Last week my oldest sister died, and I was in Houston for her memorial. My other siblings – five of us left now – asked me to speak at the memorial on behalf of the brothers and sisters. It was an honor to be asked to do that, and I decided to share some of the talk on my blog. I like to celebrate strong women here, and Rosanne was a very strong woman, so it is appropriate to introduce you to her.
She also loved lighthouses, and in addition to visiting them in many places and collecting figurines, she painted this watercolor.
Rosanne was the oldest of us six siblings next is Juanita from Michigan, then me from Texas, Michael from Michigan, Loreen from Georgia, and Paul from Memphis.
It’s hard to remember that there were only eight years between Rosanne and me. She always seemed to be the one adult among us kids, and then there was the space that separated us. When Daddy and Aunty married, there were her kids, his kids, and eventually their kids. It took a while to stir that mix and end up with a family, but we managed to do that.
Rosanne married young and moved out of the home, so my earliest memories of her are when she would come by with Kathryn as a baby on the weekends that Juanita and I spent at the house. It was always busy and chaotic at the house on those weekends, but I do remember being so impressed with how grown up Rosanne was compared to the rest of us kids, and I was always a bit in awe of this adult sister.
One special time I remember from those early years, was a day when I was visiting her at her house. I think it was not long after Charlie was born. I was older then, and she treated me almost like a girlfriend her own age. We had lunch and she talked about her kids and the new home, and I recall how content she looked, so obviously happy to have a home of her own and a family. It seemed like life was going to be so good. And I remember thinking I would like that someday. I would like a home and a family and to be as happy as Rosanne seemed to be that day.
Even though her life wasn’t always so happy, but there is no doubt she continued to love family, especially her kids, and would do anything to keep them together and give them the best life possible.
Another memory that comes to mind is the time she drove me Juanita and Loreen down to West Virginia for Grandma Van Gilder’s funeral. I don’t remember for sure where we stayed down there, but it was a room with bunk beds. One night all four of us went out to a club with our cousin Kenny and got a little tipsy… okay a lot tipsy. Kenny loved to take us out for an evening of drink and frivolity, and we were always ready for a little frivolity. When we got back to the house, Nita and Loreen and I were all silly and giggly, and we kept Rosanne awake most of the night. She loved to tell that story on us, laughing as she recounted how Nita and I would lean from the top bunk to talk to her and she would tell us to “shut up and go to sleep.”
I loved to hear her tell that story, as the telling was always tinged with so much love underneath the layer of mock frustration.
In recent years I have started to recognize and deeply appreciate the great gifts that certain strong women have been in my life, and Rosanne was certainly one of those strong women. When I think of all the challenges she overcame throughout her life, I stand in awe again. She endured losses that no parent should have to suffer and had so many physical challenges throughout the years, and yet she just kept on keeping on. Right until the end she was willing to fight one more battle before she finally said, “Okay it’s time.”
That iron will that gave her the strength to endure, to battle cancer, to endure even more physical and emotional pain was the same iron will that sometimes put us at odds. Often her kind heart was masked in a brusque manner that had her come across as harsh. But that was just her way. She didn’t suffer fools easily and she never held back an opinion. There were times she scared me off with her manner and her harsh words but her intent was never to wound. Something with just bubble up inside her and had to come out. But isn’t that the way all families operate? We don’t always agree. We have harsh words. We hurt each other, but we get over it.
I had a lot of getting over it through the years with Rosanne, and the rocky patches were as much my fault as hers. I am so glad that I was finally able to admit that to her and reconcile a long time ago. Now, looking back over our life and our relationship, I realize that in many ways she was a better sister then I ever was. She was the first one to say why can’t we just be sisters and not step-sisters. She was willing to forgive me for the hurts I had caused her and say let’s move on.
And so we did.
From that point on we were able to be closer as sisters, and her enthusiasm for my writing was very special to me. She always asked about what I was working on, read my books and came to celebrate with me when I won awards. A year ago this past April, she came to Austin for one of those events, and I was so honored that she made that effort. Knowing how much pain she was in with her back problems, I didn’t expect her to come, and I know the trip was not easy for her or for Wally. Still they came to support me, and I will always be grateful for that.
So as I say goodbye to my sister, not my step-sister, I will always treasure those good moments and let the not-so-good moments fade from my memory.