We were living in Mubi, in the British Cameroons which was, at the time, administered as a United Nations Trust Territory. In a few short months, a plebiscite would decide the country’s fate, and it would be split in two, the northern part to join with Nigeria (where it’s now a hotbed for Boko Haram activity), and the southern part to join with the recently independent country of Cameroon.
At the age of six and a half, I was living a carefree life. Although I’d started school the previous year, when we were on leave in England, there were no schools near Mubi, and only one other playmate anywhere near my age. So apart from my mother’s occasional unenthusiastic forays into what would now be called ‘home schooling,’ I was pretty much a free-range child.
My friend Vincent (who was Dutch) and I were inseparable. We played together every day. We looked after the never-ending string of injured, orphaned and homeless creatures that somehow kept appearing on the doorstep (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose). We cadged food and treats from the cook. We dug a hole, intending to get to China (I think we got about three feet down, which we considered a quite a feat).
And in the family, I was the center of attention. The only child. The favored one. The which than which there was no whicher.
Suddenly, on Friday the Thirteenth, of January, 1961, everything changed.
Early that morning I was shuffled off to Vincent’s house, just as the doctor and the midwife showed up at ours. I wasn’t sure exactly what a midwife was, but I’d been told she that she was somehow complicit in this plot to produce the ‘baby brother or sister’ that I’d been promised, or perhaps threatened with. Truth be told, I was quite nervous about the whole thing.
Then, a few hours later, when I was taken home again, there she was, resting on the midwife’s ample bosom. A wrinkled, tomato-colored, squalling little person who, I was told, was my new sister. One who would immediately became the center of attention, would hog all the limelight, and would keep everyone awake at night.
I took one look at her and started screaming too.
Our early years together were ones of adjustment, for me at least. Although our little family was close, we were not best friends, and we didn’t always play well together. Some of that was due to the age gap between us, more of it was due to the fact that we grew up as completely different personalities, with completely different interests. As we continued to move around, to Kano for a year, back to England for a bit, to Boston, and then to a suburb of Pittsburgh, Sis and I continued to grow, each in our own way, with the addition of my brother to round out the group in 1968. Along the way, I spent a couple of years at boarding school in England, Dad settled in as a professor at Duquesne University, and my sister worked her way through the high-school business curriculum, graduating in 1978 with a business acumen like no other I’ve ever seen.
When she and my brother, and Mum and Dad, moved back to England in the summer of that year, she took a job as a (slightly underage) barmaid, then moved on to a successful run as a secretary at a place that sold high-class bathroom fixtures, a trainer at a PC dealership (owned by a neighbor who recognized her abilities and gave her what turned out to be her big career break), and an end-user support representative at a large computer company. Along the way, she had the good fortune and sense to meet and fall in love with one of the best network engineers and computer technicians in all of England.
For twenty years he and she ran their own company, a soup-to-nuts small computer dealership, with the two of them providing consulting services, my brother-in law doing the hardware and technical end of things, and my sister doing the software support and training. As anyone who knew the two of them might expect, they were immensely successful.
Several years ago, they retired to the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland. Think ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie,’ Jamie Fraser, etc. Men in Kilts! (I’ve always loved men in uniform. Since I consider a kilt just another sort of uniform . . .)
Meanwhile, still in the States, I did my own thing. I fell into the computer business in my own way, did quite well at it, got married, and moved to the country. For quite a few years, Sis and I didn’t have much contact, neither of us being avid letter writers, and telephone service between the two countries still being quite expensive.
Gradually, that changed, and we got back in touch. Technology helped with that, as did some ups and downs in the airline industry that sometimes resulted in reasonably priced tickets and flights between the US and the UK. Although Sis and her husband have only visited the States once, we’ve met a couple of times in Canada for sentimental holidays in Prince Edward Island (a vacation spot for us in the 1970s), and I’ve been to England several times.
Oddly, as we learned more about each other, we found out that, contrary to what we always thought, we really were quite similar after all. Our hobbies and interests had somehow converged—knitting, sewing, gardening, cooking. Our careers—computers—paralleled each other in strange ways. And we discovered that our approach to life and solving its problems were virtually identical. To summarize how that works: Bull–meet china shop.
We blame Dad for that.
Over the past fifteen years, as we’ve lived through the illnesses and deaths of our parents, selling the family home, my brother’s near-fatal motorcycle crash, serious health scares on all sides, and the usual calamities and vicissitudes that beset every family, we’ve grown closer. We talk a couple of times a week (it’s very cheap now). We email daily, exchanging photos and videos often. And we bless the technology that, far from insulating us from each other (as many people complain), allows us to stay in touch so easily.
And somehow that age gap, which loomed so large when we were one and eight, or six and thirteen, or nine and sixteen, doesn’t seem so great any more. We’re both getting a little creaky. We’ve both got the early stages of arthritis (thanks, Mum). We both struggle the fact that we’re not as young as we once were, and we hope that like Dad, we’re still holding up the side when we’re well into our eighties.
And we’ve reached the point where we’re the only living people who remember what it was like to live in our family when we were both young children. No one else was there. No one else remembers. We’ve discovered that that’s a very special bond, and that perhaps there’s no other quite like it.
In short, we’re a long way from our rather unpropitious beginning together.
So, Sis, here’s to you, to us, and to sisters everywhere. Happy Birthday, and many more.