First, there was me, a bald and mostly happy baby. My parents’ first daughter, I was also the first grandchild on my mom’s side of the family, content to be passed around from aunt to uncle to grandma at family parties.
Blink twice, and next came Erika, just under two years later. We were, and still are, opposites. I’m green-eyed and bookish, she has olive skin and can easily beat me at a game of foosball or cards. She’s headstrong and stubborn; I’m loyal and responsible. I can’t remember life without her. My early memories with Erika are sweet: talking in bed in our shared bedroom when we were supposed to be asleep, riding bikes in the driveway, splashing around in a plastic backyard pool.
Home video shows the truth, though. It’s a bright morning and we’re in the living room with our dad, running around in pajamas, Mom behind the camera. A toddler Erika is grinning in a plush rocking chair, her round brown eyes staring into the lens. I dart into the frame, laughing like a banshee. Blonde and scrawny, I slip underneath the wooden arm of the chair and climb up behind Erika, unceremoniously pushing her onto the floor. She screeches, eyes flashing at me as she rolls onto her back.
“Brittany, be nice,” Dad says.
I smile sweetly, cooing, “What?”
I only had the upper hand for about a year, so I had to take advantage. Once Erika turned two, we fought until I turned approximately 19. Now that we’re both fully in adulthood, our early clashes have turned into a close friendship, one that took us to Japan together a couple of years ago, where we reveled in fresh sushi at breakfast and ancient, sacred trees.
Aubrey bounded into our lives when I was four and Erika, two. I think she was born with a smile. As a toddler, she drove us all simultaneously crazy and madly in love with her. I can’t count the number of times she hid inside the clothing racks at Nordstrom or blurted out something embarrassing as our mother rolled a grocery cart through the produce department: “Mom, why does that lady have a mustache?!”
With a headful of ringlets and a sunny, friendly personality, Aubrey charmed everyone as a child. She still does, as a night-shift nurse in the emergency department. Recently, she received a letter from a patient, an inmate in the state penitentiary. “There’s just something about your smile that reminds me of better days,” he wrote.
A large part of her charm is that she takes care of people with perfect self-assuredness. Sitting next to Aubrey at our parents’ house one afternoon, I frown as I stretch my side, putting a hand against my ribs.
“What’s wrong?” she asks with mock concern. “Are you having chest pain? Because if you are, I can tell you if it’s serious or not.”
“I’m not worried about it!” I insist. I am not convincing either of us. “It’s just soreness from the gym. I’m fine.”
“I mean, is it a shooting pain? Because maybe you should be worried about it…”
I jolt, turning to glare at Aubrey. “Don’t give me ideas! My brain doesn’t need ammunition!”
A laugh tumbles out of her mouth as she stands up, enfolding me into a giant, gentle hug that I would never ask her for.
Our last sister joined us four years after Aubrey. There might have been more Wilmes children to follow, as the rumor goes, but Jessica announced herself with a pair of powerful lungs, and after nine months of a baby screaming whenever she wasn’t being held, our tired mother decided her family was complete.
Jessica will always be our baby: better at applying makeup than I am, curious and engaged, comfortably safe under the umbrella of our big, tight-knit family. She’s a student at my alma mater, and now we get to share our love for our university’s community, another family to both of us.
She’s in school in Eastern Washington, a seven-hour drive from our home, and our bonding probably started on these long road trips, where I first began to see her as a friend, an ally, not just an obnoxious little sister.
It’s a hot summer day, and she and I are speeding down I-90 towards the Tri-Cities, following our parents and all of my college belongings in a U-Haul trailer. The Shrek soundtrack blares out of my Volkwagen’s speakers. We’ve seen one too many dead deer along the road, so we’ve added a little flourish to the end of the chorus.
“I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation! Ba da da da da dadadaaah ROADKILL!” we shout-sing, Jessica playing the drums against the dashboard.
My mouth drops open as I point frantically out my window at our parents turning onto Highway 395 towards Kennewick, Jessica and I veering in the opposite direction. The next time the chorus plays, we adjust our lyrics.
“Ba da da da dum dadadaah WRONG TURN!”
We collapse into giggles as I wipe the tears from my eyes, punching on the brake to reverse our giddy course.
I love them all with a fierce, protective passion, these women who are so different from me, fluent in pharmacology or horticulture, brunette and athletic and sure of their place in the world.
“Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life,” writes Jeffrey Kluger, and he’s right about this when it comes to my three sisters.
We’ve seen each other through braces and ill-fitting glasses, bad first dates and good relationships, championship sports seasons and years where we decided we couldn’t make ourselves go back to another practice.
We have so much ahead of us, and I’ve felt this recently. I’m in a new city. Erika is starting a new career. Aubrey bought a house. Jessica is entering the second half of her college education. As loud and consuming as our large family can be, it also multiplies the love and support and intimacy at its foundation, and I’m grateful for this.
Often, it seems, Erika and Aubrey and Jessica and I will wrap each other in a group hug, supposedly for the benefit of our mom, standing nearby, but also so we can be goofy and whisper stupid things to each other. Standing in that circle, the shortest one, feeling myself embraced by six arms, huddled under the cover of three dark heads, I hear the truest message I know: you are known here. You are accepted here. You are you, and we love you for it.