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Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Tale Of Two Sisters

Vovó Flora & Tia Isabel, on opposite ends of the family.
Highway 92 is a California State Route that runs east-west 28 miles between Hayward and Half Moon Bay. It starts near Vovó Flora's house in Hayward's gritty downtown and spans across San Francisco Bay on a 7-mile bridge. It winds up and over the Pacific Coast Range and ends at the ocean side, where Tia Isabel lives in a small green house covered in abalone shells. Two sisters, born a year apart in rural Portugal, living at opposite ends of a highway in California. So close, but separated by a distance much longer than a 28-mile strip of road.

When I reflect on the non-grandmotherly ways of my vovó, it is in direct contrast to Tia Isabel, who embodies the traits of an ideal grandma. She lights up around children, loves to laugh and hug, and has a knack for finding the perfect dollar-store trinket that kids can't stop playing with. She has no children of her own, but delighted in her grand-nieces and grand-nephews and now dotes on our children. Naturally this made Vovó Flora fume with jealousy. She wasn't about to let her sister show her up, and if particularly incensed would reminder Isabel, in front of the family, that she had no children of her own. My father remembers a Christmas morning when Vovó saw my brother playing with a little toy from Tia Isabel and, unaware she was being watched, grabbed it away and placed a toy she had bought into his hands. That's Vovó Flora.

I have long wondered how two sisters so close in age could be so different, Isabel sweet and kind, and Flora so bitter and difficult. They had both grown up poor with an abusive father, so why should one turn hard and the other remain loving?  There is no single truth to uncover, no explanation that can be proven. I can only guess. Tia Isabel has always been a beauty. Today she looks decades younger than her 95 years.
Isabel: 90s never looked so good.
As a child she would receive compliments from strangers. A poor dirty child is ignored, but people will dote on a cute little girl no matter what her circumstance. I have no idea what Vovó Flora looked like in her youth but it's clear she considered herself ugly. In a time when women were largely dependent on men, being attractive was an advantage. Isabel likely had no worries that she would find someone to care for her. Flora she was deeply ashamed of being from a poor and disgraced family and didn't feel she could rely on her looks to make things better.  The only advantages she could count on were those she made for herself. She got tough and stayed that way. And she never quite got over her jealousy of Isabel's "easy" way of moving through life.

Into their 90s they each lived alone at the opposite ends of highway. They were sisters who hardly spoke apart from holiday gatherings. They had each other but couldn't find a way to bridge the distance between them, a distance measure not in miles of road but in years of pain and resentment. One day after the next, until one is gone and all that remain are memories.


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