The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Sisters, but not my own

Rachael Conlin Levy

The photographs of four sisters taken once a year for 40 years are beautiful in their honesty. Nicholas Nixon’s collection of the Brown sisters, begun in 1975 with the latest image just published in the New York Times this month, is a powerful documentation of aging. The accompanying text by Susan Minot clarifies the mix of awe and envy I feel as I view the sisters’ relationship.

“Throughout this series, we watch these women age, undergoing life’s most humbling experience,” Minot wrote. “While many of us can, when pressed, name things we are grateful to Time for bestowing upon us, the lines bracketing our mouths and the loosening of our skin are not among them. So while a part of the spirit sinks at the slow appearance of these women’s jowls, another part is lifted: They are not undone by it. We detect more sorrow, perhaps, in the eyes, more weight in the once-fresh brows. But the more we study the images, the more we see that aging does not define these women. Even as the images tell us, in no uncertain terms, that this is what it looks like to grow old, this is the irrefutable truth, we also learn: This is what endurance looks like.

“It is the endurance of sisterhood in particular… With each passing year, the sisters seem to present more of a united front. Earlier assertions of their individuality — the arms folded across the chest, the standing apart — give way to a literal leaning on one another, as if independence is no longer such a concern. We see what goes on between the sisters in their bodies, particularly their limbs. A hand clasps a sister’s waist, arms embrace arms or are slung in casual solidarity over a shoulder. A palm steadies another’s neck, reassuring. The cumulative effect is dizzying and powerful.”

My three sisters and I are anchored by children and separated by distance — Molly in Germany, Kyna in Fairbanks, Cheyenne in Reno and me in Seattle — so I don’t know when we will converge in one place again. Does even a picture of the four of us exist somewhere in the family photo albums? No matter. I pledge to record what the future will hold, deepening lines in smiling faces. I wish I could begin today.

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