"Seventy-Three Years with Sister Toni"
story by Wesley Watkins
"Seventy-Three Years with Sister Toni"
"The Writer's Own Relevation"
Seventy-Three Years with Sister Toni
The writer spent time in the past few months interviewing Sharon Causey, who helped care for him many years when he was a child and learns of her close relationship to her sister, Toni. Wes is a student at Christopher Newport University.
SHARON CAUSEY LIVES IN A TRANQUIL SEASON property in Poquoson, Virginia, with her husband of 54 years, Ted, and together they help care for grandchildren who have not yet left for adult pursuits. Life is routine, predictable, but comfortable in Poquoson where her husband mainly spends his time working with boats on the other waterside property. Sharon devotes her time to the church she has been with since she was twelve, and the church has served as an emotional crux throughout her life. Now at seventy-two, Sharon tends to focus on almost everyone except herself. Whether it’s hosting game night at her home, making sure her children are safe in the faraway places they have chosen to live, and raising her grandchildren, she seems almost unable to address her own needs.
Her selflessness roots in her Christian beliefs, and throughout the time I have spent with her, the compassion she possesses for others influences her daily routine. When I interviewed Sharon periodically during the past few months, she opened up about the significance of her older sister, Toni, and the overall impact Toni made on her life. Sharon’s life story is filled with fortunes and misfortunes like the rest of us, but her story also consists of an emotional arc from dependence on her sister to eventual independence as a compassionate woman.
The Stick Snake
When Sharon and I recently drove past the local cemetery, a subtle smile spread across her face. It was a cloudy day in Poquoson, and winter slowly let go of its dreadfully freezing grasp on the plants, trees, and animals. Even though the sun was shrouded by an array of gloomy clouds, Sharon emanated a radiance from within that could rival the glow of the sun.
“This place always brings me back,” she quipped as we wound down the narrow road. “Toni and I used to play here all the time till sundown.”
Sharon discussed the times when she was six years old and would often come down to the cemetery and collect the ribbons off the flowers that the cemetery keepers would throw away. She would use the ribbons from the disposed flowers to tie the hair on her dolls, but one particular memory was the inspiration for her cracked smile. Sharon could not contain her excitement for the memory any longer, and spilled the details.
“One time, when Toni and I were heading home, we took a short cut through the woods to the pond,” she smirked. Apparently when Sharon and her sister were billowing through the hidden path, she became startled when a lightening strike of pain whipped the back of her leg. At first she assumed it was a snake that crept up from behind, but it was later revealed to be a stick jarring out of the side of a tree.
“I still have the scar to prove it,” Sharon said, as she pointed to a slight indelible cut on the back of her thigh. That day long ago, she screamed and wailed in pain for her sister’s rescue, and Toni hurdled through the jungle of gnarled roots and bushes to find her little sister injured on the ground. In one swoop, Toni hoisted Sharon onto her back and brought her to safety at a neighbor’s home. “When I hung onto her back I felt safe,” Sharon said as we approached a stop sign. “Like she’d always be there for me.”
Sharon sorted through her grandchildrens' laundry late in the afternoon. She offered me a plate of leftover lasagna, but I took a pass. The grandchildren were out for the day at the movies, and her husband, Ted, remained preoccupied with boat construction at another property. Sharon noticed my vintage style jacket and drew comparisons with another jacket just like it from her youth.
“You know, my sister used to have a jacket just like that,” she said, as she folded the laundry. “I was real jealous of it too.” Sharon said that when she was a freshman in high school and sister Toni was preparing to leave for college, she summoned the courage to one day wear one of Toni’s new sweaters to school. Her face blushed and her gaze drifted to the floor when she remembered the story, which seemed like an obvious sign of shame she still feels over the incident.
“When Toni found out, she was furious,” Sharon recalled. Her reaction to Toni’s fury was overly apologetic and redemptive, and Sharon admitted that she just did not want her sister to stay mad at her. “I just didn’t want her to stay mad at me,” Sharon said, her voice choking up— revealing, perhaps, a bit of regret for her own actions.
The story of the sweater highlights an interesting emotional point in her life: Toni’s eventual departure to college and Sharon’s negative reaction to it. She noted that in college, and especially in her hometown, a lot of people did not have phones or could not afford long distant calls back. Toni’s departure to college marked a significant time in Sharon’s life and her journey toward independence, since college meant that Sharon would be unable to see her older sister everyday for the first time. It is debatable whether Toni’s new sweater represented a plea for Toni to stay in Sharon’s life, but it more than likely signified that wearing Toni’s sweater to school meant that she always wanted her sister to be there for her, even when she was far away at college.
The Wedding Dress
“We each gave birth for the first time only a few days apart on different years, I was on June 3rd 1961 and Toni was June 9th 1962,” Sharon said, relishing the memory as we talked in the living room. She frequently enjoyed noticing the similarities between Toni’s life and hers, and I became curious for any more unique correlations between the two sisters’ lives. Although Toni married first, Sharon gave birth first with, Ted, her current husband of fifty-four years.
As she recalled all the parallels in her life with Toni, Sharon leaned her head back against her favorite chair and recollected another memory with her sister. “Have I told you already that I made my own maid-of-honor dress in high school home rec for Toni’s wedding?”
Sharon talked as I studied various framed pictures perched on living room shelves. She detailed a time when she and Toni searched for wedding dresses for Sharon’s special day, and they both agreed that they wouldn’t buy the dress if either of them didn’t like it.
“But of course, I couldn’t go along with that rule,” Sharon said, grinning, as she recalled the story. When she found a wedding dress that she fell in love with, Toni disagreed with Sharon’s taste. Sharon’s eyes grew large as she described Toni’s refusal to purchase the dress with her, and she almost had to take a breath before she could continue.
“In short, all I told her was if I wore a dress made in a high school sewing class, you can suck it up and agree with me on this!” Sharon said. The noticeable theme in the wedding dress story was that it marked one of the first times she defied her sister, which marked a change from her little-girl dependence on Toni in her youth. It revealed that Sharon was maturing as a woman, specifically because, in the context of her emotional growth, Sharon had just found a husband after her sister was married. I asked her if she ever felt any pressure to marry because her sister married only a couple months before, but she denied any pressure besides from her husband. Not needing Toni’s approval for her own wedding dress marked an important stage in Sharon’s life and her development from the six-year-old girl riding on her sister’s back to a strong and more independent woman.
New York City
Throughout all my visits to Sharon Causey’s home, there would not be a visit that would go by without her mentioning the various trips she took to different countries. Sharon considers herself an active traveler, and often finds herself planning trips as little benchmarks for the year.
“It helps having something to look forward to,” Sharon said, sipping freshly brewed coffee. She made it very clear in the beginning of my visits that she religiously scrapbooks her traveling experiences into tomes of photo albums, but despite all the unique places Sharon visited, I wondered if there was a specific trip she remembered the most. When I asked her, she let out a short sigh and glanced out the window to ponder the question. It happened to be a rather sunny morning in Poquoson, and a host of fishermen could be seen in the clear horizon. There was a period of silence as Sharon shuffled through her mental inventory, until finally she found an answer.
“First time in New York, probably. My sister urged me to meet her there,” Sharon said. I couldn’t help but notice that Toni made an appearance as another significant event in her life, and I knew it wasn’t coincidental. Sharon noted that her sister had been a frequent traveler through various mission trips to Mexico, but the flight to New York would be marked as Sharon’s first time in an airplane.
“It was 1973 and I was about 30 then,” she began, “And when I got to New York I felt completely alone.” Sharon fidgeted in her chair as her mind brought up all the past anxiety the event induced into her consciousness, and she went into depth how nobody in New York would care about her problems. She took routine breaks from telling the story so her hands could relax with the mug of coffee, but when she resumed she elaborated on her feelings of loneliness, isolation, and helplessness in the big city.
“It was awful. If there was ever a time I felt alone, that would be it,” she muttered. At the peak of her desperation, Sharon miraculously ran into her sister who conveniently entered the same hotel she was in. “It was a miracle, a total miracle,” she sighed in relief with her mug, “That’s why I always say Christ is looking out for me.”
The event, while negative, also seemed to have positive consequences for her growth. As Sharon felt a deep emotional isolation from everyone and her sister, it surprisingly taught her that she could not rely on her sister anymore if she was in need. Although Toni returns to the rescue much as she did when Sharon was injured in the woods, Sharon’s response to the situations differed. She made a conscious effort to find help at the information desk, she courageously asked questions of the rude bus driver for directions, and she did it all without her sister’s help. Sharon’s days of crying in the wilderness over a fake snakebite were long over, it was her turn to carry herself to rescue.
On one of my last visits to Sharon’s seaside Poquoson property, I knew I had to ask about her relationship with Toni today. She told me beforehand that she occasionally meets up with Toni in Yorktown, Va., where she and her husband currently reside. Although they have drifted apart over the years, due to differing familial obligations and church groups, they still remain in contact.
“When my dad died, that really brought us together,” Sharon said as she was cleaning the kitchen counter. After the wake of devastation from his death passed over them, Sharon and Toni remained in relatively sparse contact. The reasons for the limited contact don’t stem from a falling out or resentment for on another; rather, she said that they have both grown to not need each other anymore.
“I don’t know really. I just felt like I don’t really need to,” Sharon about her infrequent contact with Toni. “We occasionally schedule a get-together but that’s about it.” I asked her if she made any recent trips to visit Toni, and she almost had to take a moment to even remember. “We went swimming last Tuesday,” Sharon recalled as she finished cleaning the counter, “and I think we played Quiddler.”
She said that she and Toni always love to play board and card games with each other, and that Quiddler is one of their favorites. At this point in the conversation she almost showed more enthusiasm for the games they played than the actual meeting with Toni, which showed that although Toni will always remain an important influence in Sharon’s life, she has emotionally grown as independent from her sister.
“I won one game and she won the other,” Sharon said with a joyful tone. It didn’t seem to matter to Sharon whether she won more games than Toni, it was just the fact that they were together again after all these years, playing child-like board games, not as two grown-up kids but as two kids that have grown up. ◊
Toni & Sharon
"I told her was if I wore a dress made in a high school sewing class, you can suck it up and agree with me on this!” Sharon said. The noticeable theme in the wedding dress story was that it marked one of the first times she defied her sister"—Sharon Causey