January 17, 2021 will be the 5th birthday since my baby sister, Allison Elizabeth Spiller, died. She would have been 57 this year.
I am reminded of her passing on an almost daily basis. With my Mom’s passing two years ago, I gained the dubious honour of becoming caretaker of the family stories. I feel the need to share some my fondest memories of my sister, as we grew up, so that those memories are not lost.
Allison and I moved a lot in our early years, though neither of us had many clear memories of that time. I was born in Vancouver, BC and Allison was born in St. Catherines, ON. Before I was 5, we had lived in many places including Vancouver, Toronto, Etobicoke, Hanover, Welland, and, lastly, London. We moved whenever our Dad had job offers in support of his career in Municipal Recreation. London was ultimately where Allison and I would grow up.
London represented a pivotal point in our lives for Allison and I. At ages 5 and 3, the memories of our time in London are our earliest memories– especially for Allison. In London, we became school-aged and that also meant we were getting old enough that Mom could consider going back to school herself.
When we first arrived in London, my parents adopted the suburban lifestyle and bought a house in Northridge. My parents mutually decided to help each other get the best possible education while they raised their young family. My Dad took a job at Fanshawe College as a teacher, building out the then new Recreation Leadership program, and Mom became a student at the University of Western Ontario. Over the years, my Dad and Mom would switch roles–one working and the other going to school–as they pursued their Masters of English Literature (Mom) and Doctorate in Adult Education (Dad). They continued this way until Allison and I were in both our teens.
Their choice to be either students or teachers led my parents to another realization: They both would almost always have summers off. Eventually, they chose to trade North London home ownership for a Berkshire Village townhouse and a tent trailer. Some might see that as a step down, but, Allison and I would later agree–in hindsight–it was an awesome decision.
Berkshire Village was a great place to grow up. Allison and I both learned to swim in the indoor and outdoor pools at the Berkshire Clubhouse. We made life-long friends in the neighbourhood and the local schools, all within walking distance: Brick Street and Woodland Heights public schools and Westminster Secondary School. But best of all, living in Berkshire allowed my parents to take Allison and I camping for 2-3 months, every summer.
Summer after summer, we would pack up the station wagon and our tent trailer. My parents would pick a direction and off we went. The provincial and national parks became our summer homes. We traveled all through eastern Ontario, northern Ontario, Quebec, and the eastern United States.
At every new campground, we had a similar ritual: We would get our trailer situated on our campsite and then my Dad would take Allison and I by our hands and walk us to the kids’ play area, introduce us to the other kids, and leave us to get to know our new friends. While I’m sure this was a way for my parents to get us out from underfoot while they set up the campsite, the result was that Allison and I quickly learned to be independent.
Most summers, Allison was my best, and at times only, friend and playmate. Our days were filled with hiking, hanging at beaches, and campfires. From campground to campground, we laughed, we cried, we played, and we fought. My baby sister knew exactly which buttons to press to annoy and tease me. We could be playing companionably one moment and be in a screaming match the next. I can’t imagine how many times my parents were relegated to the role of referee. However, my parents made it clear that I was the big brother and that it was always my job to make sure that Allison was safe and protected. Oh, I resented that, at times, but I can’t deny that it made our bond stronger.
Each night in the trailer ended the same way. We’d have dinner, play cards at the table, and then, at bedtime, we’d get our pajamas on, brush our teeth, and settle into our beds for our favourite ritual–Mom would read to us each night. Nestled in our trailer in the woods, we would lose ourselves in the the stories Mom read. Allison and I would later muse that our love of reading likely came from those cozy nights in the camper.
When we got older, my Nanny and Grampo (my Mom’s parents), newly retired, decided to join us for one of our summer camping trips –throughout the northeastern United States. Suddenly, Allison and I were relegated to a 3-man tent beside the trailer. Interestingly, we never got to move back into the trailer—even after my grandparents purchased their own tent trailer. Hmmm?!? Anyway, Allison and I both liked not being shushed each time we talked when we were supposed to have been sleeping.
This particular camping trip with my grandparents ended with a scary experience that has since become a classic family story. Our final night in the USA, we were in our campground when we were advised to evacuate the site due to possible tornadoes, but my grandparents and parents chose to stay as the winds ramped up. On that night, we were invited back into the trailer to sit out the storm. Huddled up against the storm side of the trailer, we braced ourselves as the winds wailed outside. On the other side of the trailer, we watched as the “booze box” – the adults’ alcohol supply–started shaking and bouncing around. My grandfather famously lunged across the trailer, grabbed the box and declared, “If we’re going down, I’m taking the booze box with me!” We survived the night, but several other trailers around us had been flatten or destroyed.
As Allison and I approached high school age, members of my family were growing and moving in all different directions. Allison and I started to resent leaving our friends and activities for entire summers at a time and the long camping trips came to an end. Mom had achieved her Masters in English and Dad had earned his own Doctorate of Education. With individual goals achieved together, and kids grown up, maybe my parents lost sight of why they were together. They ended up getting divorced a couple of years later.
After our parents split, Allison and I became focused on becoming the adults we were meant to be. The more studious and driven of the two of us, Allison pursued and achieved a Doctorate of Philosophy (Bio-Psychology major) and later her medical degree. My family was, justifiably, very proud and I enjoyed introducing her, jokingly, as Dr. Dr. Spiller. I was so incredibly proud of her, and always will be.
Happy Birthday, Allison! You are never far from my thoughts.