Big Sister in Memoriam

A memorial is an opportunity to share memories—in this case about my sister, Anne Stires Blackwell. Obviously siblings have a lot of memories of each other, if they grew up together as Annie and I did, but many of them are in sort of a jumble, part of the chaos of daily living. Still, there are often a few that stand out more than others, and for me there is one in particular I’d like to share with you. It makes me smile, and reminds me so much of my sister.

I remember: she had a weakness for…names. Names are funny things. Some think they matter more than anything else, others not at all.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So we know how Shakespeare felt about names. But in L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables (one of my sister’s favorites!), the main protagonist, Anne Shirley, remarks that a rose would not be as nice if it were called a thistle or a skunk-cabbage. It seems the two Anne’s, Shirley and Stires, agreed.

When my sister was very little, she’d introduce herself to adults as “Anne with an ‘E’!” just as Anne Shirley spelled her name. She explained that ‘Ann’ was too boring, so she always made sure people understood she wasn’t. She tried to help me the same way by telling an elevator man when I was brought home from the hospital as a newborn that my name was Sidney Weinberg Stires. Apparently the elevator man thought that an odd name for a baby girl and said so to my grandmother.  My sister was only trying to make me as important as my parents’ friend, a brilliant, little round owlish man who was Chairman of Goldman Sachs at that time. My grandmother Gogo (another name story for another time) explained that Annie couldn’t give me his clout just by giving me his name, but my sister thought otherwise.

When Anne with an ‘E’ lost its charm, she moved on to ‘Winona’, the name of one of our grandfather’s boats up on Lake George, and also of a Dakota Indian princess who leapt to her death rather than marry someone she didn’t love. ‘Winona’ lasted as her private nickname for about 4 years, until she decided she needed something a little more contemporary. At 13 or 14, she became Ann-astasia, the Russian princess who lost her life with her family in the revolution. We struggled to adjust to her friends in school calling her Anastasia as they were ordered to do. My sister could be quite fierce about her requirements for friendship.

But as soon as we’d gotten used to the Russian princess, Annie went off to boarding school in the South. We had a year of seeing her only on vacations, and even then not much, as she was in the thick of her teenage social conquests. We parted with Anastasia after one spring vacation, finally feeling she might be moving back to her original Anne with an ‘E’, only to be faced with the biggest surprise of all. She returned for summer vacation on a flight from Virginia, and my mother and I met her at the airport; but she didn’t get off the plane. The short, chubby, cute teenager with long dark brown hair never appeared. We both kept searching the passengers as they disembarked, but no Annie. My mother was just muttering, “I don’t understand what happened,” when I caught sight of something familiar about one of them.

“There she is,” I shouted. “Right there!” My mother turned to look at the tall, svelte young woman in a pink sleeveless sheath that clung to her like a second skin. Her hair was as short as it could get, brushed off her face and behind her ears, and PLATINUM BLOND. We both stared in stunned silence, recognizing the walk but not the woman, until Mummy said,

“Well, I guess we have to welcome Kim Novak home this time, though I don’t know if your father will be able to adjust to living with a Hollywood movie star instead of a daughter!”

But we all had to, because Annie had truly morphed into Kim Novak seemingly overnight, and that persona stayed with her and changed her in many ways forever. Our father did occasionally call her ‘Kim’, though it was meant as a joke, since by that time Annie had learned to keep her own name for her friends’ (mostly male) sake. So of all the memories I have of her, I’ll always see that stunning arrival home in the pink sheath and blond hair as the most striking; the day we had no idea who she’d become. The day Anne with an ‘E’ came into her own.



4 Responses to Big Sister in Memoriam

  1. What an interesting way to describe character, through your sister’s fascination and appropriation of names. I was reading about Julianne Moore this weekend in the NY Times, where she described her acting process, how behavior and character are interwoven: “…Behavior is mutable. It changes from place to place. It’s like accents, dialect — it varies from one area to another. But there are universal truths about what it means to be a human being. All the other stuff is like appliqué. Learning that was interesting to me and probably useful for becoming an actor.” It reminded me of your piece about your sister, and how you illustrated her character development through her different incarnations. It was really effective, and also a lovely tribute. What a beautiful and elegant photo too.

    • And interesting to connect the dots between acting and behavior. There’s no doubt we all, but my sister even more-so from a young age, put on our costumes and masks to become a completely different person from the one we’re hiding inside. Thanks for the universal truth, Rachel. I think that’s why we can always see some of ourselves in well formed fictitious characters!

  2. I can sense the natural pauses, the little transitions that would come as if you were sharing this as your part of a conversation. Moreover, this brief passage creates a fine mental image of your sister without explicitly directing the listeners as such. It’s all there by the time you’re done.

    • Interesting way to describe tempo. Thanks so much. You’re right–it was a conversation but inside my own head with myself–often the way when you write. Appreciate your comments. They encourage me to go on with the conversations. Hope you’ll join them more often!

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