Sisterhood in Middlehood: The Questions

People change, but sisters will always be sisters.

“We have a list of questions,” my sister Laura said as we all sat down at a burger place just off Times Square. The Ketteler girls were in New York City for the weekend. It was the first time we had ever taken a trip together, just the four of us. I flew in a day earlier to attend a conference and had just met up with them that evening.

“Questions?” I asked.

“Laura and I came up with them while waiting for our flight this morning,” Nancy said, giddy.

It seemed like a fun sisters game. Still, I wondered how long until The Weird Thing Now Between Us would come up.

The Ketteler sisters

Illustration by Julia Yellow

“First question,” Laura said, holding a piece of paper torn from a memo pad, “Who are you currently obsessed with, like a celebrity person?” We went around the table, with Laura starting. She told about her growing obsession with style bloggers, particularly a pixie-haired girl who shows you how to put on makeup. Laura herself is an adorable 52-year-old pixie, so it made sense.

It was Nancy’s turn. She’s not into pixies. “Randolph Mantooth,” she said, dumping ketchup onto her fries.

“Wait, Johnny Gage from Emergency!?” Laura asked.

“Yes, but don’t judge. He has a blog, and he’s kind of deep.”

My answer was Curtis Sittenfeld. “She’s my age, she’s from Cincinnati, she’s an amazing writer, and I want her career,” I said.

It was Claire’s turn. “You won’t like my answer,” she said.

I already knew exactly what she was going to say. Collectively, my three older sisters and I have lived through a lot of shit: divorce and near-divorce, infidelity and near-infidelity, job losses and career reinventions, car accidents and scary health issues, the birth of children and the death of a brother and a father.

The one thing I never thought we’d deal with was evangelical Christianity—otherwise known as The Weird Thing Now Between Us.

“Jesus,” Claire said, in that wonderful, matter-of-fact way that has always defined her. That Jesus was her current obsession was matter-of-fact for her, but a mystery to us.

Nancy’s eye was twitching; Laura had her beer glued at her mouth. “Yeah, he was cool,” I said, always the diffuser of tense situations.

“You think so?” Claire’s voice was hopeful.

“Of course. He was a total rebel and spoke out for people who needed it.” But he was just a man, I added in my head. And if he were alive today, he’d be leading an NGO and fighting discrimination, not hanging out with the Evangelicals.

The topic was changed. We were on to more questions. We talked endlessly about husbands (we’re all married) and children (we all have them, but theirs are mostly grown and mine are mostly little).

After the questions, we spent the night walking around Times Square, sisters in a strange land, but we were together. Like always. Even though we haven’t really all been together since 1983.

Laura, Nancy, and I live in the Cincinnati area and always have. Nancy lives in Ft. Wright, where we grew up. She made it across the creek to the next street over from our childhood home. Laura lives in Ft. Thomas. She made it across the Licking River. I live in Madeira. I actually made it across the Ohio River.

But Claire clearly wins, making it across numerous creeks, rivers, and states. She lives in rural New Hampshire—but she’s also lived in Northern Michigan and Minnesota and spent weeks at a time in places like Alaska and the Canadian Rockies.

I’m the youngest of seven siblings, and 11 years separate Claire and me. My conscious memories of her living at home are a little like Swiss cheese—solid in theory, but with a lot of holes. Mostly, I remember that before she left she was the leader of the sister pack. She organized outings, made us practice our Christmas morning routine a few days prior (she always played Santa), and crafted Barbie furniture for me from random cardboard boxes. She always seemed to know more than us, whether it was how insects had sex or which kind of leg lifts toned your butt the best.

She and Laura are only 15 months apart, and by the time they could both drive, they were tangling over the car and pretty much over each other. Nancy and Tony were the next two in line, and they formed their own little subgroup. I was probably in the backyard twirling and staring at clouds.

(I haven’t even mentioned the two oldest kids—my brothers Herb and Paul—because they are A Whole Other Story, and Paul is no longer with us.)

But Claire. She couldn’t stay in this Catholic, landlocked patch of country, sharing a room with her sister and a house with eight other people. I get it now. At 9 years old, though, it seemed so wrong to me. Why would someone leave? I promised to write her letters often, and I did. She always wrote me back. She told me about being a park ranger at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, where she had a seasonal appointment. We took a family vacation to visit her there, and I got to tag along when she led one of those interpretive hikes, wearing her green National Park Service uniform. She still knew more than any of us.

Being a full-time National Park Service ranger didn’t work out, since getting a secure NPS job is something akin to getting into the NFL. So Claire became a nurse. As an adult, I visited her numerous times. I met her in Bar Harbor for her first marathon and just outside of Boston for her first ultra-marathon (50 miles). She flew to Scotland to join me when I took our parents there one spring, and she taught me how to ski in New Hampshire one winter.

We were pen pals and sometime travel companions. And then, about five years ago, Jesus joined the party.

The events of her life that led to her becoming “born again” are her story to tell, not mine, but the admonition to accept Jesus Christ as my savior or else was the last thing I ever expected to hear from the mouth of my ultra-liberal, tree-hugging, agnostic sister, who used to don a National Park Service hat and talk about pollution. I was done with religion about five minutes after I graduated from high school, but I’ve always been a live-and-let-live kind of gal. If this born-again business made Claire happy (which she deserved, after some pretty tough years), then I was happy for her.

Until the night of our father’s funeral, when she told us we wouldn’t all be in heaven together if we didn’t accept Jesus as our savior. She said it from a place of sincere concern, not spite. Still, I was deeply saddened, and if I’m being honest, not so happy for her. The best course of action then, and for the next several years, was to change the topic.

That’s easier to do when 2,000 miles separate you. A bit harder when you’re on a tiny island in a tiny hotel room. But there we were.

The next day in New York City, we stayed busy with more sightseeing, a trip to Mood Fabrics, and shoe shopping. But when we sat down to dinner, it was time again for the questions. “My turn,” I said, already slightly tipsy after a glass of wine. I was determined to keep it fun, and nothing is more fun than a sex question with a round of drinks. “If you could find the perfect woman, and you knew you could trust her, would you have a threesome with her and your husband?”

Three of us giggled. One did not.

“The Bible says one man and one woman,” Claire said sternly.

This time around, after two full days of tightly packed togetherness in an already sardine-packed city, it was clear the topic was not going to change. A sea of squelched impulses burst forth, with all of us talking at once:

The Bible was written by people!

The Bible was written by God!

Are you fucking kidding? It’s been manipulated over and over again for political ends!

I have been baptized, and it is the word of God.

How could you suddenly become a Jesus freak?

Maybe it’s who I always was.

It’s never who you were! How could you believe this shit?

How could you not?

A wave of anxiety and nausea came over me. We’d already lost a brother we never understood. We couldn’t lose a sister now. “Girls, we’re just not going to agree,” I said pleadingly. And because I am the baby sister and they love me, they stopped.

At first, Claire looked at us with the blue-green Ketteler fire in her eyes. Then she softened, back into her sweet, matter-of-fact self. “It’s just that, if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior, you won’t go to heaven. You’ll go to hell. And we can’t be together.”

She said it the way a car salesperson might explain gap insurance to a bad credit risk. If you don’t have it, well, you might find yourself upside-down, and we don’t want that. There was nothing malicious about her. It was the same Claire who taught us how to wrap presents and led us on nature hikes through the woods, yet not the same at all. An institution more powerful than sisterhood had her, and it wasn’t letting go.

It’s not that I definitely believe in heaven. It’s that I might. And if I do, there would be no point to any of it without my sisters. Claire was probably never coming back to Cincinnati to live. I could accept separation in this life. But now we were going to carry it over into the next life? Why would anyone believe in a system that separated sisters for all eternity? Brothers maybe, because they smoke smelly cigars and fart when you pull their finger. But sisters? That’s messed up.

I didn’t have the right response that night in New York—I still don’t—and just said something along the lines of, “I appreciate that you believe that, but I don’t.” She gave her it’s-true-and-I-know-it shrug, and we all ordered another round of drinks.

We didn’t bring up religion again that night. We talked about everything else, and we laughed and were silly and asked more sex questions (careful to stick to ones involving one man and one woman). So many times, Claire seemed exactly who she always was. In her mind, she’s probably not that woman anymore at all. She’s been born again, and from what I understand, that means rejecting who you were before.

But I still know that girl, and I’m not letting her go. Not across a river or 12 state lines. Definitely not for what I consider some ancient storybook or the fear of hell’s fiery gates.

So there it stays. The Weird Thing Now Between Us. We can censor our conversations and reach for the threads that are still there, binding us. And we will, if it’s between that or an eternal argument about eternity.

But I can’t deny my grief knowing that our answers to the question “Who is your savior?” are vastly different. Claire would say, “Jesus,” and the three remaining Ketteler girls would undoubtedly say, “Each other.”

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