Stella was relieved the kids were back in school. Usually, she enjoyed their bantering and noises, but today was already making her nervous. It had been several years since her sister had been home, and now she was back for a visit. She was coming for dinner and bringing her new husband with her.
Growing up Stella had always felt like she existed in Gracie’s shadow. Gracie was the one that had allergies requiring her parents’ attention, and she seemed to revel in the glory her broken leg had earned her. Gracie commanded attention everywhere she went—somehow everything always seemed to be about her. Whenever they had been together in school, if there was a lull in the conversation or the attention was turning away from her, Gracie would bring up the silly thing Stella had said at breakfast. Everyone would laugh with Gracie, and Stella would withdraw into herself.
Stella kneaded the bread dough in front of her and thought about her childhood. It’s from her mom that she learned her love of growing and preparing foods. It was one of the few times she had her mother to herself. They would weed the garden and talk about her mother’s childhood and family. They would bake cookies and talk about how her mother learned to make cookies when she was a little girl. Those times were especially important to Stella because it made her feel part of a larger family, somehow connecting her to all the generations of mothers and daughters.
Stella had been fine with being the second daughter. Always quiet and studious, she preferred to be in the background. Yet, there were times she longed to be babied like her older sister. “You’re strong Stella, and Gracie needs me. You understand,” her mother would whisper in the darkness. Then she would turn and go back to Gracie’s bedroom to listen to her fears and try to vanquish them. Stella did understand, yet she sometimes wished she weren’t so strong. She wished that she needed her mother’s attention too, but it wasn’t in her nature to let her fears be known.
Gracie graduated from high school and married her sweetheart. She worked in the local gas station and chomped at the bit to get away from the small town. She thought about taking a class at the community college, but it never seemed to be the right time. Finally, she left without warning—her husband, her town, her life. She was off to find some place that was big enough to meet her needs. She needed a place that could give her the constant audience she wanted.
Stella was in college when Gracie left town. It was there that Stella learned she really was strong and independent. She learned how much she appreciated the small community she had grown up in. After graduating, she returned home to the small town and began teaching music in the local school. Within a couple of years, she married another teacher and stayed at home to raise her babies. With her own children to care for, Stella remembered the times she worked in the garden and cooked and canned with her mom. She planted gardens to can vegetables and raised chickens for fresh eggs.
Then as suddenly as she had disappeared, Gracie called to announce she was coming to visit. She would be at their parents’ home, and Stella would prepare a meal for the family while Gracie settled in and visited. It felt like Stella was back in her bed alone and waiting to be tucked in, but she understood, and she prepared the foods she had grown and preserved. Still, there was uneasiness about seeing her sister again after all these years.
The evening was like a dream. Stella played the perfect hostess, making sure everyone had plenty to eat and drink and smiling at her new brother-in-law’s jokes. He seemed nice, but Stella knew how Gracie charmed people. Eventually, however, she would begin pointing out flaws and repeating all the old embarrassing moments you just wanted to forget. She wondered how long this would last before Gracie tired of him.
At dinner, Stella had to relive all those moments from her childhood yet again as Gracie delighted in embellishing stories for her husband. She felt once again like she was in school and was simply there to provide material for Gracie to get the laughs. How odd that she could be such a confident woman and turn into an insecure little kid around her sister. As always, she kept silent and smiled as if she too enjoyed the stories.
As she cleared the table and began washing the dishes by herself, Stella realized that she truly was the strong one. She knew where she came from, and she relished those country roots. She was content to be herself in this small community. She had no need to run away trying to find herself or change into someone that wasn’t really who she was. That night, she kissed both children and told them each how special they were to her, and they knew she was sincere.