sister and I often talked about how we never wanted to get a dreaded early morning call and here it was. I croaked, “Hello?” into the phone, hoping it was a crank call, and I could just hang up and resume my dreams.

No child was in danger but the news was horrific anyway. My sister’s house was burning. She and my brother-in-law were standing out on the sidewalk in front of their home, in their bathrobes, watching smoke billow through the roof above the master bedroom where minutes ago they had been peacefully asleep. My brother-in-law had grabbed the cell phone on his way out, while my sister rounded up the dog and the cat. The fire trucks were on the way.

My sister said she had to call me, but that I should go back to sleep. There was nothing I could do. As if I could. My husband and I threw on our clothes and rushed over. By the time we arrived, their street was blocked off and lined with ladders, hoses, helmets and men. We had to drive around the block and park halfway down and across the street before we could get to them.

My sister tried to describe the emotions that were running through her as she watched the firefighters struggle to put out the fire that refused to be contained. Each time it looked as if the flames had been doused, they would jab through another area of the house or a window would burst outward from the heat. But she was not able to really tell me what she was feeling. Everything she said sounded too ordinary to her. Her house was burning down, and she didn’t have the right words to express her distress. Finally, she turned to me and, knowing that I would understand, said, “All the pictures are gone.”

Of course I understood. When our parents broke up their home in the north to move to Florida, we found a carton of family photographs put out for the trash. We had rescued a century’s worth of photos and divided them up, reliving our family’s history as we looked through them. There were fading images of immigrant relatives who braved the ocean to start life in a new land, relatives we never knew but whose features were somehow familiar. There were photos of family members who had died, looking at us from remembered faces. Photos of our children at all different ages flooded us with memories and often made us laugh. We felt relieved that we had spotted that carton before it ended up in some anonymous landfill. Now that was exactly where they would go, charred and singed and crumbling into ash.

In the space of the few minutes it took them to get out of their house, my sister and brother-in-law had lost their past. Two more minutes inside, the fire marshal told them, they would have been overcome with smoke and lost their lives as well.

I knew that I would have to be my sister’s past now as only I could be, her living photographs of our childhood. Over the year her house was being rebuilt, we remembered the Saturday mornings spent watching “The Merry Mailman” on our seven-inch console television, and the time we shared a bedroom and jumped from bed-to-bed until our parents yelled us into being quiet. We laughed about our made-up dances and our pretend games. One sister rarely had to say more than a word for the other sister to pick up the story, talking in what we think of as sister shorthand. We returned again and again to the relatives who had died, our mother only the year before, as if to fix them in both our memories.

I gave my sister some of the old photos of us as children that I had saved from my parents’ trash and added whatever pictures I had of her children and mine growing up, rebuilding a foundation for her so that she wouldn’t feel she had lost everything.

But mostly I was, and am, just around, a bridge between what was and what is going to be. Being for her what she has always been for me: a sharer, a confidante, a supporter, an advisor, a consoler, a memory bank, a loving friend. In other words, I am her sister. And I am grateful that she still is mine.

About this writer

  • Ferida Wolff Ferida Wolff is author of 17 books for children and three essay books for adults. A frequent contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, she also writes for newspapers and magazines, online at and is a columnist for Her website is, and her newest book is Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking (Pranava Books 2009).

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