My sister and I spent last weekend cleaning out our parents’ home so we can sell it this summer. In the attic we found a picture of our family from the last time we were all together—years ago. My mom, dad, sister and I are sitting on our old picnic blanket in the backyard under a maple that today shows its age through its gnarled trunk and black-dusted leaves. When I looked at the picture of us, picking at bread and cheese and shielding our eyes from the sun (and my grandfather’s stubborn attempts at amateur photography), I remembered that my sister took the old picnic blanket when she left home for school when we were young. When I asked her if she still had it, she told me she lost it sometime during her last year of college and never found it. I am angry with her that she could be so careless with something that meant so much to us. That blanket is one of the only things linking us to our time as a family, and I can’t believe she didn’t protect it. I know it’s just a material thing and I shouldn’t be upset, but I am. How can I forgive her for her thoughtlessness?
Cross in Calais
There are few relationships that can rile us up quite like the ones we have with our siblings. Every time we have conflict with them—no matter how small or large—we simultaneously have to deal with the opposing forces in us that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. After all, as siblings, we are nurtured in the same nest. We build our understanding of ourselves and how to be in the world alongside one another. When we grow into adults, those internal and external dynamics shift, not only because we mature but also because other changes in the nest—the death of one or both parents is the most jarring—shake the tree in which we thought we were so securely perched. The wind that shakes the tree, my dear, is life.
Material things have a way of obscuring what’s really going on, especially when closing up a family home. Your sister’s loss of the picnic blanket has upset you for reasons that you are only now beginning to deal with. And the way you and she deal with that loss, and others, will change as the wind continues to blow. Being upset with someone else is absolutely natural, and you have written to me because you don’t want to be upset with your sister forever. This tells me there is love in your relationship, thank goodness. Now you must get to work expressing your upset feelings to your sister in a constructive way—one that helps you listen to each other through the sound of the wind. You also need to be ready to release your sister from the expectation that she feels the same way you do about the blanket.
This is the harder work of life and speaks to the true meaning of forgiveness, something we too often in our culture confuse with forgetting. Because I suspect that the loss you both lament isn’t the blanket itself but the banquet spread out on it. Excessive metaphors be damned. Put on your windbreaker and unpack your picnic basket!
P.S.—Call your local tree warden to take a look at that maple. The black dust on the leaves may be fungus and not merely an imprint of time’s march. Healthy aging can be embraced, but disease is often treatable when proper precautions are taken. Good luck!
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