Thanks, big sister, for boosts I needed

There are four kids in my family. I’m the third child and the middle daughter, which means I have the unique privilege of having both a younger and older sister.

A younger sister makes you feel protective, irritable, admired. An older sister can get a little more complicated. Especially when the younger sister is me.

Growing up, I looked up to Xochitl. But to tell her that, or God forbid show her, would have broken the code. A code built not on celebrating each other’s existence, but tolerating it.

Hallmark loves to portray an image of sisters that makes consumers think their hands never separate. It’s nothing but daisies, hair-brushing, Easter dresses and, yes, more hand-holding.

The TV shows we grew up on only furthered the facade. “Fights” between Mallory and Jennifer Keaton, Denise and Vanessa Huxtable or D.J. and Stephanie Tanner resulted in a lot of stomping feet, rolling eyes and “I’m telling!”

Contrast that with the way Xochitl and I fought and you have word grenades, fists full of hair and impromptu wrestling matches.

We loved each other, no doubt, but we’d rather do each other’s chores for a month than say it.

You hear a lot about sibling rivalry, about kids who compete for their parents’ attention with sharp claws and sharper tongues. This wasn’t that. This, my adult sensibilities now recognize, was more about a deficit of verbal affection.

Our house brimmed with laughter, but not compliments. We didn’t know how to express those things, so we didn’t. Until one summer day in 1989, when my big sister did a very big-sister thing.

We were in the kitchen, talking across the counter, the way grown women have heart-to-hearts in Lifetime movies. Junior high was weeks away and I was a ball of nerves. The thought of going to school with boys rumored to have muscles and mustaches made me feel like tripping over shoelaces I forgot to tie and pushing up glasses I didn’t own.

Not to worry, Xochitl, 3½ years my senior, assured me. I was “pretty” and “cool.” Boys would crush on me and girls would befriend me. They should be nervous about me, not vice versa.

The only thing that superseded my sister’s opinion about music, fashion and Arsenio Hall’s next guest was her opinion of me, which as it turned out, directly impacted my opinion of me.

Until that moment, I didn’t know if I was ugly or pretty, but like many young girls, I leaned toward ugly. Everything I did in the days following Xochitl’s pep talk, I did feeling pretty. For a 12-year-old girl to have that kind of confidence is immeasurable in value and incomparable in effect. And Xochitl gave that to me.

What a beautiful thing for a 16-year-old girl to do, but considering the nature of our relationship, it was also a very brave thing to do.

In an ideal world, that gesture would have unlocked a chest full of kind words and praise that would have us holding hands and skipping all the way to adulthood, just the way Hallmark intended.

But my stubborn, insecure ways made reciprocating warmth near impossible.

Fast-forward to Xochitl’s early adult years, and you have a lost young woman who meandered down a scary, dark road. But she picked herself up, found a detour and, as my mom puts it, went to her destiny. She’s now a successful businesswoman, a company shareholder.

Xochitl turned 40 on Saturday, threw a big party, all that. I wanted to give her something special, but that usually means dollar signs.

To celebrate the milestone birthday, I interviewed her family, friends and co-workers and wrote a 7,000-word piece on the story of her life. You could say it was my “Drummer Boy” token. When you’re broke, you give time. You give what you hope will be received as talent.

Here’s the thing. I’m a writer because of my big sister. Just like I picked up her big bangs, her distaste of hair bands, her key-chain earring a la Janet Jackson, I picked up what was her interest first.

She used to write plays and have us kids and our cousins act them out. As a teen, she wrote poems.

It was her thing. And then it was mine, too.

I’m very thankful for Aug. 3, 1973. For someone who made me “me” simply through hand-me-downs. For the person who instills confidence in me to this day. For the big sister who did the big thing, even when her younger sister was too little to return the favor.

Contact Xazmin Garza at xgarza@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.

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