When I was 17, my friends and I spent countless Friday nights milling about the large wooden island in my parents’ kitchen and debating the merits of going to Friendly’s, a local ice cream shop, versus going bowling. More often than not, we’d get sidetracked—talking about English class, track practice or wondering about our future—and spend a not-altogether-unpleasant evening draped over the wooden kitchen chairs and drinking strawberry-chocolate milk. We felt so close to adulthood, a state of being we both yearned for and scorned.
As we talked, my younger sister, Elizabeth, then 11, would wander in and out of the room, listening and observing more than I knew, and occasionally piping up if the conversation turned to important matters like “The Brady Bunch.” One day, she made a comment that was unusually insightful for someone her age, causing one of my friends to look at her with surprise. “Wait, aren’t you, like, 6?” The ultimate insult to an 11-year-old.
And although I was more certain about Elizabeth’s age, I continued to treat her like a little sister. This meant, of course, that I loved her dearly, admired her intelligence and work ethic and tried to set a good example through my own actions. Of course, this also meant some teasing and testing the limits of her gullibility. (Luckily, she no longer can be convinced that tie-dyed T-shirts turn one’s skin different colors.) Once, when she was a toddler, someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She replied: “Kerry.” I took that as a sign I was doing my job.
But in high school I sometimes forgot, as teenagers tend to do, that there was a world outside of high school. And as my family drove me to cross country practice or calculus projects or community service, it sometimes escaped me that at the same time, Elizabeth was building a life of her own, despite being dragged along in the minivan through so much of mine.
As the youngest Weber sibling, Elizabeth has been dubbed the perennial baby of the family, no matter her age. So, even as I watched her grow and succeed, as a varsity softball pitcher and high-school valedictorian, then as a summa cum laude college graduate, I sometimes had to stop myself from thinking, “Wait, isn’t she, like, 6?” Not because I was surprised by her abilities or intelligence but because time, it seemed, had passed so quickly.
As we grew up, we shared the Sunday comics and occasionally the backseat of a van on a family trip, but we also started to share more details of our lives. We comforted each other, laughed with each other, fought with each other. But as time passed, our age gap seemed to shrink, and my world-view widened. Somewhere along the line, I began learning from her, too. We became friends.
Years later, my high-school friends and I still gather in my parents’ kitchen during holiday reunions. These days, however, we are actual adults, though the kind we like to think our 17-year-old selves would have approved of. Our discussions still speculate about our futures, which now include children, spouses and graduate school. My sister continues to come in and out of the room, but when she offers insight well beyond her age, no one is surprised.
She can still volunteer helpful bits of classic TV trivia, but she can also reflect on Immanuel Kant and Thomas Aquinas as she pursues an advanced degree in philosophy—or discuss invitations and china patterns as she prepares for her wedding next year. As she decides on a career path, she acknowledges that her original plan, to be me, might not pan out. But really, that’s for the best, because as my mother can attest, one of me is certainly enough. Instead, Elizabeth succeeds every day in becoming beautifully, wonderfully herself.