Let me tell you about this amazing woman I know

“It is because I think so much of warm and sensitive hearts, that I would spare them from being wounded.” ― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist 

My youngest sister stepped out of the truck, a dying butterfly held gingerly in her hand. "I found him at the gas station," she said. "I didn't want him to die there." I hadn't seen her in a year and was anxious to hug her. Our two families met in St. Louis last week (which is roughly halfway between our home and theirs) for a long weekend. My brother-in-law was competing in an enduro bike race while we were there, too.

I gave her a quick hug and then she deposited the dying butterfly, its torn wing rippling in the breeze, on a grassy patch near the hotel where we'd spend the next three days in adjacent suites. Her three boys tumbled out of the truck right after she did. My brother-in-law was already inside the hotel, getting checked in. I subjected my nephews to hugs and noogies.

We settled into our suites. I sat with the three boys in their room while everyone was unloading (which makes me sound super lazy but my child and husband were able to handle our stuff without my involvement). As I sat with the boys, it struck me that boys and girls really are different sometimes. The boys immediately started testing all of the furniture to see what they could and could not lift. They examined a nearby rooftop through the window and concluded that they could all jump that far, should a rapid escape become necessary. My eldest nephew, the most talkative one, starts every sentence with, "Can I tell you something?" It's an endearing trait. I always think he is about to tell me something really revelatory, but it's usually a random comment like, "One time, I climbed a tree and I couldn't get back down." Someday, he may figure out some of the big mysteries of the universe but will still approach me with the same tone of voice and ask, "Aunt Claudia, can I tell you something?"

The eight of us went out to dinner shortly after our arrival. We took two of the boys in our car. We are used to having only a moody tween in the back seat - it was definitely a change of pace adding her cousins to the mix. Believe it or not, we proceeded to drive to two different restaurants (both with the same name). It was like a bad sitcom. Once we were reunited, we had a nice dinner. My sister is vegan (she followed me into vegetarianism when she was just a kid; I followed her into veganism just a few years ago) so it was nice to bounce "what are you gonna eat?" ideas off each other.

The next day, we drove to St. Louis (again, in two vehicles) for some city adventures. Believe it or not, we had no idea that there were protests raging on in St. Louis that day. I guess we hadn't checked the news. We didn't see any protestors, though - I assume they were in a different part of the city.  The eight of us did the obligatory Gateway Arch excursion (A and I did it last year, but her dad was with us this time so we wanted him to see it, too). After the arch, we gathered at a pizza place across the street from the blues museum. I sat next to my sister so that we could share a pizza. She and I were in heaven - we had multiple vegan options! Side note: the up-charge on these things is annoying. I think our pizza ended up being a hundred million dollars after we added our "premium" toppings.

After lunch, we headed to the blues museum. My sister and brother-in-law had to head back to Farmington (south of St. Louis, where our hotel was located) to get his bike inspected for the race. So, we took the two older boys to the museum with us. The youngest one looked like he was about to fall asleep anyway. It was a long day for a little guy. The blues museum was great - we really enjoyed it. My husband has about 200 Sirius XM channels in his car but he only listens to the Blues one, so I knew he'd enjoy it. The kids had a great time, too. There are a lot of interactive displays that gave them an opportunity to play in a jug band and learn about sound engineering.

After we left the museum, I made a quick stop at at bakery that was getting ready to close. I was trying to score some vegan brownies for me and my sister. They were out of the brownies, but they did have some vegan cupcakes left in the bakery case. Our final stop for the day was at an ice cream shop. I really need to move to a bigger city because I was able to get some mint chocolate chip ice cream, which was basically a dream come true.

That night, the kids swam in the pool. My husband took one for the team and went with them. My sister and I ran to the grocery store to buy some stuff for a potluck we were planning for the next day. We knew we'd be spending the next day at the race track (I honestly don't think that's what the racing people call it, but I am sure it will not be a surprise to you that I don't know what I'm taking about) so we wanted to bring some grub along. She made chili dogs and I made chick pea salad (on Ritz crackers).

The next day, my sister and her family headed to the race location early in the morning to get set up. We followed along later that morning.  This type of racing is an interesting sport because you can't really spectate. The riders go off into the woods (often for several hours at a time) and you don't see them until they come back. My nephews also compete but were not entered in this particular event. We ate our potluck lunch under a tent and mostly just hung out. A gust of wind came through and threatened to send the tent off onto the course to check on the riders. So, since rain seemed to be headed our way, the mister and I decided to head out and go to a flea market for which we had seen multiple billboards. It was my youngest nephew's turn to ride with us, so his presence was a given. My sister flipped a coin for the older two boys. My red-headed, comic book-loving middle nephew won the toss. I watched my other nephew's face. He was trying to put on a brave face but his actual expression tore at my heart. He climbed into the truck so we wouldn't see.

The junk shop was, um, interesting. If you need a velvet Jesus painting, look no further. Bedazzled denim hats? You've found your source. The boys picked out some Matchbox cars and comic books, and selected some for the absent brother as well. My daughter selected two things: a metal musical note and a coin bank shaped like three stacked doughnuts. "You can only have one or the other," my husband told her. Moments later, I saw him at the check-out purchasing both items. That guy of mine . . . what a hardass.

Later, after we got back to the hotel room, I called my sister to ask if I could pick up my other nephew (they were still at the race) and take him out for ice cream. I just couldn't shake the feeling that I had let him down by not being able to fit him into my car. My sister assured me that they were going to take him out for dinner and/or a Slurpee on the way home. Plus, he got to spend some time without his younger brothers poking him. That, I suppose, was a gift in itself.

That night, we had one final swim in the pool. You should have seen my guy with four kids hanging off him in the deep end. He really is a good sport about that sort of thing. My sister and I sat in the whirlpool and talked. I found myself feeling sad that our time together was almost over. Living so far from both of my sisters hurts my heart.

If you met my youngest sister, you'd know that finding a final resting spot for a dying butterfly is a perfect representation of her personality. Even as a kid, she was introspective. She carefully observed the world around her. We used to drive from Northern Virginia to Myrtle Beach for summer vacations. We often joked that we might accidentally leave my youngest sister at a rest stop because she was often so quiet in the back seat. She is almost 12 years my junior, so it was an interesting dynamic.  Looking on the bright side: there's not much for two siblings to fight about when they're that far apart in age.

That red-headed girl with the deep brown eyes grew up into a beautiful auburn-haired superwoman. Effortlessly cool, she's physically beautiful and also whip-smart. She cares deeply about animals and the environment, and gets pretty riled up over injustice of any kind. She raises her rough-and-tumble boys to see the world through her thoughtful lens. She lives in the country (on a "street with no name") but still manages to keep up with all the indie musical releases (plus, imagine how hard it is to eat a vegan diet when you don't have any stores in your zip code). Oh, and did I mention that she's a kick-ass writer?

My sister can be a hard person to know. She's not one to call you on the phone to chit-chat, but she'll humor you if you call. She doesn't often share what she's thinking on a deep level and if she's mad at you, you will probably never know about it. She's still that introspective girl in some ways. As her husband quickly learned, her deep thinking sometimes prevents her from doing things like cleaning up whatever exploded in the microwave. But hey, she's got a house full of dogs to clean up anything that hits the floor.

To my wee baby sister . . . if you are reading this, please know that I love you with all my heart and it was wonderful to spend some time with you. Let's not let too much time pass until the next visit. Also, I forgive you for that time you drew all over my middle school yearbook with a pen.


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