There were never such devoted sisters”
In high school, I’d wake before the sun to a quiet, sleeping home. I’d take my shower and eat a bowl of cereal on the staircase where I could watch the golden rays of sunrise stream through the front door. Then I would wake my sister, sleeping in the room across the hall from mine. She’d protest before rolling over, insulting my outfit and telling me to change. She was usually right.
Kelsey has an eye for making something look right– whether an outfit or a room. Her spaces always manage to feel homey. She has a keen sense of style and a critical eye for details that makes her extremely good at what she does for work in advertising, as well as, making her an extremely helpful woman to have as a sister.
When I first went to Hollins, our longest and farthest separation, I had a few friends remark that I must be *exactly* like my sister. They had this notion because I was constantly talking to her or about her, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Me? I tried to match two different patterns together because they were “both flowers.” Head in the clouds, I often picked clashing colors and quickly cluttered a room. Kelsey and I thrive in our differences– we use our strengths to build each other up where the other may be lacking. Over a thousand miles between us and I’d still prop my phone up to film a prospective outfit, looking for some sisterly advice.
There is only a two year age gap between us, the same age difference as Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard and her older sister, Alice Marven Hebard. I know that my close relationship with my sister is heavily influenced by the other sisterships we witnessed growing up and not just our proximity in age. Our mother, one of six with only one brother, frequently shared stories of their “seester” antics growing up. Our Grandma, one of thirteen with only four brothers, went on a “sister trip” every two years. There was nothing quite like getting all nine of those women together in a room, I can still hear the laughter.
Of course, I am curious about the relationship between Alice and Grace. Until recently, I didn’t have much hope for filling in some of those finer details, just a notion that they were close. After all, they lived together for over ten years before Alice’s death in 1928. Even Grace’s 1932 book “Sacajawea” is dedicated to Alice, described as “a companion on the trails.”
Before I visit an archive, I try to determine what will be the best use of my time there. The first time I read through a collection’s inventory, I can’t help but feel a small thrill of possible discovery. I let myself get a little too excited about the Personal Files series in Hebard’s Papers with an entire folder just for her sister, Alice.
I hoped for a cache of letters exchanged between the two sisters. Instead, I found Alice’s teaching licenses, a few letters to her, and some summer school certifications. Not so personal in the “Personal Files” after all. I set aside their relationship, continuing my research into Grace’s various pursuits. There, in a woman’s suffrage folder, I found a small grouping of letters I was looking for.
Addressed to “Betz” and written in Grace’s casual and sloppy cursive are seven long letters describing her time with the “Emergency Corps.” The May 1920 protest featured women from 47 states, trying to push Connecticut to be one of the first 36 states needed to ratify the 19th Amendment. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful in convincing the Governor to call an Emergency Legislative Session and Connecticut did not pass the amendment until September that year, a month after Tennessee became the last of the 36th states needed.
In the confidence of her sister, Grace Hebard wrote about her success as a speaker. Nicknamed “cyclone Wyoming,” she gave several speeches to crowds as large as 500 people and received endless praise from their peers.
“Well Betz last night I spoke at the Victory Banquet– I am sorry to have gone into your melon patch- but I was “funny.”- “Oh so wonderfully sparkling with wit”- “A regular Abraham Lincoln” […]- at first I spoke in a lighter vein- & then serious toward the last & Be jove- they even laughed then! They doubled up with laughter –& applauded & applauded & roared & howllered & clapped- & would not let me go on- & when I had finished they made me arise 3 times & make a deep bow– A regular matinee hero- fancy that.” [Box 21, Folder 7]
I immediately texted the beginning of this quote to my sister. I love the phrase “gone into your melon patch” to mean “stole your thing.” No need for modesty between sisters or false confidence for that matter. Her letter goes on to describe the laughter and shouts that greeted her each time she went to speak after her humorous speech. Perhaps for me, the most relatable part of this story is her unintentional humor– turning serious, the audience just laughed harder.
Along with the details of the speeches, banquets, and a weekend visit to Carrie Chapman Catt’s farm are rich details of the fashions. Grace described Catt’s outfits in detail to her sister, gushing over the stylish suffrage leader’s choice of color, length, and accessories. She also took the opportunity to buy herself some new clothes. “My new clothing goes splendidly. & even if I had to give them up now. I would feel repaid. I dare not tell you what I paid for them for your look of disapproval at spending your hard earned money– but I have ecnomized…” [Box 21, Folder 7]
A disapproving look from a sister? Concerning clothes? No!
Orneriness is an inherited family trait of mine. I definitely have purposefully put on an eyesore of an outfit just to get that classic Kelsey eyeroll. I’ll even send pictures of my latest disaster getup just for her reaction, usually changing before I actually leave the house. Over the years, Kelsey has tried to embrace my eclectic style and bite her tongue when it comes to some of my choices. At times this has led to a quiet standoff, with me purposefully dressed waiting for a reaction that she is purposefully holding back from me.
No matter the differences of opinion in style or the cost of looking stylish, sisters make the best companions. Traveling without Kelsey always makes me miss her more. It appears that Grace felt the same. “I never knew before that the Hudson river was so beautiful. In the autumn it must be wonderful & glorious. I’d like to take that trip with you.” [Box 21, Folder 7] Experiences are best shared and who better to share them with than your sister?
In her letters to dear “Betz,” Grace shows unrestrained and relaxed. Her other letters are mostly formal, business-oriented, with little personal input. But through her sister, we learn more about the whimsy of Grace, her humor, style, and self-conception. Only to her sister would we get this declaration on the afterlife, “in the next world I am going to be a blue bird and sit on a fence post & prene (spelling doubtful) myself in the rain- so believe me–” [Box 21, Folder 7]
For Valentine’s Day, my sister sent me a bag patterned with little blue birds and I thought of Dr. Hebard in the rain. What did her sister think when she read that letter? If Grace is a blue bird now, what is Alice?