News & Politics

First Person: “That’s Your Sister?”

I’m a free spirit and am joining the Peace Corps. Sarah is at the Naval Academy and has her life planned out. But we come from the same place—and we stick together.

“She is the anchor to my balloon,” says the author of her sister, Sarah. Photograph by Chris Leaman

A colleague of my mother’s asks: “Are you the Peace Corps daughter or the Navy daughter?”

“The Peace Corps daughter,” I say, surprised at being mistaken for a 19-year-old member of the military.

My sister, Sarah, and I don’t expect people to confuse us. I’m known by family and friends as a free spirit—with a nose stud and a closetful of hippie dresses. Sarah is the opposite. A “youngster” at the Naval Academy, she has never touched alcohol, thrives on discipline and structure, and has the next ten years of her life planned. We’re as different as navy blue and paisley.

Growing up in Potomac, we fought constantly. My closest high-school friends were the Frisbee-tossing, guitar-strumming crowd, while Sarah’s hailed from her AP calculus class. But we emerged from those years with an unspoken truce. We no longer fought so much, but we weren’t the kind of sisters who braided each other’s hair.

When I was 16 and Sarah was 13, our parents split up. Our dad moved to an apartment in Bethesda, and Sarah and I spent every other evening with him. The fracture brought us closer. Shuttling between house and apartment, we talked about our family, our dreams, and our senses of self. Sometimes we didn’t say much; other times we sang out the windows of my Camry as we flew down River Road.

When I left for college, I was more concerned with how Sarah would fare without me than with any homesickness on my part. I enjoyed Cornell’s social life and studied mostly literature and art. When Sarah applied to college, she chose the Naval Academy. On induction day, as I watched her take the oath of military service in a crisp white uniform, my pride was mingled with disbelief that we share DNA.

When I went home for fall break my senior year, she asked, “Have you thought about your career options? What will you do for income?”

Taken aback by the middle-aged teen in front of me, I told her to leave me alone. But she had a point. Back at school, I went to the career center and decided to apply to the Peace Corps. Sarah and I had always been taught the value of community service, and at Cornell I often felt isolated from the rest of the world. I wanted to see how less privileged people lived while I also did some good.

Sarah’s first question was what I planned to do afterward. She is the anchor to my balloon.

I’ve now graduated and live in DC with our mother. On January 26, I leave for a Peace Corps project in Thailand. I get phone calls from Sarah updating me on her schedule, the status of her Rhodes-scholarship application—not due for two years—and her difficulty transitioning from a mostly liberal, Jewish world to the largely conservative, Christian Naval Academy.

Sarah was happy about my Thailand assignment because she hopes to study abroad in Asia, and we joke that I’ll wave to her Navy destroyer from my flower-adorned bicycle. We want to travel together, though I don’t think my philosophy of figuring it out as we go will fly with her.

She knows that when she stresses out by overanalyzing our plans, I’ll make her laugh. And I know that when I forget rain gear because I brought too many books, she’ll make sure I stay dry. Both of us are better for sticking together.

This article first appeared in the February 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issues, click here.