My family of origin had its own mythical creation story.
In the beginning, we (my two sisters and me), were playing cards in my mother’s stomach. Somehow Gayle won (I suspect she cheated), and got to be born first. Peggy won the second round (more cheating) and was thereafter dubbed first loser. Being lonely for about 33 months, I finally managed to win a game of solitaire, and was officially born second loser (aka Pokey II).
My parents named Gayle, Gale Caren. Being smart, independent, and convinced she knew better than anyone, at about age 12, Gale protested. She convinced my parents to take legal action to spell her name correctly. Who does that? From then on, she was and is Gayle Karen. I will always remember her spelling it, loud and clear, G-A-Y-L-E. Whenever the speech-to-text function on my phone misspells her name, I immediately change it. From early on, Gayle knew what was right. As it turns out, according to the Freakonomics dudes, children who grow up with oddly spelled names experience worse educational and achievement outcomes. Duh! G-A-Y-L-E knew that back in 1964, took matters into her own hands, and changed the arc of her destiny.
As we know from developmental research, girls who grow up with a clear sense of identity and an assertive (I know what I want) style, do well in life. Gayle knew what she wanted. She became known as the “bossy” one. But Gayle was much more than bossy; she was a leader.
The famous existential group psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom (who, by the way, at age 88 will be keynoting again for the American Counseling Association in San Diego in April), says that group leaders are, by default, role-models and norm setters. Whoever takes the lead, implicitly and explicitly sets behavioral standards for everyone else. As group members, we cannot help but be influenced by the leader’s norms and behaviors. Group leaders show us the way.
In my family, more often than not, Gayle showed us the way.
In her early teens, Gayle designed and produced a neighborhood newspaper. Who does that? At age nine, I got to be the neighborhood sports reporter. Gayle mentored me as I wrote my very first publication. How many nine-year-old boys get big sisters who publish their first article?
Gayle organized backyard carnivals. Among the many backyard activities, we had fishing booths; fishing booth are like portable walls that carnival attendees sling ropes over. Then, two people behind the wall who are running the booth, grab the rope, and use clothes pins to clip on the “fishing” prize. These were big events. Gayle was a legacy in the neighborhood; she was a genius at organizing events and willing them to happen. Gayle was often the force that led us to organize ourselves into a family team that made things happen.
Not only did I learn skills of leadership from Gayle, I also learned skills of followership. Put in terms used by the famous psychological theorist Alfred Adler, Gayle taught me how to be in a community and how to cooperate. Gayle didn’t (and still doesn’t) know Adler or Yalom or any other famous names in psychology, but sometimes when I study them, I think to myself, ah . . . I started learning about these things before I turned 10, from Gayle.
Sometimes Gayle made mistakes and taught us things we shouldn’t do. Older siblings are great for that. I remember and tease Gayle for some of her quirks. But I think the only reason I get so much delight in remembering a few of Gayle’s neurotic behaviors is because they were exceptions. Most of the time (and I’m talking directly to you now Gayle), you weren’t just the bossy one; you were the smart one, the organized one, the relentlessly focused one, and the one who helped your subordinates (Peggy and me) learn how to be smarter and how to contribute to the good of the family and neighborhood.
Later in life when you experienced challenges and sadness, you modeled for me how people can cope with unplanned hardships and come out stronger on the other side. You were (and are still) a role model for me for that, and for so many other things. But in particular, your ability to sift the wheat from the chaff and focus like a laser on what’s important in the moment is illuminating.
Somehow, despite no college education, you took yourself from waitressing at Earl Kelley’s buffet diner, to being a bank teller, to being a bank vice president, and on to becoming an IT leader with AT&T and Blue Shield of Oregon. You are the epitome of American success. You worked your way to the top.
I hope you know that I know, despite me having a Ph.D., and Peggy (who bit me) having a Master’s degree, in our family, you were always the smart one. You were always the leader. You could discern the right and moral direction without a compass or a Bible. I am amazed and humbled at your success. I am happy and grateful to have been led by you, to follow you, and to learn from you. I am forever grateful that you cheated in our first card game, because, really I was the winner; I won the prize of having you as my big sister.
G is for Gratitude. G is for Gayle. G is for a tie (with Peggy, even though she bit me), for the Greatest sister of all time.
Happy late birthday from your brother, who, as you know, is usually late in all things.
12 thoughts on “G is for Gratitude . . . and Gayle”
Me too, on the gratitude thing !! I haven’t had as long of exposure, but my gratitude is deep.
Wow John! That explains a lot, including how you can keep up with Rita. Seriously, I am so envious. I wish I had an older sister like the one and only Gayle. Happy Birthday to your sister. And John, thank you for one more beautiful, funny, engaging, thought provoking piece of wisdom for my treasure trove. I hope that some day there will exist “A Collected Works of John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan”.
Thanks for your continual wonderful comments and feedback Nadine. Gayle was indeed, a great oldest sister. I’ve been so fortunate in life that I’ve got not significant complaints. I hope all is well for you and your family. John
What a wonderful tribute…
What a wonderful tribute!!
How lovely, what a great sister and what a great brother to express his love and admiration ❤
Thanks Carol! I’m lucky all the way around. Hope all is well for you.
Still fighting the fight with suicide prevention. X
Fantastic. Keep up the good work!
John, as usual, whatever you (or Rita) write is humorous, interesting, and inspiring. . .Makes me wish I had had an older sister! I hope you and Rita are doing well; you’re a big part of my best memories of grad school and Missoula! Have a wonderful holiday and good health and happiness in 2020!! Much love to both of you, Brenda Binkerd
Hi Brenda. Thanks very much for your comment. I have clear and positive memories of you too. I hope your holiday is fantastic and am sending love right back to you!