Good Letters

20120301-maid-of-honor-by-allison-backous-troySo knowing,
what is known?
…that some are born
and some are brought
to the glory of this world.

—Lucille Clifton, “Far Memory”

This weekend, my younger sister is taking a train to Grand Rapids. She is coming to help me with details: to try on shoes and seal envelopes, to shake out the ivory folds of my wedding dress.

She used to hate coming to Michigan. Four years ago, she went to a party with a sorority friend, at a cabin two hours north of my house, and was raped by a stranger. We spent the next three years going to court, telling the story over and over again. Watching the young man, squirming in his boxy suit, tell a different story, a slanderous story, my sister’s face shaking in her hands, my jaw dropped in a rage I didn’t know I could feel until then.

Ten years ago, Jessica pulled me to her bedside to tell a story about Dayne, my mom’s boyfriend. She told me how he would come into the room while she was sleeping. How he would pull her onto his lap.

“It’s okay now,” she told me, her face blank, her dark ponytail curling across her shoulder. “I have forgiven him.”

Back then, forgiveness was something we learned about from the self-help books Mom left around the house: forgiveness was your own doing, a necessary distance between the offense and your freedom. If you didn’t forgive, you would not only be haunted by the offense, you would be the guilty one, the snare for fault, the reason it happened in the first place.

And in her dreams, Jessica is given chance after chance to offer forgiveness, the jury waiting for her to speak, Dayne’s wide eyes staring from the back of the courtroom.

My whole life, I have wanted to give my sister a different story. I have wanted to take back the countless times I could not protect her, the ways that I used to avoid her when we were small, her long legs stretched at the end of my bed while I slept, her eyes resting on me, waiting for me to get up. To play. To be with her.

The last time Jessica came to Grand Rapids, we went shopping for my wedding dress. She took photos of me in various dresses, until we found the one that now hangs in my closet. She was weepy and excited.

“Who’s going to be your maid of honor?” she asked, tapping her smooth nails against her cell phone.

I thought that I would just go without one; my sister and my friends are all dear to me, and I wanted to keep things simple.

But I watched Jessica run her fingers along the dress, her dark hair, now short, tucked behind her ear. I watched disappointment turn her face into that blank smile, her eyes focused on the band of my veil as a means of moving forward.

The older sister, typically, is the wise one, the one who announces the way: this is how you put on makeup. This is how you ask for the reference letter. This is how you pray.

And while I may have tried to show Jessica all these things, what astonishes me is that, in spite of what we were born with, and what she was brought into, she is the constant one: her weekly phone calls, her love of cartoons. Her easy, undiminished laughter.

This weekend, we will make stir-fry and look up hairdos. We will retell these same stories, looking behind us to make sense of what our lives are, now.

And in five months, she will carry an armful of white forget-me-nots, her steps light and straight down the aisle. She will announce the way for me to go in a dress she will choose herself, her dark hair pinned and curled to her liking, her beauty untouched. Her glory known.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Allison Backous Troy


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