My sister — my only sibling — outgrew me when she went to high school; our worlds diverged. She was four years older and smarter than me, more mature, wiser, a much better student. I would eventually go to Notre Dame, and she would not.
So why talk about my sister Kenton when introducing a cover story on the women of Notre Dame?
Well, first, because girls couldn’t go to Notre Dame when it was time for her to go to college. And because back then, she was told, the main reason for a woman to get a college degree was to support herself if something happened to her husband.
Still, she did her best to immerse herself in the Notre Dame experience, walking over from Saint Mary’s College to Notre Dame as often as she could, graduating from Saint Mary’s in 1970.
But there’s a better reason to tell my sister’s story beyond these outdated societal shifts.
Even though my sister and I never lived in the same place after she went off to college, she and I would talk long and deep about our parents whenever we got together. We would talk about the expectations, the lives they envisioned for us, the sacrifices they made for us to fulfill their dreams rather than what we wanted for ourselves. Because she was older, because she went first, it was harder on her to battle parental plans. So she did follow their route, having not realized her own.
She had the fine home in the right neighborhood, beautiful children, a good job; her husband was advancing professionally, providing the things that bring status, comfort and ease. But outward appearances do not always mean happiness. There was the loss of an infant son, and then her marriage ended abruptly when she was 40, leaving her to contend with scary financial pressures and teenage daughters. Those were bad years, hard times.
But that is only the prelude to her real life story. Because when all that got knocked out from under her, she found her true nature and built back up a life she wanted. She fought strong through a dark passageway, altered course, found the happiness that had not been waiting at the end of that other road. She turned back to life’s basics in the outdoors, to adventures in the Smoky Mountains — kayaking master-class whitewater rivers, backpacking the Appalachian Trail, hiking sections with women friends over the years and climbing the northern end of the trail up Mount Katahdin in Maine when deep into their 60s.
She has raised two strong, independent daughters and met a man whose love of the woods and streams and down-home simplicity matched her own. And they live in a house that suits them well — a little rustic, but out in the country.
She found good work, too, as a medical librarian at a hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee, and then at the nuclear research laboratory in Oak Ridge. She moved on from there and spent years as the head librarian for the town of Gatlinburg. All she did there — the programming, the new building, the civic engagement — wrapped her tightly into the fabric of the community, earning her honors and accolades as she retires this summer at age 70.
My sister lived more than half her life before discovering her own way, and getting there wasn’t easy. Sometimes the hard part is learning who you are, becoming true to yourself and allowing your own way to present itself — at whatever age. My older, smarter, wiser sister showed how important that is when finding happiness.
Finding one’s own place emerged unexpectedly as a theme of this issue — as true for the women of Notre Dame as for a journalist, an executive vice president or kids playing sports, a reveler still celebrating the music of his generation or a priest from Oklahoma standing firm with his flock in Guatemala. Men and women these days have a multitude of ways of expressing themselves, living the path of their heart’s desire, finding themselves, their route to happiness and fulfillment, without letting others set that course for them. There’s no single road for everyone, but walking to the beat of your own drummer is essential. Blessed are those who find theirs.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.