My sister Julia died earlier this month. That’s probably the hardest sentence I’ve ever had to type. Julia was my first best friend, my confidante, my cowriter of two books, my go-to person whenever I didn’t know how to cope with something. I need her now to cope with this. I’m still trying to come to grips. Last week my other sister, Suzie, and I were at Julia’s house, packing away her things, which was a heartbreaking task. The only thing that made it easier was the friends and neighbors who came by to help. And the fact that Austin is such a friendly place. I felt surrounded by kindness.
But it was still difficult to go through that house. Every possession I boxed up felt like a goodbye. Especially the books. A bookworm her entire life, Julia had books in every room. She was a detective fiction nut and owned complete collections of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and so many others. PG Woodhouse had a good showing on her shelves, of course. (We spent part of the week searching for a good home for Jeeves, her dog.) I pulled down shelves and shelves of Georgette Heyer, Joan Smith, and Mary Jo Putney. Classic fiction. Historical fiction. Movie star autobiographies, which Julia and I devoured and swapped.
Julia was the first person I knew who wanted to be an author. When they were in elementary school, she and Suzie spent weekends closeted in a room co-writing stories on loose-leaf paper, fictional accounts of Julia, her friends, and a school suck-up named Fink von Stink, complete with illustrations. A large purple binder of the stories was on Julia’s shelves last week, too, and reading them with an editorial eye, I found them surprisingly fluid and well-written, and hilariously stupid.
So many books reminded me of the author manias that Julia passed on to me: Barbara Pym, Heyer, and British suspense writers like Nicci French and Val McDermid. A few were the authors that I had recommended to her, such as Robertson Davies, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Kate Atkinson. We both liked Rona Jaffe, so I understood completely when I pulled not one but two copies of Class Reunion off a shelf.
Reading is a passive, solitary activity, but Julia could be passionate and opinionated about stories. We argued over endings, and whether an author had flubbed it in the last chapter. Clearing out the bookshelves, I was reminded of the time we’d brought the same Anne Tyler book on a plane ride and had almost spent part of our vacation not speaking to each other over a disagreement about it. (Don’t ask.) I also remembered an afternoon when I was ten or eleven, when Julia finished Crime and Punishment and was so taken with it that she came to my room to tell me the story, making it sound so good that I decided I wanted to read it just as soon as I finished Old Yeller.
Julia was older than me by three years, and often felt the need to look out for me. When I was about to start school, she decided I needed to learn to spell so that I wouldn’t be an ignoramus when I arrived in first grade. She taught me one word before losing interest in the project, or losing patience with me. The word was J-U-L-I-A. I repeated it to myself constantly and wrote it in shaky letters on a poster in my room so I wouldn’t forget. As if I ever could.