by Evelyn Bence

Recently my four older sisters, retirees living three states away, proposed a two-day gathering in Gettysburg, just us. We’d revisit the site of our only noteworthy childhood vacation, in 1961, houseguests of the last private owners of the historic Rose Farm, locus of Longstreet’s battle and hospital for his wounded.

Friends with family envy—size matters—took an interest. “You’re anticipating your trip?” Surely.

I smiled. “I’m hopeful” but wary. I envisioned congestive dynamics: five strong-willed women trying too hard to take a backseat, express no clear opinion, and relinquish responsibility—though early on I stepped up. “I’ll pack a first-night picnic.” Then there was the big/little-sister syndrome, the hovering or mothering. But first I had to get there, on and beyond the D.C. Beltway. When driving north on I-270, heading toward Our Lady’s grotto and an incoming cold rain, my hands tingled. It’s your grip. Relax, make the best of the ride.

We five found each other at the designated hotel, arriving among guests tethered to sleek greyhounds in town for a dog show. Keeping our distance, we amicably negotiated our own group plans, spending an afternoon in the museum; rescheduling the picnic as a lap meal in our suite, warm and dry; and taking a battlefield driving tour, three of us tight in the backseat. Breaking from the recorded script, we found the Rose farmhouse. I reminisced: a buffet picnic in the yard, a bullet hole in the back door, and a bedroom too spooky to sleep in. Shall we get out? No, not here. Just a picture. Later.

From my suitcase in the morning, I pulled a shirt, blazer, and skirt. A sister approved. “Oh, didn’t that outfit come from me?” My choice hadn’t been intentional, but “yes—and also the slacks I wore yesterday,” all cast-offs passed down.

The second night we intended to eat out. But where? We negatively narrowed our options. “Not at a chain or diner.” “Not a buffet.” “Nice but not pricey.” I tentatively went positive. “Years ago my love and I ate in the basement of an old inn. We’d visited Mom, up home, when she was slipping away. I started crying,” assimilating the reality of mortality. “Not that it’s a bad memory.” We found the cellar pub, pleasing then, and now again, agreed. We all ordered modestly, baked potatoes and chicken, too much to eat in one sitting. “Here, take mine.” The sisters were talking to me. I walked out carrying three doggy bags—enough to fortify a big pot of soup back home.

At the hotel we deftly maneuvered around our close quarters. We’d done this before, growing up in one cramped bedroom, in a one-bathroom house. So two nights we could manage, though after dinner a four-body bunch-up by a sink set off hysterical laughter—me and one cohort—that racked my lungs. “What’s wrong with you guys?” Nothing but nerves, I thought, by then in bed and soon fast asleep, strangely comforted by the company.

On the third morning, my sisters left together, heading north in a trusty sedan. Saying good-bye, hugs all around, the oldest asked if I’d be okay, left behind—like when they went off to college or something. I smiled. Nothing ever changes, does it? She apologized. Maybe she’d seen too many menacing dogs in the parking lot.

Avoiding the southbound rush, two hours later I crossed the Mason-Dixon. I might have stopped to pray at the grotto—with gratitude, for mercies—but I kept driving. The road widened to six lanes, soon forcing a dramatic choice. I gripped the wheel and took the right sluice, down across the Potomac.

How have your relationships with your siblings changed in the second half of your life? In what ways are they still the same as they were during childhood? 

Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books), 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests. She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.