- By Judy Nelson
Growing up, I never heard my family use the term “half” sister. Oh, I knew that was my official status. My father’s first wife died after 20 years of marriage, leaving him with five children to raise alone. Two years later, he married my mom and became a father for the sixth time with my birth.
My youngest brother was 13 and the oldest was 24 when I was born. So instead, I heard the adjective “baby” sister or “kid” to describe me — as in, “Keep that kid quiet…I’m trying to study!”
Even though they all adored me and used no actual words to distinguish my unique status, I often felt some intangible isolation — never fully a part of their family discussions. I longed to become a “full” sister — even a full baby sister.
Thoughts about whole- or half-sibling status faded as I grew into adulthood. They did return at times, albeit infrequently. I felt particularly saddened when my oldest half-brother (and hero) didn’t fly 3,000 miles to attend my first wedding. In his defense, Howard was grown and on his way to the beach landing at Normandy when I was born, so he wasn’t home with me very long and we were total strangers.
Years later, I moved to within an hour’s drive of Howard’s home. With time, a close, loving relationship developed. However, my status was always present in the back of my mind. I referred to him as my brother and once, one of his family members innocently said, “He’s not your brother — he’s your half-brother!”
The funeral for our 76-year-old sister, Grace, had just ended. I had delivered the eulogy. As I rode in the black limousine following the hearse to the cemetery, I found myself smiling through my tears.
Grace was a year Howard’s junior and his best friend. When their mother died, Grace assumed the role of chief nurturer and head of the household. Our dad was older and ill much of the time. When she completed law school, she joined him in his law practice and ran that, too. It must have been hard for Grace to accept a stepmother only nine years older than herself, but she lived up to her name in every way.
“Amazing Grace,” I had announced from the pulpit, and all 200 of the mourners in the pews seemed to nod enthusiastically. It was easy to place that label on this tall, lanky lady whose body was stretched out in the golden brown casket in front of the altar. Her accomplishments were well known, as were her tragedies and successful efforts to overcome them.
Instead of listing her accomplishments and victories, I spoke about a Christmas Eve almost 50 years earlier in which Grace had stolen the show. I was a budding director at the age of five or six and had decided to stage an elaborate production of the Christmas story to entertain the entire family — about 25 to 30 people. I had cast Grace’s embarrassed new husband as Joseph, and the role of Mary I saved for Grace. My mother, the only musician in the family, served as organist and provided the food.
Grace’s costume was a brightly colored afghan draped over her head, and her charge was my favorite baby doll swaddled in a towel and placed in her willing arms. As Grace knelt next to Joseph, I heard her knees crack, but she just winked.
I was directing from the “wings,” otherwise known as the hall closet. On cue and as rehearsed, my mother began playing Away in a Manger, which was to be the prelude. On the second verse, the audience was to join in.
Suddenly, I heard a sound that was not in the script. It was a peculiar sound, as if someone were in pain. I checked out the audience and then realized that the sound was coming from Grace. She was singing. Solo. At first softly…and then very, very loudly.
Finding A Voice
We all knew that Grace was talented in everything she ever did. We also knew that she loved music; the radio or record player was always on at her house. But since she chose to “sing” rarely and then only with a few trusted souls, few knew that Grace was totally and completely tone deaf. She “couldn’t sing a note in a bucket,” as one of our brothers liked to say. Yet, here she was, soloing in front of the entire clan.
The audience was shocked, then amused, and then nearly hysterical. They were embarrassed for her but wanted to help, so they all joined her. That inspired the soloist to sing even louder.
When it was over, there was silence. Grace glanced at me, winked again, turned to Joseph and said, “Oh, Joseph, dear, isn’t it exciting to have a new baby in this cold and dusty manger? Do you think that the Wise Men would like a sandwich?”
The mourners in the church both laughed and cried out loud as I told this story on my big sister. I finished by speaking to her only daughter, my niece, in the front row. I told her how much Grace had looked forward to her homecoming and the joy on her face as she held that tiny baby in her arms. In conclusion, I said something to her grandchildren about their very special grandmother. Then I walked past the coffin to my seat, pausing to touch it gently as if to reach inside and connect with her one last time. From the back of the church, a guitarist was softly playing, Amazing Grace.
“I didn’t know you could talk!” my oldest brother, Howard, said with a tender smile as he hugged me.
As the hearse and the limousine pulled into the cemetery, I knew why I was smiling.
My sister had just given me the gift of a lifetime. By her final designation of me to give the eulogy, the only eulogy, she had officially promoted me from half-sibling to whole sister — in front of God and everybody.
That wasn’t all. Although she had never heard me speak publicly, Grace enabled me to sing my song — to solo for the first time — in front of my entire family and hometown. Full sister and full, competent grownup at the ripe old age of 53.
Amazing Grace, indeed!