the difference ten years makes

Dear brother, 

I sat by the window, a copy of Annie Dillard's An American Childhood open and resting in my lap. I read, one page at a time, reading, then staring out the window to think. Reading then staring. A pattern of fractured meditation.

So many trifling scenes and slight spaces have reminded me of my own childhood, lately; my childhood which was so very different from yours. 

For the longest time, I considered my suburban upbringing to be something worth hiding: an embarrassment. Because, placed side-by-side, my life and yours clash so dramatically, like a Duchamp hung next to a Rembrandt, and I was afraid that yours was somehow worth more than mine.

I remember my first day of school when I was five years old; my plaid uniform was pressed and my patent leather shoes gleamed. We had recess and homework; carpools and gym class. But you? When you were five, you crossed an ocean, and by the time you started school, there was no room for uniforms and shiny shoes. 

No, when you were six, you'd already lived in Africa a full yearyou spoke words that weren't English and expected roads to be potholed and dusty.  Your first day of school was in a mud hut with a thatched roof, and I walked you there, holding your hand. 

When I was seven, we visited the school library once a week. By the time I was eight, it was my favorite class; I loved scanning the shelves for a new Nancy Drew mystery. 

I am reading An American Childhood, and the truth is my childhood was very American. Dillard remembers her own library excursions as a child and writes, "When you check out a book from the Homewood Library, the librarian wrote your number on the books card and stamped the due date on a sheet glued to the books last page."

I paused when I read this. Because, you see, I'd forgotten.
I'd forgotten that, when I was nine, we checked books out this way in our small school library. I carried my small stack to the librarian's deskthe cracked bindings groaned as they opened and received the date, severely stamped in red and black ink. 

I grew up with paperbacks, but you? When you read, you take your stories outside, lying atop the shipping-container-turned-school-house your kindle in hand, reading and shading your eyes from the sun. You download books instantly—digitally—in the middle of the African savannah.

Do you remember how, when we first moved, we had no internet and no cell service? I can remember a time when my teenage self  spent hours downloading emails through the chirping of a short wave radio. Now, you check Facebook regularly from your perch in the backyard.

That is the different ten years makes. 

I know now, for all my wandering of heart, that my American childhood is nothing to be ashamed of. When I  retraced our steps, moving back across the ocean, I moved alone. But it was easier for me, because I knew about uniforms and shiny shoes. I remembered libraries and the smell of chalkboard erasers freshly clapped.

It will be harder for you, in time, when you come back to the place you left when you were five. But I promise to be here to help you adapt when the time comes; you won't be alone. By that time you'll have lived over a decade in a place that shaped me for only four years, and my adulthood may seem very American to you.

It's strange to consider how siblings can live such different lives. But don't worry, we're still birthday buddies, you and me. 

This is all just the difference ten years makes. 

your sister


  1. You made us both cry, Kate. You are a wonderful, thoughtful, sister.

    Papa kon


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