When it comes to charming strangers, my sister is one in approximately 400,000.
My short, overweight sister who wears Christmas sweaters without irony is more popular at parties than I am. How’s a gal supposed to feel about that?
Here’s something else: Her favorite conversation starter is, “My dad was a pastor.” She lands with, “My brother, Andy, is a pastor, too.”
And there’s more. My sister's favorite topic, the one that hooks ‘em good and that’s sure to make her a new friend for life is, “My sister, Gretchie, had a baby.”
BOOM! Did I tell ya? How am I—a middle-aged, middle-attractive, middle-income mom-of-three—supposed to compete with that?
Last weekend we attended a crowded Christmas festival where no fewer than a half-dozen strangers chatted her up. And, yeah, she told them all about her pastoral ancestry and her child-rearing sister, to which they smiled and nodded and asked her name and told her how much they loved her seizure-inducing sweater. I’m telling you, this is a real thing.
When it comes to being able to charm strangers, my sister, Bekah is one in approximately 400,000. (And you thought I was going to use a cliché.) She was born with Down Syndrome. Which means that over the course of our 40-some years of sisterhood, I’ve witnessed just how powerful a people magnet “downsies” can be. Physically, she flaunts the most common traits of DS (as described by the National Down Syndrome Society): low muscle tone, small stature, an upward slant to the eyes, and a single deep crease across the center of the palm. More than that, though, she crushes it when it comes to that other thing that folks with Down Syndrome tend to have: the je ne sais quoi factor. People just can’t help but cross a room to talk to Bekah and her friends.
Maybe it’s the look. Down Syndrome blesses its people with rounder faces, with less hard, stony facades than us non-DS. After all, I know who I approach at a party when given a choice between someone who looks like he enjoys pie as much as I do, and someone who looks able to cut me with her cheekbones.
There’s the vulnerability, too. Bekah, like most of her peers, has a hard time with eye contact. She’s either looking down at her feet or boring a hole into the center of my mother’s back as she follows her through a crowd. The look rings like a siren call to the empathetic heart. I suspect, too, that she’s often too busy sussing out the anxieties in her head to look up and look around. When will we eat? Will they have Diet Coke? It’s loud here. That man’s voice scares me. I hate salad. I will not, not, not eat salad. Sometimes she even voices her fears as she goes, as if opening her inner world up to those around her. I’ve been here before. I was a little girl last time. You gave me meatloaf. I’d like to go home now. We outsiders can’t resist jumping in to help.
Most of all, I think we non-DS folk are fascinated by Bekah and her crew. They don’t see themselves the same way we see them. Point in fact: for many years, Bekah was worse than my senile grandmother when people-watching. Grandma liked to point fingers at the obese, but Bekah openly derided her peers and other disabled people as, “retarded.” Thankfully those scenes are a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean her boundaries have adjusted to the social standard. Recently she told my father-in-law she was having her period. “Cramps,” she said, grabbing at her belly. Catch her coming out of a stinky bathroom, and she’ll tell you she just lost five pounds.
Somehow, no matter how garish her outfit or how wild her looks, Bekah never looks scary. I do. I look scary when I roll out of bed with raccoon eyes and looking like a squirrel’s nested in my hair. My boys tell me so. Bekah, though, her je ne sais quoi overrides that. The first question she asked my boyfriend-now-husband was, “Are you going to marry my sister?” And he did. My typical, non-DS, moderately functioning brain may have thought to ask that, but it would never have granted me the courage to do so.
Minnesota-based writer and ghostwriter. Read her and meet her at GretchenAnthony.com.