Early last year, I drove across Florida to see my sister. She didn’t know I was coming. In fact, she didn’t know I existed.
The mother who adopted me as a baby and raised me in Baltimore had died a few years back. Then I found out my biological mother had died, too. She had been living in Florida, as if waiting for me when I moved to West Palm Beach after college two decades ago. But I didn’t learn this until she was already dead. We never met.
Then, through a combination of research and luck, I learned that my birth mother had a daughter five years after I was born, meaning I had a biological sister who was also in Florida, just three hours away. I couldn’t let her slip away, too.
As I drove past the sugar cane stalks and ragged palm trees of Florida’s interior, I was so nervous I felt nauseated. I knew that I was closer than ever to a potential reunion, but that I was also closer than ever to a potential rejection.
I was unnerved, too, by a vague foreboding. From online snooping, I knew we had differences. She was a registered Republican. I’m a Democrat. (Facebook even labels me very liberal.) She had a son when she was a teenager, while I didn’t marry or have children until my mid-30s.
With wobbly legs, I walked up her suburban driveway and knocked on her door. No one answered, and I left a letter with a picture of my family and me.
The next evening, my cellphone rang. She sounded suspicious but soon turned cordial.
A few days later we met in a park in the middle of the state. Her warmth surprised me. She gave me a Greek “evil eye,” a glass trinket symbolizing our shared bloodline. All my life I had taken on the ethnicities of my adoptive parents, Irish and Polish. Now, I had an ethnicity of my own.
I looked down at this strange eye in my hand. “So, does this wish evil on people?”
“No,” she said. “It sees evil and wards it off.”
She had made Greek sandwiches for lunch and prepared a photo album for me, full of pictures of our mother. Now I knew where my older son’s curly hair came from. She had even written me a poem.
We each had a sibling whose life had self-destructed: hers a sister, mine a brother. And we both had a direct way of speaking that some might construe as blunt, a trait I giddily saw as a genetic puzzle piece nestling into place.
But on other fundamentals, we diverged. She was not a college graduate. She had a pet pig named Link. To me, a city guy, the idea of having a pig as a pet struck me as cartoonishly rural.
Our conversation touched on politics, and she referred to Barack Obama as “our Muslim president.” The comment hit me like a punch in the gut. I told her, in the most noncombative way I could, that he wasn’t. She conceded nothing. We dropped it.
We had someone take a picture of us: me with my short dark hair and geeky glasses, her with her dark untamed curls and shades. In the photo, her smile is toothy and bright, her happiness made plain. My teeth are hidden, my smile inscrutable. Later, she would let on that this smile disappointed her.
But in the following weeks, our bond of new siblinghood drowned out our differences. We texted like addicted teenagers. She made my family homemade Greek food on a visit to her home. When she called me her “shiny new brother,” I swooned.
Then one day she texted me a jarring image of a bumper sticker slogan: “9MM beats 9-1-1 every time.”
I blinked at my screen. “Are you a gun person btw?” I asked. “Might as well know that now lol.”
She said she was licensed to carry, then asked if I had ever be “down to go to a gun range.”
I pondered this. “They’re kind of necessary in certain contexts,” I replied. “But in the context of me holding one, I think that’s a bad context for a gun lol.”
“It’s seriously not a big deal!” she said.
I can’t stand guns. I don’t think it’s smart to keep a gun in a home for self-defense, and not only because my boys are 5 and 2. I don’t understand why someone would want to shoot a weapon for fun. To me, they’re emblematic of brutishness.
Our text blizzard tapered to a flurry, just occasional photos of enticing dinners mid-simmer and selfies with our children and spouses. She kept coaching me to smile bigger. I said I would try harder. As the presidential primary season grew increasingly ugly, we steered clear of politics.
Six months ago, she told me she and her husband were buying a manufactured home on eight acres in a little town in north Florida, an even more conservative part of the state than where they had been living.
She had always wanted more land, and I was happy for her. But I also saw this as a widening of our rift, a rejection of the urban melting-pot lifestyle I had always embraced. At the same time, I longed to see her more, and now she would be two hours farther away. The news broke my heart.
I poked fun in a thinly veiled attempt to get her to reconsider, saying that it would be so quiet there she would “be able to hear a mouse fart five miles away.”
But, move she did.
Then, as hate-laced rhetoric and angry political rallies dominated the news, I began to worry anew: Does my sister support this?
I could stay silent no longer. “Election getting crazy,” I texted. “I gotta ask. Are you supporting Trump?”
The response came quickly: “You and I will not discuss politics brother dear.”
“A chilling response, indeed.”
A red heart emoji appeared in reply.
“Well whatever you do, I hope you’re really, really paying attention.”
“Ditto,” she replied. Another red heart.
I told her that if we discussed it, maybe we could end up learning something about each other. For now, I said, I would have to assume she was supporting Trump.
She told me not to assume but didn’t elaborate. “You’ve grown on me in this last year,” she typed. “I shall not ruin it xo.” Another red heart.
I didn’t dare bring up politics again. But I couldn’t help dwelling on it. I feared that a connection I had longed to make my entire life, my only link to my maternal roots, was now under political siege.
Was I really going to allow stereotypes shaped by polarized political debates to sabotage my relationship with my own sister, who feeds me like a doting mother and protects me with a Greek evil eye? What did her views of the world matter when her view of me produced nothing but generosity and warmth?
We went silent for five days. Then she sent me a picture of a cat wearing glasses.
“Lol it’s the cat me!” I replied.
Later that month, I drove on rolling country roads past patches of fiery red wildflowers and a business flying a Confederate flag, until I rumbled along a dirt lane and arrived at her secluded home.
I was greeted, as always, with a tight embrace. I handed her my usual flowers. She showed me an herb garden they had started with their daughter and took me into their pig’s new, spacious pen. As I petted him, he bit my foot. It was harmless but I was spooked and jumped away, which we both found hilarious.
She gave me a tour of the rest of the woodsy property. From the road, the trees had looked dense. But once among them, I was surprised to find there was plenty of room to walk around. I found the quiet not isolating but soothing.
“I can see why you love it here,” I told her.
All along, I had wanted a sibling soul mate. I got, instead, a sibling who holds opposite views and whose “Muslim president” remark appalls me to this day. But I also got a sibling who has been nothing but kind and generous to me over the nearly two years since we met, and I love her.
With family, you can’t always resolve your differences. You can only be grateful for the good and try to hold on to it.
Her son, 20, arrived that evening. He looks more like me than anyone I’ve ever met, including my own sons. He had asked that I wear the same colors as he would be wearing for a picture of us, to maximize our similarities.
As my sister held up her camera, I smiled a wide, toothy smile. I hoped it was bright enough, this time, to match hers.