I have been privileged to meet and become friends with many sisters.
Several from my vast extended family are actually cousins to whom I feel as close as to my own sister. I admire them as dedicated parents, teachers, writers, and role models.
Many are friends whom I have admired for their interactions with their siblings. Usually, my impression is that they make it look so easy although sibling relationships are often complex!
A few are sisters of brothers who have been presidents.
I have been thinking about that this week because I met Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, President Obama’s sister (yes, for me President Obama is still my President), and because Barbara Bush passed away.
Let me give context: Dr. Soetoro-Ng is Director of The Spark M. Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution. She led a presentation about the Institute at The Pacific Club, a gathering place for many events in Honolulu.
It was the second time I met a president’s sister.
Years ago, I met Nancy Bush Ellis. Nancy is the only sister of President George H.W. Bush.
I had spent several years in Europe, first as a teacher on a Fulbright scholarship, and later as an employee of the Japanese Embassy in Vienna. I then returned to the United States for a long goodbye to family and friends so that I could live in Europe forever. I had a dream of returning to Bavaria where my forefathers and foremothers lived as peasant farmers, but by my mother’s generation had begun careers as teachers (as many are now in Germany and in the United States).
But I also needed to fund my long goodbye!
I worked as a freelance writer and as an employee at country clubs, usually as an assistant tennis pro or assistant accountant. As readers of this blog know, I love writing, tennis, and numbers!
And that is how I met Nancy Bush Ellis. At the time, she was helping her brother in his reelection campaign where she was the guest speaker at an event. I joined other writers to cover it. A friend mentioned that Mrs. Ellis was a volunteer coordinator of the Fulbright program in New England.
“Go talk to Nancy,” she said. “Invite her to lunch. Make this more than just covering an event. Get to know her. Do an in-depth interview.” She literally pushed me in Mrs. Ellis’ direction.
Long story short, I did the interview, and Nancy and I became friends. We wrote each other several times. She encouraged me toward a career path of public service and to move to the Washington, D.C. area. I learned that she, like so many members of her family, devoted her life to causes that help others.
And others who are not just current or former Fulbright scholars, but vast numbers of people who benefit from a good education, scientific research, improved hospitals, advancements in civil rights, more funding of the arts, and greater democracy.
Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, like her brother, President Obama, inspires us to appreciate having rights and civic responsibilities as members of a sustainable world community.
It was the second time in the past month I met Dr. Soetoro-Ng. I reintroduced myself. To my great surprise, she remembered me.
For all the requests they receive from so many people, both Maya and Nancy were more than generous. They gave me the sense that we had known each other for a long time, that even though our lives started in different places, we share the same roots and core values, especially helping those who may benefit from our experience.
Getting to know people like Maya and Nancy has given me the same feelings I had after I interviewed Evonne Goolagong for a tennis article I was writing: that the privilege of meeting them has made me a better person.
Which leads me to my own sister.
Like many siblings, we’ve had our moments with each other — great at times, and, quite frankly, a little bumpy. But I’ve always admired my sister as a mother, gifted linguist, teacher and poet. In my heart of hearts I’ve known forever that she is the more natural writer, that words come as easily to her as hitting a crosscourt lefty forehand does to me!
In addition to hearing Maya’s presentation this week, I also learned that my sister was given a shout out by Winston Duke, one of the stars of the movie Black Panther. Winston grew up in Tobago and moved to the United States when he was young with his family. His sister wanted to be a doctor and their mother wanted to help her realize that dream.
To quote Winston:
“In tenth grade a teacher saw me do a school project and said, ‘That’s the first time I saw your personality, and funny enough, it was when you were forced to be in front of people. I think you should do the school plays.’ And she went and signed me up for the school plays. And that was it—I’ve been acting ever since. Her name was Mrs. Speer, at Brighton High School in Rochester.”
Mrs. Speer is my sister. Winston was a student in her Spanish class. Of course Christine, a very modest person, will be mortified that her proud brother has written about her.
I read an article this week about Barbara Bush’s speech to graduating seniors at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in 1990. She urged students to pursue their careers but to never forget that “you are a human being first and those human connections — with spouses, with children, with friends — are the most important investments you will ever make.”
It’s always worth investing in and being inspired by sisters!