Celebrating the Original Emily

My sister Emily is graduating college today!

With a ceremony to attend, family and friends to shuffle around, and a celebration of two-stepping at the legendary Broken Spoke tonight (a place where my sister once worked and is famous for being “High Kicking Emily”) this will be a busy weekend. Before the revelry begins, I’d like to take a moment to brag on my sister and best friend.

Back in 1976, my parents sat me down to tell me they were having a baby. I was four years old, and instead of expressing excitement, I burst into tears. Assuming I was like a car, I thought my parents were trading me in for a newer model and getting rid of me. Here’s an awesome yet blurry pic of my mom, wearing a really cool 1970’s pregnancy shirt explaining her bump. What a great shirt! If more pregnant women wore shirts like this, it would avoid a lot of awkward questions. The only shirt that would be better would be the one my friend would design that would say, “Food Baby,” another shirt that would avoid a lot of awkward questions. But I digress.

Inside that tummy was the amazing Emily Susan Underwood. We fell in love with her immediately, and my fears of  being replaced were replaced with the joy of having an instant best friend. She was one of those perfect babies who was soft, cuddly, and squeezable. Who needed a doll when you had a real one to play with?  Pardon my bowl cut, sleepy morning eyes and the glare of the hideous wood paneling that screams 1976 and check out that baby. Could there be a cuter baby? I’m pretty sure in this picture, Emily knows that she has a friend for life. That, or she’s filling up a diaper.

Our parents divorced when I was 9. While I know the event rattled our world to some extent, I’ve always felt that both of my parents ended up with wonderful people who were better matches for them in a million different ways. Together, Emily and I navigated the sudden reality of living in two homes, learning how to adapt to two houses with polar opposite philosophies, food choices, schedules, etc. I don’t recall ever feeling like I had to take care of Emily, though I was several years older. We took care of each other. While I was the chatty kid who wore her emotions on her sleeve, Emily was a calming force who observed things quietly and seemed to possess a deep insight on people and situations very early in life. It’s not surprising that today she’ll graduate with a degree in Sociology.

Em was an awesome little kid. Wildly creative, she created and designed a playhouse in our backyard, using a wooden theater set from a children’s play on Noah’s Ark, and re-purposing it into a fantastic 80’s Party Ark, where she and her friends would hang out and create plays and musicals. Because she didn’t have a little sister to boss around, she took ownership of our unusually patient cat Georgia, dressing her up in doll clothes and pushing her around in a cart. During our teens, while I clung desperately to maintain popularity, Em stayed true to herself, rocking unique fashion choices, unafraid to stand out by being different. While I went to prom in sequins, Emily went in leather. She and her date rode to prom on a motorcycle. Emily was the essence of cool, and still is.

Instead of going straight to college after high school, Emily and I both spent a year abroad as exchange students. Emily lived in Switzerland, and while we missed her desperately while she was away, we knew that the experience was life-changing, and would impact her view on the world. She worked in a day care, and the children she cared for taught her French while she took care of their basic needs. It was a perfect fit for Emily’s nurturing spirit and amazing connection with children. She returned from Switzerland more beautiful than ever, more mature, and fluent in French.

Then came the Los Angeles years. Emily moved there in the late 90’s when she was dating a musician, and for all of us who love her, the sense of loss when she moved was intense. Yet, Emily has always made choices that are well-thought out, and part of her decision to move was to support her boyfriend’s dream, but also to experience working and living independently in a huge city. She met great friends, carved a niche for herself in advertising, and was the picture of success.

I moved out to LA in 2000 after finishing my degree. Emily invited me to move in with her, and it was one of the best years of my life. Inspired to be healthy, we jogged together on the beach, bickering in the cold morning air, and rewarding ourselves at the end of the run by swinging on the large swing set facing the beach in Santa Monica. Once, while jogging, we saw Crocodile Dundee. Or not. (Inside joke). We sang Karaoke so often that we referred to it as “Vitamin K”. Miles away from our home town, we made lifelong friends in LA, and will always feel like we’re a little bit California because of it.

If it weren’t for men, Emily and I would be those sisters who live together forever. We’re pretty much those sisters anyway, reading each other’s thoughts and sharing countless obnoxious inside jokes. We geek out and sing in harmony together, using years of church choir experience to figure out harmonies to all sorts of cornball songs. And since we’re Amy and Emily, call ourselves the Indigo Squirrels, named after Amy and Emily of the Indigo Girls. We share a strange language we created based on the movie “The Ladies Man,” to the point where I’m sure some people we know think we both have lisps and were raised in Harlem.

We love attending weddings together, where we feel like the oddball Southern sisters in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”. Here’s a picture taken at a friend’s wedding in Los Angeles. Shortly after this picture was taken, we were nearly electrocuted/arrested for taking our shoes off and dancing in the waters of the lighted fountain behind us. This is the wedding where we became known as “THOSE sisters.” We’re proud of that title.

I moved back to Austin in 2001, madly in love with my now-husband, Tim, and we married in 2002. A naturally-talented event planner, Emily planned our wedding from her desk in Los Angeles, generously funding many of the necessary items for our intimate, backyard wedding at my mom and stepfather’s home in Tyler. While my stepdaughter Stephanie was my Maid of Honor, we bucked tradition and invited Emily to be the oldest flower girl in history. And as always, she did it with grace and a sense of humor, and she was beautiful.

When Tim and I had our first child together, we chose not to find out the sex of the baby. We had a few names picked out, and had decided on the name Dorothy Eileen if it was a girl. My paternal grandmother’s name was Dorothy, my husband’s mother’s name is Eileen. My grandmother, while flattered, said that naming a girl Dorothy was cruel because it would only conjure up Wizard of Oz references. Still, we liked the name and went to the hospital with that in our back pocket.

When the baby was born, she came out looking exactly like my sister. Drugged up from an emergency C-section, I stayed behind to get stitched up while Tim greeted the family through the glass wall of the hospital nursery. When the family mouthed, “What’s her name?” Tim simply shrugged a question mark. Tim brought the baby back to me and asked, “Is this a Dorothy Eileen?” to which I groggily replied, “No, she’s an Emily Rose.”

I’m not sure where the Rose came from, since my sister is Emily Susan, but I was all sorts of out of it, and I did grow up in Tyler, where roses are kind of a thing. As soon as Emily Rose was introduced to the world, we arbitrarily removed Emily’s given name and began calling her Tia. We gave her zero choice in the matter, but Emily Rose and Tia are truly two of a kind. Here’s Emily Rose on her 5th birthday, wearing a hand-made cowgirl outfit that Tia designed.

Emily left her life in Los Angeles to move to Austin to be near us, and for that, I’m forever grateful. My kids had an opportunity to be close to their aunt, and each of our children have had the extreme benefit of her influence. She has been there for all of us during celebrations, dramas, birthdays, holidays, and has offered all of us a sense of calm in our otherwise wild life. We couldn’t have done it without her.

A few weeks ago, my sister was proposed to on the beautiful beach in Mexico by her soul mate and best friend, Rocky. I was lucky to be there to celebrate in this huge moment. In the essence of full disclosure, this news is still settling in, as for the first time in my life, I am going to have to share the person with whom I’ve been closest to since we were kids. But take a look at how happy they are! I can’t possibly not be cool with sharing with someone who cares about my sister that much.

Emily’s choice to finish school when she was sure about what she wanted is another prime example of how she thinks through life’s big decisions, and takes them seriously. Through a combination of student loans and financial support from our selfless, hard-working mother, Emily will walk the stage at the Frank Erwin Center today, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She can get over my head very quickly when she talks about theories on populations, crime and other Sociology-related topics. She’s a sharp cookie. In January, she’ll begin graduate school at UT, to earn a Master’s in Social Work. And then, she’ll marry the love of her life.

For me, all of this big news for my sister is hugely exciting, and also bittersweet. But I can promise this: when my sister walks the stage today, it will be her moment, and I’ll be cheering for her the loudest.

Emily, congratulations on this amazing accomplishment. I love you, Thupa Thquirrel!!!!

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