At times our mantra as children –“but, but … that’s not fair” sneaks up into our adult life. We believe fully in fairness. If we buy a package of six cupcakes, we know, although it is never spoken, that we each have three cupcakes to eat at our leisure. Neither of us would dare sneak a fourth.
We also have an affinity for 2nd hand everything. To own something new, something that hadn’t been worn by an older sibling or outdated by at least four years was so far beyond our realm of reality for most of our lives that we came to appreciate those things handed down to us. Even if it happened to be a bedazzled jean jacket that hadn’t been worn since 1987, it was ours. In 1992 it was new to us and we claimed it and wore it with pride.
But beyond the material things, our lives are structured by our birth order. It has a profound and lasting effect on our relationships and the path we chose.
Seven years my elder, Dana toted me around as if I was her own child. She used me as “the baby” when her friends played house and I was forever on someone’s hip, well passed the age I should have been. Often my legs dangled inches away from the ground, but I remained, content with my place on whoever's bony hip would have me.
Dana was very much an authoritative figure to me. She corrected me when I was bad, grounded me and washed my mouth out with soap. When I was 15 she moved out of the house and for the first time in my life, I had my own room. (It was only seven years before this I had my own bed and only six years before that I actually started sleeping in it.)
Even then, when I stepped over the line, Dana would drive the 15 miles from her new apartment to “chat” with me. And it always worked.
Even today I listen to Dana. Although I have gotten braver in my adulthood, I still obey – at the very least, until she is out of earshot. But she continues to be my guide. She continues to offer opinions with the issues I bring to her and I continue to listen.
Before I knew independence, my sisters were the only world I thought existed. I looked up to Dana and mimicked Shannon’s every move. Shannon was three years older than me and I knew she knew everything there was to know about the ways of the world. I followed her around, read her diary, listened to her phone conversations and drooled over fiction stories she wrote.
“Oh if I could only be 3 years older! How much I could accomplish,” I would think. “I would be going to that Boy George concert right now. It could be me!”
But it never was. I was always too young.
As a teenager and most of my twenties I was delusional in thinking I had broken away from this pattern - that I was my own independent woman. And in many cases this was and is true. I have a mind of my own, one that thinks outside the box. I have had experiences that are all my own and experiences that I can now share with my sisters, maybe teaching them a thing or two … but the syndrome never leaves you.
Shannon is currently a freelance journalist and the faculty advisor for The Montage, the St. Louis Community College – Meramec student newspaper. She began her career years before and with my ongoing fascination with photography, she invited me along on a white rafting trip as the “freelance photographer” for an article she was writing. I was 20 years old and it was my first real newspaper gig.
After the event ended, I drove as Shannon pulled out her laptop and began writing the article, dictating our experiences in written form. She would read me bouts, laughing at her own puns. I would roll my eyes for show, but thought they were hilarious as well.
It amazed me how easy it seemed to her - how four hours on the rapids could bring to life the creativity of an amazing story in a matter of minutes.
I saw a different side of my sister. I was proud when I saw her article in print, with her little sister’s photo to accompany it.
Today I am a journalist. It seems only fitting I would follow in Shannon’s footprints, making her shadow mine. I now seek to find the words to accompany the adventures I partake, to photograph the elements and produce an article that would make both of my sisters proud.
They have guided my on this path, unbeknownst to me. I will always be “Dana’s little sister,” and little did I know, I am still “Shannon’s Shadow.”