July. Simone is sitting in front of me, in a two-person kayak, floating down the Missouri River. The water is dimpled with sunlight, and the sky is so blue, it makes my heart ache — the moment is ephemeral, halcyon, too perfect. My younger nephew, Max, comes splashing over from the canoe where my middle sister is navigating around the little grassy islands that speckle the river, and as he pulls himself up onto the tail of our boat, causing the kayak to rock and sway, Simone braces herself and shouts at him to be careful.
I almost, but don’t, spill my beer.
“Hey, I put some snacks in the nose of the kayak, if you want to dig them out,” my sister calls from across the water. Simone gleefully passes back beef jerky and bananas, and I pivot us around a mossy rock, Max dripping chilly river water down my back as he reaches for his.
Leave it to Sarah to prep our boat with food and drinks for a summertime float in the wilds of Montana.
Today is my middle sister’s birthday, and I’ve been thinking about her since I woke up this morning.
I don’t see her as often as I do Karen, because visiting San Francisco means business meetings, time with friends, and trying out all of the latest food and cocktail hotspots. But every trip to be with Sarah and the family in Helena promises joy and fun in a very different way. My brother-in-law makes a killer Manhattan, my sister cooks like a pro (as do her boys), and there’s nothing better than the “music nights” they host at their house, where half the city’s musicians come for food and beer and an evening of noodling and improvisation, everyone singing and jamming and laughing and connecting.
Sarah and Bob have grown roots in Montana, and there’s something magical about what they’ve built there.
But maybe that’s because there’s something magical about my sister, too.
She and my brother-in-law moved to Helena just after their oldest son was born, and I don’t think even they had any idea that they’d still be there 16 years later, in a 100+-year-old home that they’ve made their own over time, slowly and carefully improving it. I’ll bet they never thought they’d become a nexus in the community, that they’d form a popular local band (or two), or watch their boys grow up so big and charming and at ease in their city (and anywhere else in the world).
When we walk through downtown Helena with Sarah, people cross the street to say hi to her and catch up. Go to a restaurant, and the owner will come to the table to greet the family. Start feeding wood into the outdoor pizza oven they built, and watch as neighbors just happen to stop by to chat.
Sarah is only a couple years younger than I am, which made us best friends when we were little—always creating new worlds in the backyard, fighting over Monopoly, or laughing at the same movies together. Things were more strained as teenagers, both of us building our identities and finding plenty of conflict, but never forgetting how much we loved each other. I was the big brother who gave her boyfriends a hard time but also held her hair back after a drunken house party. She was the little sister who always had cash on hand and would buy us lunch at the pizza place off campus if I agreed to drive.
More than anyone else in the world, Sarah knows how to push my buttons, and I hers — a single word, a facial expression, or just the right kind of eye contact can set one of us off in a fit of pique. It’s hilarious and terrible. And we’re both as mindful of it as we are helpless at times to resist falling into the old patterns. I’m the big brother, so I know very well how to annoy my little sister—and even at this age, I’ll do it on purpose almost as often as I’ll do it by accident.
But Sarah is the one person who would jump in the car and be at my house in 10 hours if I needed her—and the only person I’d even ask (not that I’d have to). She would create order out of chaos, manage communications, and make sure everything was in place, all while filling the fridge with home-cooked meals and reorganizing the silverware drawer. She’s the rock in the family, the unflappable steadying force who nurtures us by making sure we’re never hungry or lacking in warm blankets (Montana gets COLD).
My sister is a force of nature.
So on this day, her birthday, I’m sending my middle sister love and hugs, my admiration and gratitude, and some sort of patronizing remark (I’ll have it ready by the time I call you tonight).
Happy, happy birthday, Sarah! I love you.