There’s Sandra Su. She was born first and was the dearest, smartest, most talented, most to be admired child ever to walk the earth–except maybe for Shirley Temple whom she resembled. I knew her primarily from photographs in Grandma Klimek’s living room in town. After Grandma told me all the wonderful things about my older cousin, I would visit each of her photographs, show them to my little friends, and imagine myself being able to do everything this Shirley-Temple-like-child did. In one large portrait Sandra Su is a ballerina posing en pointe and wearing a tutu. In another she must have been dancing to “The Good Ship Lollypop.” I simply can’t see re-runs of Shirley Temple without thinking that, really, the little girl on the silver screen is actually my cousin.

She is the eldest daughter of my mother’s brother, Pete, and his wife,  Alice Lou. She is Sally Su’s older sister. Sal may have not yet been born when Sandy and I posed for this particular photo. Likely it was taken during WWII. when Pete was shlepping Admiral Halsey through gunfire around the South Pacific. I don’t recognize this house. Maybe it was where she lived in Iowa. Maybe it was Christmas; she looks pleased with that stuffed animal, and the tree seems to have lost a branch being hauled in or out. Whatever she has, it would have been her right to have it, being as wonderful as she was, but I don’t really look all that happy, do I?

Sandy was just that much older than I to separate us during childhood. Even once the war was over and Pete’s family spent summers in Baudette, it was Sally with whom I played, and Sandy found friends closer to her own age who lived in summer homes along the river not far away.

Sandy Su, Mary Jane, Sally Su

This was sort of the way it must have been. Probably I wanted to BE my cousin Sandy. I can already see in our faces the women we would become in later years.And look! Someone made us identical dresses. Probably that would have been Aunt Eva. And we even all ended up sixty years later wearing our hair in the same styles. Amazing!

We weren’t sisters, after all, even though the grown-ups showed us off from time to time as if they wished we were. Both Sal and I depended upon Sandy as a kind of miniature adult; both of us rebelled against her restrictions and attempts to remind us that we were the little ones, subject to her rule. But that’s the way it is in every family, right? Except for that one detail — we were not sisters, and at the end of the summer they would return to Iowa and I’d become an only child once again.

Are children trained by life for the challenges that will visit them as adults? When I look at the three of us, I think maybe so. And since I’m gazing most intently today on Sandy, let me just say a few words about how Life insisted she be strong. She was the first in our family to work towards an advanced degree. Hers was in business. She became a college educator. She married a fine man who, midway along his road of life, was striken by a rare disease that would make him an invalid and Sandy a caretaker for the over twenty years remaining to him. She educated herself in the politics and practices of doctors, nurses, hospitals, government laws concerning health care — and often knew a whole lot more about how to keep her husband, Wood, alive than they did. Their hearts might have fallen into their stomachs when they saw her coming. She dedicated herself. She became a Bear, a Harpy, an Archangel, a Goddess of protection. Wood used to laugh: “Don’t mess with the Redhead!” He knew he could count on her. We all knew he could count on her.

And at the same time she continued to teach, she supported the family, she masterminded a new house where he’d feel stronger, on a lake where he’d enjoy the ducks and the boat, she survived breast cancer.

Wood lived longer than anyone could imagine. When he did die, Sandy lost herself for a while. We who have known widowhood understand that. Physically as well as emotionally she had taken a beating. She began needing to use her vast education of the American medical system to intervene for herself. And she did…she does. At present she’s recovering from surgery to replace her shoulder. And here’s something quite wonderful — she can still count on her friends from childhood. Even if they live halfway across the continent they keep in touch. There’s something more than special about our Sandra Su. There’s an honor she’s held up. There’s a faithfulness, a tenacity, a courage with which she continues to face each moment.

Thanks, Sandy. I’ve always been grateful for your presence in my life.