Remembering My Sister

By Jaimie Seaton 10/10/16

Until recently I wouldn’t allow myself to think of that Sunday in D.C. because it felt wrong to embrace a memory of an activity that caused my sister’s death.

Woman with blondish hair standing with back to camera.

If I close my eyes and think of my big sister Beverly, a kaleidoscope of images swirl in my brain. It is 1976 and Beverly is 16, in a yellow string bikini on our father’s boat in the Bahamas. She is wearing a huge straw hat and sunglasses. She looks like a typical happy-go-lucky teenager. But the image in my mind shows a troubled girl, gritting her teeth through a summer vacation with a father she detested.

I see Beverly in her basement room, beads hanging in the doorway and David Bowie blasting from the turntable. Posters of black velvet and neon hang on the walls.

Beverly is shouting at me, rage pouring out of her and directed at me: the younger sister who tries to be perfect, the younger sister who disapproves of her hippie, rebellious older sister. She is 17 and I am 12, and we grab and claw at each other until someone’s shirt is torn and we both retreat in tears.

We are older, both college graduates, and I am living with Beverly in her apartment in Washington, D.C. for the summer. I left home in a rage. Boarded an Amtrak train south from Vermont to my sister’s waiting arms. I am on the phone with a collection agency trying to explain why I can’t repay my student loans. Beverly sits next to me offering moral support. She has already told me what to say, and reminds me to write everything down. She tells me to take notes during every business conversation.

The kaleidoscope of memories of Beverly are always there, turning, changing order, some coming into sharp focus and others fading into relief. There is one, however, that stands out among them, and it is the one I have struggled with since Beverly’s death from alcoholism 13 years ago, at the age of 42.

It was our summer together in D.C., in the third-floor walk-up she shared with her boyfriend, Brooks, a black man she met at George Washington University, of whom our grandparents disapprove. A man who comes from a solid, good family—the kind of family my sisters and I wish we had been born into. The three of us live there, in the sticky heat, with a cat and an upright piano, numerous plants hanging on for dear life, and Bev’s espresso pot on the stove that adds to my belief that my big sister is the most sophisticated and exotic creature in the world.

Our younger sister Laura has come to visit, and on a Sunday that dawns even hotter than most, Bev and I offer to walk down to Eastern Market to pick up some food. It is after noon and we are all hungry. We make our way down the street, and just before the market there is a bar. Beverly looks at me and asks if I want to stop in for one drink. I immediately nod my head yes.

It is dark and dingy and the kind of place I usually disdain, but there is something charming about it on this sultry Sunday. Bev and I sit at the bar and order glasses of wine. We smoke cigarettes. We talk, we laugh, and we order more wine. Time stands still and rushes past, and we sit at the bar until the sun has moved across the street.

We finally emerge in the early evening and make our way home. Stumbling and laughing we enter the flat, where Brooks and Laura are waiting with angry faces and questions about the food. Bev and I laugh. We forgot the shopping. Exasperated, they tell us that we’ll go out to eat, and we all pile into Bev’s tiny Subaru for the drive to Georgetown.

At the restaurant, Bev and I order more drinks and eagerly ask for bread. We haven’t eaten all day. The drinks arrive, the bread barely gets put on the table before we devour it. With that, we look at each other, declare we are full, and break out in hysterics.

For a long time that was a favorite family story: the time Bev and Jaimie went out for food and got hammered. The time little Laura had to scold her two elder sisters for unforgivable selfishness and irresponsibility. It was all a good laugh.

Until it wasn’t. Until Beverly was living in California and depression enveloped her, until Brooks couldn’t watch the woman he loved destroy herself and left, until Beverly drifted between jobs, and called at all hours mumbling incoherently and cursing. Until Laura had to explain to me that Beverly was an alcoholic. 

And then there was AA, and a move to Santa Monica, and a visit to a sober Beverly who shook as she lit her cigarettes and cried to me that getting sober was supposed to make her life better, and all it did was force her to feel her pain. I traveled from the Netherlands to see her, and she barely spoke to me. I was angry, I was disappointed, and I didn’t understand her disease. By the time I left we were barely on speaking terms.

That’s the last time I saw my big sister.

Years and miles separated us. I moved to South Africa where I ended up marrying and starting a family.

In California, Beverly met a man in AA, and they married and fell off the wagon together. They moved to Las Vegas and drank and worked and tried to eke out an existence. They divorced and Bev went to rehab—twice—but she couldn’t do it. She died in her apartment after a three-day drinking binge. She weighed 75 pounds. It was the summer of 2002, and I was pregnant with my second child.

At 51, I’m a decade older than Beverly ever got to be. I think of that on every birthday. I think of a lot of things, but until recently I wouldn’t allow myself to think of that Sunday in D.C. It felt wrong to embrace a memory of an activity that caused my sister’s death. How could I celebrate something that was so harmful? I’d push the memory out of my mind.

Then this past summer Laura came to visit me, and that long ago Sunday drifted into our conversation. We talked about it and we chuckled, and for the first time in 13 years it felt okay. I allowed myself to picture the bar, and the look on Beverly’s face, and the restaurant where we ate the bread and laughed until we could barely breathe.

For years I tried to varnish Beverly’s memory. It seemed disrespectful to remember the fights or the mean things she said to me, the times she let me down, and the times we got drunk together. Perhaps age has given me new perspective, but I now see that the best way to honor Beverly is to remember both the lovely and the ugly bits, because they’re all part of her, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. I like to think of her up in heaven giggling along with me, maybe leaning in the way she would and whispering something, or flinging her head back and laughing in that low, deep laugh she had.

So I remember it, and I remember this, too. No matter what else she was, Beverly was my big sister. She could get mad at me, but God help the person who came after me. She was my teacher. When I turned my nose up at Aaron Copland, she made me listen to his music, and explained what made it genius, until I was enraptured. To this day I can’t hear a Copland piece without thinking of her. Bev taught me how to drive a stick shift, how to write a resume, how to negotiate, and how to make espresso.

I wish she hadn’t inherited the terrible disease that also claimed our mother. I wish Beverly were here to be the wild and wonderful aunt I know she would be. I wish she could have taught her niece how to drive a stick. I wish she could hear her nephew sing. I wish she could see that I learned her lessons well, that I remember to take notes on business calls, and that I can be a tough negotiator.

As I settle into middle age, I will remember everything. My children know that their aunt died from alcoholism, they know they might have the gene. They also know that Beverly was a gifted musician who had a sublime touch on the piano.

This past summer, over dinner with their Aunt Laura, they learned, too, about a wild day when their strict mother got drunk with her big sister and forgot to buy the groceries.

And we all laughed.

*The names Brooks and Laura are pseudonyms to protect privacy.

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