I was born in my sister’s shadow. Sometimes I found safety in it– as if the cloak of popularity and likability that my sister wore would somehow also protect me. Other times, that shadow was cold and dark, as shadows tend to be.
It made sense that everyone in my small town adored her. Sure she was pretty and smart, but mostly she had a magnetic personality. When she was in the room, people were looking at her. And when she wasn’t in the room, people were looking for her.
I remember in elementary school, Teah got braces and glasses. She was a bit pudgy at the time. Ordinarily, the combination of those physical characteristics would mean popularity suicide. But not for Teah. Everyone wanted glasses and braces after she got them, including me. During my eye exam, I remember squinting to try to miss a few letters so that I could get glasses too. “If only I can make them think that I can’t see…” I thought.
Teah wasn’t just popular with other kids. Teachers adored her as well. I remember when she won the best all-around student award in either middle or high school – I can’t remember which one. What I do recall is that when I won that same award years later, Teah’s name was announced at the award’s ceremony instead of mine. “Yes, I know,” I thought. “They meant to say me.” Things like that happened often. People would say “Teah” when they meant “Tera.” It was like her shadow lingered, even when the sun had moved on. Although I came to expect others to mistake me for her, I was annoyed every time it happened. I longed to be like her but also craved my individuality, like when babies fight sleep and are desperate for it all at the same time.
As we grew up and she became more and more successful, Teah’s shadow grew bigger. The quintessential example of this was when she won the governorship of Girls state and eventually the presidency of Girls Nation. For those not familiar, Girls Nation is a civic training program run by the American Legion. When Teah became the president, she got to meet Bill Clinton, the famous surgeon Ben Carson and hip hop star Lauren Hill, among others. Her name was in the local paper and on every school marquis. “Congratulations, Teah!” they said. She was Sumter’s hometown hero. And I was the other Frederick girl.
Behind closed doors, my relationship with my sister was complicated. Our personalities are on opposite ends of the spectrum which in hindsight was the source of all our conflict. She was talkative and outgoing. She recharged by being with other people. On the other hand, I was more reserved, completely satisfied being alone and wholly irritated by all the conversation. We were roommates growing up, so you could imagine the arguments that would ensue, ignited by proximity and fanned by personality. My parents sensed the tension. My mom, through gritted teeth and a stern tone would say, “You will get along. Because your sister is all you have.” Like the scientist that I would become, I questioned that statement. It didn’t at all seem rooted in fact.
It took years after my sister graduated from high school for me to start liking her. It was like I needed the distance to appreciate her for who she really is, to really see her. This realization hit me when she was deployed to Afghanistan. She texted me a picture of herself wearing fatigues, carrying a very large weapon. I was in lecture in residency when the text popped up. My eyes began to sting with the realization that she could die. And in that moment, my mother’s words haunted me. She was the only sister I would ever have.
We’ve grown closer together as the years have passed. We’ve experienced marriages, cross-country moves and motherhood. We navigate the world from similar vantage points, as minority women in majority white male dominated fields. We commiserate about and celebrate our childhood and with every opportunity, we scrutinize how our upbringing impacts our own mothering. We talk nearly every day. Most times about something but sometimes about nothing.
I was born in my sister’s shadow, but to be 100% honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.