My Sissy

By Lynn Ingram

It was late, I was tired, and I wanted nothing more than to drag my weary body up the stairs and burrow deep under the covers and sleep, sleep, sleep.

But there was something in that voice on my answering machine that bespoke a need, an urgency to talk to me, something that pulled at me more strongly than my need for sleep: “Hello, my name is Sandy Murphy, and I’m trying to get in touch with Lynn Ingram.” She’d left two messages, and while there was urgency in the first one, the second one contained an element of something edging close to panic.

So even though it was nearly midnight, I called her back. We exchanged pleasantries, and she began to stumble a bit through a few sentences of the “I’ve got something to tell you, and I don’t know how to say it” variety.

“Here,” I said. “Let me help you out a little bit. You think you might be my sister.”

“How in the world did you know?” she asked.

In 1991, I’d opened my mailbox to find a plain white envelope with no return address. Beside my name, the sender had written one word: “Personal.” Inside was a note from a woman who said she was a friend of mine, although she didn’t identify herself. She told me this story: She had been searching for a child she gave up for adoption years earlier. In the process, she’d met a woman who was searching for her birth parents. That woman had learned enough to think she might be my sister. My anonymous letter writer really liked my potential sister, and she told my potential sister she thought I’d want to know of her existence. Then, my anonymous friend wrote me the note I was holding in my hand. Enclosed with the note was a newsletter from an adoption search agency in which my potential sister told her story – and gave her name, address and telephone number.

What did I feel and think the day I opened that letter – seventeen years before I responded to those messages on my answering machine? It’s difficult to accurately reconstruct past emotions and thoughts. Surely I was curious, maybe a bit excited at the prospect of a sister, maybe apprehensive at the complication this could represent.

Here’s a better question: Given that I love to solve problems, untangle mysteries, get to the bottom of any puzzle that crosses my path, why did I file that letter in the back of the book where I kept genealogy materials? Maybe because there was already too much trouble brewing in my life, maybe because I knew some of that trouble would soon explode and I’d be too fragmented to take on the emotional weight of a new sibling. I’m not sure, but file that letter away I did, and I left it buried in that book.

So while I was explaining all this to the voice on the phone, I fetched that letter from its tucked-away spot and read to this woman words she had written in that adoption search agency newsletter nearly two decades ago.

Something remarkable happened during that phone call that went on into the wee hours of the morning, and that something continued, with growing intensity, over the next few weeks, as we exchanged emails and photographs and stories and history. We connected. We experienced a felt sense of belonging. It was as if a broken thread had knotted itself back together that first night on the telephone, and every time we spoke or messaged, that thread grew thicker and stronger.

When I opened the first photo she sent me of herself, I gasped. It was as if my father’s face, in female form, was staring back at me. I knew. I knew. This woman was my sister.

We made plans to meet. She drove to my house on Easter Sunday. I first saw her face as she drove on to my street. We started talking as she drove into my driveway; we could hardly stop long enough to allow her to get out of her car. We knew. We both knew. There were hugs, there were tears, there were moments where neither of us took a breath.

Over three days, sleep and food were just necessary nuisances, because there was so much to tell. Indeed, between the two of us, we had more than 100 years of history on which to catch up. No one will ever accuse either of us of being at a loss for words, so we made a pretty big dent in getting each other up to speed. The number of times we said “me, too” and “Oh, I can’t believe it; I did the same thing” and “I feel exactly that way” were countless. It was like looking into a mirror that could and would talk back.

We pored over family albums. I showed her the brother she’d never know; Jim had died in 1992, just after she’d started her search for her biological parents. She’d known of his existence, and mine, too, of course. In fact, she’d met our father, although he never told her that she was his daughter. It was a long and complicated, but pleasant and friendly conversation, and they’d stayed in touch through letters and phone calls. He’d told her, “I don’t think I’m who you’re looking for, but I think I know who is. And – don’t you think some things are better off not known?” He also told her that he had two children, my brother and me, and he asked her not to contact us. Why, we wondered? And the only sensible answer seemed to be that he knew she was his daughter, and he was fearful of what might happen to his relationship with my brother and me if she came into the picture. There should have been no reason for him to fear difficulties with my mother; they’d been divorced since 1980. Still, they’d finally become friends, so who knows? Maybe he feared this news of a daughter they didn’t share would hurt her feelings.

Those were questions to which we’d never know the answers. Both my parents had died in 1998, and she knew this. After their deaths, her friends started encouraging her to find me. “You kept your promise to him,” they said. “You didn’t contact her while he was alive. Don’t you think maybe she might want to know you, especially now?”Timing really must be everything. She waited ten years after Daddy died, and evidently that was just the right amount of time. What would I have felt or done if she’d showed up too soon after he was gone? My reverse crystal ball is broken, but I think it’s safe to say that could easily have been emotionally overwhelming. Her own father – her adoptive father, the man who was Daddy for her whole life – had died a few years before she found me. At the time she called, her mother was in failing health. She herself was divorced, as was I, and she had a daughter who was moving rapidly into her own life as a young adult.

It was just the right time for her to find me. That is not to say that the two of us were all settled and had our lives all figured out. Far from it. But we were in exactly the right place to have room in our lives and hearts for a sister. What a pretty word. Sister. My sister.

Our next visit was at her house in Mt. Pleasant. She needed an outfit for a wedding, so we went shopping. There we were, each trying on clothes, finding something that looked just right for the other one, taking it over, saying “You’ve GOT to try this on. It is SO you!” How could we know those things? Who knows? It was automatic, natural, seamless, and as easy as if we’d been doing it all our lives. In fact, it was so easy and natural that we didn’t even quite realize how momentous was the occasion we were sharing.

Until I looked at her and saw tears glistening at the corners of her eyes.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I’m shopping with my SISTER,” she said. “My SISTER. I’ve had other friends tell me about that my whole life, tell me they went shopping with their sisters, how much fun they had, and I didn’t get it. I get it now. My sister. I have lived my whole life, and I have never done this. And today I am shopping with my sister. I have a sister.”

Yes. She does. I do. We are sisters. She’s my Sissy, and I am hers.

About this writer

  • Lynn Ingram

    Lynn Ingram

    Lynn Ingram’s writing has appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Progressive Farmer, Lake Wylie Magazine, and a number of other publications, including Cape Fear Living Magazine, for which she writes a monthly column. She teaches psychology at UNCW and sees clients in her private psychology practice in Wilmington. She has recently resumed acting at TheatreNOW, and she’s on the verge of becoming an avid contra dancer.

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One Response to “My Sissy”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Lynn, your story was a heart tug and made me smile.

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