Lessons My Sister Taught Me

For Barbara J. Colyer, June 5, 1951 - July 20, 2019.

My sister Barb passed away on Saturday, and I still can't believe it. I keep waiting to wake up and discover that it was all a bad dream. But that hasn't happened yet. She is all that I can think of, and I spent much of the day on Sunday looking through my pictures, searching for photos of her. I took snapshots of several old photos so I would have them digitally, and here is one of my favorites.

I remember the day I took this picture. Barb had a new dress on and she looked so pretty in it. The raspberry color of the dress exactly matched some flowers in my Dad's yard, and so that's where I posed her. Pretty girl, with a glorious smile; pretty posies. It was a match!

I wanted to share some of the lessons my sister taught me. Here is a list, not in any particular order, that is in no ways exhaustive of those lessons. I imagine she still has a few lessons to teach me. On this day, I celebrate her and everything she taught me.

Family first and always.
There was nothing more important to Barb than her family. She would drop everything to come and help family at a moment's notice. She never complained about it; just did whatever she could. She babysat. She drove people to the airport. She showed up with zucchini bread. She didn't know how to say no.

Work hard.
My sister worked several jobs at a time for many of the years that I knew her. She worked for the State in Harrisburg. She sold real estate. She waitressed. She tended bar. We used to joke that Barb had tiger blood, because she always seemed to accomplish more in a 24-hour period than any regular person.

Take care of others, including other creatures.
My sister was a sucker for a hard-luck story. She was famous for adopting people and taking care of them. She befriended the elderly, children, the disabled. She volunteered as a Big Sister; in fact, I have always joked that Barb was Big Sister to the World, a soup kitchen for the whole world's soul. In more recent years, Barb became a full-on Crazy Cat Lady. She fed all kinds of cats near her properties in Harrisburg. She gifted me with Dexter, my beloved tabbycat who has appeared often on these pages. She also fed (and named) assorted opossums, skunks (Hello, Chanel No. 5!), and other critters who wandered by.

Invest in the successes of others, especially family.
Two of my older sisters - Barb and Pat - were class Valedictorians. I was one too. When I earned a full scholarship to Penn State, my sister Barb was one of my biggest supporters. She bragged about me to anyone who would listen. She saved the change she earned as tips from her waitressing jobs and gave the money to me. When there were overnight events required as part of the process of my getting into and attending Penn State, she was the one who came along and stayed with me. I would not be where I am today - or WHO I am today - without her influence.

Bring your party with you.
My sister knew how to light up a room with her 100-watt smile and her bright, sparkling self. If something fun was going on, Barb was surely in the midst of it. She made any social gathering better, just by showing up. Even if we only had five minutes, we would try to find some small, fun thing to fit into that time.

Take refuge in books and movies.
I like to say that we had TWO families of children: an older trio (Barb, Marilyn, Pat) and a younger trio (Robin, Julie, me). Barb lived in an apartment in Mifflintown near the library, and for the longest time, she took us (the younger set) there every weekend. We would all sign out as many library books as we could, and return them to get new ones the following week. She collected Dr. Seuss books. She read every Stephen King book available, and then loaned them all to me. When I made my first photo book, Barb was so pleased and proud, she got me a t-shirt that said, "Ask me about my book." I have given her copies of every single book I made since then, all 30-some; every one, actually, except the most recent one, a copy of which is currently sitting in my living room because I meant to give it to her last weekend, but she was not well and didn't show up at the family reunion. She took us kids to every Disney film ever released; we loved going to matinees with her on weekend afternoons.

Delight in silliness.
I have a gift for whimsy that I cultivate, but it didn't just develop all by itself. My sister Barb was a master of silliness. She drew cartoons on a white van that she drove for years and years. Snoopy was on the one side. When my brother pointed it out, my mom made her erase the naked lady being chased by Hagar the Horrible that she had drawn on the back.

Enjoy good food. Try new things; you just might like them.
My sister was an adventurous eater, much more so than I ever was. I remember her talking me into trying all kinds of things, some of which I liked, and some of which I didn't. Oysters, not so much. But at least I gave it a shot. I remember many fabulous meals we enjoyed together on our trips. We especially delighted in our Atlantic City lunches at The Irish Pub or Phillips on the Pier. (We took our leftovers to feed the boardwalk cats.)

Go new places and see new things.
My sister and I took many bus trips together. We went to the zoo in Washington, DC. We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. We traveled to Baltimore, and Annapolis, and Philadelphia, and Atlantic City (one of our very favorite spots, one we visited for most of the summers of the past 30 or so years). I learned to ride the train so I could come to Harrisburg to see her. I made it one of my life goals to learn to travel alone without fear, so that I could continue those adventures, even when I become an old woman.

Be generous with your time and with your resources.
My sister was always willing to give up her time to do things for and with other people. She happily gave generous gifts, and supported people's needs financially. She purchased tickets for a hot air balloon ride for herself and my husband and me; it was the only thing on my personal "bucket list" at the time, and turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life. She showed me how to give without expecting something in return.

Women can accomplish the same things in life than men can.
My sister Barb was what might have been called a "women's libber" back in the day. She owned her own vehicles. She had a career, several, really, all her life. She bought her own house. (And one day much later, I did too.) She never let being female keep her from accomplishing the goals she had set for herself in life.

If there are holidays you adore, celebrate them with wild abandon.
In a family with six children, Christmas was always a big deal at our house. Barb grew up and moved out on her own, but she always came back home for Christmas. Often, she would show up after we kids would go to bed. She would bring in lots and lots of gifts, and arrange them around the Christmas tree. She hardly complained at the fact that we little ones would get up in the middle of the night, with flashlights, to check and see if she was there. Oh, my joy at shining my flashlight into the living room, to find packages with shiny wrapping all around the tree, and my dear sister asleep on the couch. Sometimes, Barb and I would sort of move home for several days around Christmas, so we would have more time together. We'd celebrate Christmas eve at my Mom and Dad's house, and then "Julie eve" (Christmas night was the eve of Julie's birthday) at Julie's place. We'd leave the day after Christmas, laden down with gifts and all kinds of homemade food. Fudge, leftover chicken, pickled eggs. We were rich in all the things that mattered.

Go barefoot upon the earth and stick your feet in "the crick" at every opportunity.
We country girls are a breed of our own. I grew up running wild in the woods and waters of central Pennsylvania. One of the great delights of our life was wading in Lost Creek (aka "the crick"). I remember one time my sister stepped on a piece of glass and cut her foot, and how horrified I was that it made her bleed; she left a blood trail on the road all the way home. (After that episode, I made a practice that I keep to this day: before any wading episode, I check the water for, and remove, any broken glass.)

If you love somebody, LOOK at them like you love them.
I took this picture. Look at the smile she had for me. It was bright and beautiful and glorious. She made me feel like I was wonderful. She made me feel like I was special. She convinced me she just KNEW secretly that I was full of magic and amazing things. (I based the name of this photo blog on the title of a book she gave me when I was seven.) I don't think anyone in my whole life ever has, or ever will, love me as simply and unconditionally as she did. I am trying to learn to love like that; it may take me a lifetime to get as good at it as she was. But I am trying.

Thank you, Barb, for all of these and so many other lessons. We were more than sisters, and somehow even something more than friends. My soundtrack song is Andrew Gold, with Thank You For Being a Friend.

Also, here is a link to my sister's obituary. The photo is one I took, of course. Look at that beautiful smile!

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