Reflections and Refractions

by Amy J. Wiemers

Every clear, full-moon night in south-central Kentucky, a moonbow appears over Cumberland Falls. The mist offers itself to rays from the moon, and these rays bounce off some droplets, bend through others. The result is a moonbow, sometimes white, sometimes faint with color, and a visitor could easily miss it if she weren't attentive, looking in the right place at the right time. It isn't something peripheral vision picks up.

In the winter of 1994, my younger sister Holly and I stood shivering at the restraining wall by the Falls, patiently awaiting the moonbow a geologist had described at the park lodge. The moonbow eventually emerged, confirmed by exclamations from a few hundred spectators. It shown faint and white, not brilliant, not large and colorful, over the falls. Nonetheless, it lit our weekend.  

Before this weekend, Holly and I had been playing casual tourists with each other, oooing and ahhing at the appropriate spots, but not paying close attention. Worse, we'd been acting like locals who live down the road from a national treasure they never visit. We took each other's existence for granted, as a distantly regarded, frequently overlooked piece of the scenery.

The visit was my idea. For some time, I had felt a deep need, twisting around inside me, bumping up against my core, trying to tell me something I might have known all along had I paid attention: I missed Holly. I had come to see that without Holly, I was only part me. Letters were short and out of synch; phone calls were fragmentary.

Our early lives were much alike. After high school, our paths diverged. We enrolled in different colleges, studied different courses, lived in various states. Holly became a mother as she'd always wanted, with, eventually, three children and several pets. My family remained smaller with less commotion, my husband Paul and our two cats sharing my days and nights. Holly and I collected different data about the world, made dissimilar decisions. We stayed in touch, remained fond of each other, but practiced independence from our parents and older siblings, and from each other. We lived life without sharing the details. Our common past and our shared genes were our mirrors, always there to reveal our similarities. Our separate lives filtered and folded the rays of our experiences, and produced distinctive images.

Our husbands and Holly and Lawrence's first child presented barriers to sisterly togetherness. Miles erected bigger barriers. I tired of seeing my reflection in plate glass windows and noting that we walked similarly; I longed to see Holly's slightly bow-legged walk, not my version of it. I wanted to see her hands, with curved, hard fingernails like our father's, next to my hands, with flatter, soft fingernails like our mother's. I wanted to see her in contemplation, where if I looked just right, she became our sister Ann. I wanted to make jokes and quote lines I didn't have to explain, the ones that arose in the back seat of the Vista Cruiser on the way to the Badlands one August, or on our Schwinns on the way to the library on a May Saturday morning, or in the living room on a gloomy, rainy mid-October afternoon when we were so stupidly bored we laughed at anything. I wanted time to reconnect, to use more than peripheral vision in examining these images, to see ourselves reflected and refracted in each other.

We hadn't known it was a moonbow weekend when we planned to meet the last weekend in February so that Holly and I would be alone together for the first extended time in many years. Cumberland Falls was roughly halfway between my home in Bloomington, Indiana and Holly's home in Morganton, North Carolina.

According to park literature, Cumberland Falls State Resort Park is the only site in the Western Hemisphere where a moonbow occurs regularly. It occurs predictably in so few places because the necessary conditions seldom occur. I accepted the fact that we would play casual tourists with the park, experience highlights only on the surface. The park was merely the backdrop for our own nascent moonbow, one that might become predictable, given the necessary conditions.

Our conversation rarely paused in two days we were there. Our facial muscles ached from smiling, and our abdominals ached from laughing. We both love to eat and cook, so we shared foods with childhood reminders: our parents' scrambled eggs with onions, cheese, and mushrooms; rootbeer floats like the ones we drank with our brothers at the drive-in when our parents hosted dinner parties; tofu hot dogs with vegetarian chili, variations of chili dogs from the ice cream hut near our junior high. I brought candles to warm our shiny pine dinner table; Holly brought candles to light my belated birthday cake. At night, we finally decided it was time to sleep. We climbed into long underwear and sweatshirts, wool socks, and one bed laden with blankets.

During the day, we hiked to stay warm. In the winter park, black, damp tree trunks formed walk-in closets of curtains, gray across the valleys where low cloud cover and blue-gray sky overlapped. Underfoot, soggy leaves became mud several thin layers below, and we were suddenly conscious of the decomposition that occurs all year long. Wet rocks and hardy rhododendrons glowed luminescent red-brown and white and green among the bleaker dominant gray tones along the trails. And, of course, in the midst of it all, the falls tumbled and sprayed.

The first dimming afternoon, we each disclosed years of awkward difficulties, and of more recent accomplishments, with everyday things like ordering in a restaurant or asking for help in a store. I knew all about me. But Holly? Shy? Through sixteen years of tumbling about the same house and yard, schools, and sidewalks, Id thought Holly was the socially brave one. She planned outings with a group of six or more friends; I enjoyed one or two friends at a time. Holly tended to be chatty and louder; I tended to be more reserved, quiet. I had extrapolated incorrectly from friendships to less personal interaction. Getting away from our usual lives, into the quiet of the woods, allowed us to discuss our evolving selves.

Back in our cabin, we faced each other, cross-legged on the gold and green striped couch. We sat within the walls of an appealing box and discussed the unappealing pigeonholes we squirmed away from. We explored similar confusion about being bright, talented, well-educated women engaged in low-prestige work. We rankled at defining ourselves by how we made a living. Few people understood Holly's year-round work in outdoor education. My part-time teaching, tutoring, and clerical work felt indefinable when people asked, "What do you do?"

I learned how important a balance of family life with work is to Holly. Many people, myself included, bounce back and forth in arcs between family and work, play and toil, friends and business acquaintances, seldom offering due time or attention to either end of the bounce, seldom feeling satisfied. And when we admit the strain, we do so in passing, fearful of touching a challenge we're convinced can't be met. I pondered all of this aloud. Holly, understanding my words, expanded upon them. She offered slightly different angles and articulations, useful refractions.

Time alone together helped us reconnect as sisters and friends; we would not remain distant tourists. Our lives, for a few hours, overlapped.

Now Holly and I don't have to be together to see how much we're alike. We don't have to be apart for us to realize how different from each other we are. But sometimes we need a visit like this one, a chunk out of time and space, for us to see the reflections that are our likeness, the refractions that make up our difference, and the arc over the falls that brings them together, to light, to remind us how integral to each other's lives we are.

(c) Amy J. Wiemers

Amy J. Wiemers lives in Normal, IL with three of her best friends, her husband and two cats, and not far from a new best friend, her horse.

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