I was in Starbucks with Redman, and we were examining the goodies in the display case when a black gentleman spoke to me. "Excuse me, sister, are you on line?"
"No, no, you go, we're deciding," I said.
"Thank you, sister," he said, and stepped up to order. Meanwhile Redman was watching, and, I could tell, processing. I got my coffee, he got his treat, and we sat down at a table. It took him all of four seconds to dive in.
"Why did that man call you 'sister'?"
I smiled. "Well he didn't know my name, and maybe he likes to say 'sister' instead of 'ma'am'."
"Do you like that?"
"I do actually," I said.
He was done with the topic and into his game. I drank my coffee and thought about the salutation of "sister", and a very vivid memory I have of its usage.
It was a train ride over twenty years ago. Jeeps and I had broken up, and I was taking the train home from Manhattan with a bag full of belongings. You know that ride, right? It's as good as it gets. I had no recollection of how I'd become so entrenched in his apartment, and now I figured it was going to take me a month to extricate myself, and I could not wrap my mind around the fact that I was no longer part of a couple.
I sat by the window, pressed up against the side of the car, wanting to disappear in the crack between the seat and the wall, wanting to be invisible, wanting to die. I'm not one for crying in public but I was exhausted, and when the tears came, fuck it, I just let them fall. I was one miserable bitch and the goddamn train wasn't even at 125th Street.
Then someone tapped my arm.
"Are you all right, sister?" This black woman was suddenly sitting there, reaching across the empty middle seat between us and offering me a tissue. I took it and tried to smile. "Heartbreak hell," I said.
She nodded. "I thought that might be it. I'm sorry. You go ahead and cry." She opened a book and started to read and left me be. I looked back out the window, clutching my ball of damp tissue, strangely touched by the "sister" she had used.
Are you all right, sister?
I liked that she called me sister. Why didn't we all do that, why wasn't that salutation the norm for all women, black, white or otherwise? It should feel natural to call an unknown woman of my own age bracket "sister" rather than "Hey, um..." or worse, "ma'am."
So I tried it out, not long after, in the mall when I saw a woman struggling to get on the escalator with a stroller and a toddler. I said, "Do you need help, sister?" She smiled and thanked me and we got her safely aboard, but my insides had cringed. I felt dumb. "Sister" felt phony, like trying on a jacket three sizes too small. I didn't try it again.
Fairly recently, I was on line at a deli in the city, wearing one of my favorite grey sheaths, and the woman behind me tapped my shoulder and said, "Sister, you are wearing the hell out of that dress." I thanked her, burning with pleasure, and jealous of how natural and wonderful "sister" sounded in her mouth. Damn her.
So anyway, while I can't say it, I'm always acutely aware of the sisterhood. We women...we're all in this together, but too often in our youth we view each other as competition. It's in our later, wiser years that we come to realize how much we rely on each other—not only our close girlfriends, but more and more often, strangers.
I've been sponsoring women through Women for Women International for seven years. Besime, Hakima, Regina, Delphine, Olive, Marcella and Nenyitmwa: they are my global sisters. In the every day, I try to sponsor women just by saying something. It's so simple and has such an impact but too often things go unsaid. I try to say them.
If I see a woman wearing a knockout pair of shoes: I tell her. If the dress is fabulous: I tell her. Because when a woman, a stranger, leans into your space and gives you a tissue or a compliment, she becomes your sister. That woman on the train, she is my sister, and I often think of her, twenty years later when I am now forever entrenched with Jeeps, and I thank her for being in that seat, thank her just for being socially fearless and asking:
Are you all right, sister?
Yes. I'm all right. Thank you, sister.