Mom says that Sydney tried to run before she could walk, so that she could catch up with me. But, she was always two years behind. In elementary school, her teachers called her by my name and expected the same test results. If I did something, she would follow: we both took classical guitar lessons, went to the same summer art camps, and read the same books. Oh, and her birthday is the day after mine.
As we’ve grown up, we’ve taken divergent paths—we’ve studied different languages and cultures, worked different jobs, and lived in different hemispheres. No matter where I have been, Sydney has made a point to visit. Last weekend, though, it was my turn to follow one of the twisting roads that she has already travelled many times.
About eight hours and one time zone away from me, in eastern Kentucky, tucked between the steep, short mountains, there is a small city with a population of around 7,000. Actually, this is the largest city in the region. The outskirts are flanked by mobile homes and hollers (spelled: hollows?), narrow valleys that receive minimal amounts of sunlight and have been home to generations of people seasoned and tried by the particular hardships of Appalachia. The downtown area, built by revenue from coal, is charming with overflowing flower baskets and painted bear statues that boast notable aspects of the area. Some include: Miner Bear, Hillbilly Bear, and the Hatfield and McCoy Bears.
After dropping off my luggage at her apartment, I crossed two empty streets to the new pizza place where Sydney works her second job. I found her at the counter, chatting easily with strangers, making her customers feel special. Last year, I, too, worked in a restaurant, but rarely did I inspire as much laughter, rarely were my conversations as animated. As I watch my sister before she sees me, exhaustion heightens my admiration.
Of course, I’m tired from travelling, but I also know that Sydney worked eight hours before going to the restaurant to work six more, and I don’t know how she does it. During the day, she organizes summits and conferences to promote economic, educational, and health care development in an area where soda is cheaper than water, hepatitis C is running rampant, and the people—already struggling with unemployment—lost more than 10,000 coal jobs in the last year. Then, she spends her evenings with the locals who tell her all the small-town drama and warn her away from the mountain trails she shouldn’t hike because she doesn’t own a gun. She loves her little restaurant community, and the river gorges and scenic lookouts have captured her heart, but she also admits that she has never lived in a place so foreign—this coming from someone who has worked or studied in Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Last weekend, I followed mountain roads all the way to my sister, but I realized that, really, I’ve been trying to follow her for a while. If I have to send a business-y sort of email, I run it by her first. An interview? I practice with her. Fashion advice? She picks out my lipstick. Girl problems or boy problems or just people problems in general? Even with her overloaded workweeks, Sydney always finds time to console and counsel. Somehow, as we’ve grown up, we’ve switched places. Whereas my path has been (so far) more or less straightforward, Sydney has had to blaze new trails. She has navigated open doors that have slammed devastatingly shut and still done faithful work. So, when the hairpin turns or the two-way, one-lane tunnels come, I know that I have an experienced and unswerving guide.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.