A little tribute to my big sister

NOT TOO MANY years ago, sister Claudia came to visit Sherry and me in the San Francisco Bay Area. Claudia had brought her treasured bike, a gift from her siblings upon her 60th birthday in 2010. It was a bright pink Schwinn with a basket in the front, and she loved her two-wheeled vehicle.

We picked a day for a ride. Sherry and I donned our cycling gear: shoes, shorts, T-shirts, and helmets. But such accouterments were not in Claudia’s wardrobe. And to put this into perspective, her panoply of garments — all of which she had sewn herself, occupied the better part of her home.

When Claudia went out — anywhere — she was adorned in style. And so, on that cycling excursion, she appeared in a bright, silky pantsuit, complemented by a crimson sun hat that sported a most generous brim. And this ensemble allowed for only one type of footwear: heels.

We took one of my favorite trails, which is a paved biking path between Los Altos and Stanford University. It meanders through a park and open space, and the ride is effortless. I took the lead, with Sherry and then Claudia following. We came upon two young men riding in the other direction. To me, they give a cordial nod, and Sherry received a polite “hello.” But when they spotted Claudia, dressed to the nines, pedaling along on her sporty velocipede, they cheered her with a hearty: “Well, Good Morning!”

This was a typical outing with Claudia. Wherever she went, she was turning heads. She was always considered the beauty in the family. And when she learned how to sew as a teenager, she quickly accumulated a menagerie of outfits that emphasized her graceful presence and would have made any model envious.

BUT HER LOOKS and her passion for fashion were just a small part of who she really was.

Growing up five years her junior, what I most remember about her as a boy was how she watched out for her younger siblings. She never teased, she never tried to pull rank because of her seniority. Contrarily, if you needed anything, whether it was advice, companionship, consolation, or a few dollars, she would do her best to help.

Once, when I was 8 years old, she and I came down with some illness. While our siblings were in school and Mom was out running errands, Claudia treated me as her patient, checking my temperature, making sure I was comfortable, and preparing lunch, even though she was feeling as poorly as I was. I am sure all of my siblings can recount similar stories about her.

She was sincere, wearing her heart, as the saying goes, on her sleeve. There were no pretensions, or doubts about who she was. She knew what she liked and what she didn’t like, and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Claudia, ready for a night on the town.

She had a beautiful singing voice. In high school, she had the lead in “Bye Bye Birdie” and a few other musicals. After I had learned guitar and piano, I accompanied her to a few recitals at local talent shows. I don’t recall that we ever won any awards, but we had fun and our musical bond would last a lifetime.

She had a wry sense of humor. I remember watching the first season of Saturday Night Live with her. It was, for the time, radical, avant-garde. She loved it. And one of her favorite recording artists of that era was the iconoclast Dan Hicks. His quirky style, blending nonsensical lyrics with jazz and Texas Swing, simply made her gleeful.

She was always self-reliant. She started babysitting at 12 years old, took a job at a local bakery when she was 16, and started working full-time right out of high school as a secretary at an insurance firm.

When she bought her first car, a used ’61 Chevrolet Impala, she would think nothing of taking a few of her siblings out for a treat. If you needed a ride anywhere, she was ready and willing. And she did this without ever asking for anything in return.

Claudia, modeling one of her many hand-made outfits.

When the family uprooted from the suburbs of Connecticut to the wild woods of Maine in 1970, Claudia decided to come along, even though she was already 19 and on her own. She got another job at an insurance agency. She bought a little red Volkswagen convertible and rented a little studio apartment in Skowehegan, about 20 miles away from the family’s new agrarian homestead.

That first summer Claudia and I spent a lot of time together. During the week, I helped with our family’s fabled attempt to run our new farm. Since brother Tom was away, working a summer job at a lakeside resort, I assumed the position of eldest son; I took great pride in being Dad’s right-hand man.

But on weekends, Claudia would pick me up, and we’d high-tail it to the big city of some 10,000 souls. Her apartment was tiny, with a kitchenette, a bedroom, and a bathroom. She had no phone or TV. Our sole source of entertainment was a tiny phonograph and a few albums by Chicago and The Moody Blues.

When summer ended, older brother Tom returned home from his job, and we started high school, knowing virtually no one. But it didn’t take long for us to make new friends and soon thereafter we were introducing them to Claudia. She welcomed them to her humble abode with the same generosity she extended to her siblings.

Fast-forward to the late ’70s, which were a flurry of life-changing events for our family: both good and tragic. In the span of just three years, Claudia got married, our mother was diagnosed with cancer and died just 10 months later, then Claudia gave birth to her son, Ric.

And just months after that, Dad decided to escape the cold Northeast and head west. A few of the siblings decided to go with him, and we landed in northern California. About a year later, Claudia, then a single mom, joined us with Ric.

Left: Sherry and Claudia modeling outfits designed and stitched by Claudia. Top: Claudia as a young girl. Right: Claudia and Ric. Bottom: Claudia and me in downtown Los Angeles.

It was now nearly 10 years since those days she and I had spent together in her tiny Skowhegan apartment. I was working as a journalist, and she continued her career in insurance.

She happened to rent a studio apartment near my office, so we established a little routine for me to visit once a week. I would come over for dinner on Tuesdays, we’d watch “Paper Chase” reruns, and then I’d get out my guitar, and we’d sing a few songs together before putting Ric to bed. One of our favorites was the Dan Hicks tune titled “My Old Timey Baby.”

Seeing Claudia with her child made it clear that she was a natural. Those maternal instincts she had honed as a big sister were easily transferred to her little boy. He was the center of her universe.

OUR ADULT years just seemed to fly by.

She continued on in the insurance industry and worked her way to an investigator. Her job was to review claims and analyze their legitimacy. I wish I had written down some of the types of fraudulent scams she encountered. They were tales worthy of a Raymond Chandler short story. But she was a quick study and figured them out in no time.

And I moved away to the Bay Area and on from journalism to the world of high-tech. Although we kept in touch and visited from time to time, we didn’t really reconnect until later in life. We had each been through relationships by this point and were now the only two siblings who were single.

So Claudia visited me more often, and in between she’d often call to chat, sometimes for hours. She began sewing for me, sending me these custom-tailored Hawaiian-style men’s shirts.

And yet, when I met Sherry, Claudia embraced her instantly as a member of the family. She could not have been happier for me. In what seemed an instant, Sherry was receiving new, custom-crafted women’s wear from Claudia.

By this time, Ric was, of course, on his own. And, like his Mom (and to be fair, his Dad, too), he demonstrated the same sense of self-reliance and independence, running his own business. Claudia began working as his unofficial chief operating officer. And, not surprisingly, she fit this new avocation in between her sewing.

Claudia visited Sherry and me a few times in L.A. And when she was diagnosed with cancer, we came to visit her. When the pandemic hit, we kept in touch by phone and Zoom calls and despite the fact that she was in pain, she never failed to ask about us. When we decided to buy a house, just weeks before she died, she was full of questions and was genuinely happy for us.

It was two years ago today that she passed away, just weeks shy of her 70th birthday. I miss her, of course, but I’ll always be grateful for having her as a big sister.

If I had to categorize people into only two types, I would choose “givers” and “takers.” Claudia was unequivocally the quintessential giver.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: