PUBLISHED: 2:53 PM on Wednesday, April 12, 2006
A sister from the other side of the ocean

All my life I wanted a sister.

When I was 6 years old my brother was born. I was excited about the new arrival and never wished he had been a sister instead. That is until he refused to let me put a dress and nail polish on him. Even as a toddler, I couldn't talk him into it. "A sister would be so much easier to deal with," I thought time and time again.

Five years ago I got my wish. At age 18 I got a little sister. She was no baby, but a 16-year-old exchange student from New Zealand. My dad had been contacted about my family hosting a girl who had been living in Wyoming for the past three months and was unhappy with her home situation.

I knew this was my chance to not only get a sister but to learn about part of the world I had been fascinated with since Iwas a child.

So the begging began. Dad was an easy sell. He couldn't stand for a girl to be so far from her home country and in an unhealthy living situation. Mom was a little bit tougher. She had heard all the horror stories about exchange students and committed them to memory. I was told wild stories about misbehaving, theft and mischievous relationships. Her biggest fear was that either the girl wouldn't get along with our family and we would all be miserable or that she would fit in fine and there would be jealousy issues among the ranks.

After analyzing every detail, Mom finally caved into pressure and her compassion to help someone else. A week later Lauren arrived at our home in the rural Oklahoma Panhandle. I was out of town at a high school speech tournament when I got a message at the hotel where I was staying. "It's a girl. She's arriving tomorrow," the note said. Alas, I was getting a sister.

Coming from the huge city of Auckland, New Zealand, the vast prairie land and living 25 miles from a town of any sort were an initial shock. Also surprising were the below freezing temperatures as she arrived in March and had imagined Oklahoma would be much warmer than Wyoming. As I got out of the school vehicle and waited to collect my bags, I saw a girl standing by my mom's van. She was small with reddish-orange hair pulled back by sunglasses on her head, and she had on two coats and a blanket wrapped around her. I knew this had to be Lauren, and as I walked over to her to introduce myself she ran up to me, gave me a hug and said, "I'm Lauren, and I'm really cold. Hug me."

We were instant friends, and the last few months of my senior year in high school were packed with countless memories. Her dream was to see a tornado as long as it didn't hurt anyone.

The night of my high school graduation, radar detected a tornado a 1/4 mile from my house, but the darkness prevented us from viewing it. The only evidence the next morning was a roof to a shed that was rolled up like a burrito. She took the school's tornado drill warning sheet as a souvenir.

The summer was never dull as Lauren and I always found something to do. Lauren discovered that she liked country living and if we suddenly didn't know where Lauren was, we immediately listened for the riding lawn mower. Our yard was a few acres, and she loved to hop on the mower and drive around for an hour or two. Dad finally had to limit her mowing usage as there's not much rain in the Panhandle and she was cutting the grass faster than it could grow.

That fall I went to college at West Texas A&M University, about 200 miles south of my hometown.

Lauren came with my family to visit, and we had a joint birthday party since her birthday was the day before mine. We celebrated as sisters.

She went back to New Zealand the week after Thanksgiving that year.

The next year she called to tell us she was engaged but wouldn't be getting married for a few years. Lauren and her fiancé Jordan are now in the New Zealand Army and plan to get married next year, March preferably, if they are not deployed. The time has passed by fast and although we might write often or talk much, Lauren and I have kept the connection that we formed on that cold March evening.

Even with that in mind, I was surprised when I talked to her a few weeks ago, and she asked me to come to New Zealand as a bridesmaid.

"I'm not going to have any friends in my wedding because I don't want anyone to feel left out or hurt. It's just going to be my sisters - my sister here, my future sister-in-law and you," Lauren said as if I should have expected it.

While I had always felt that Lauren was my sister in any way that mattered, I didn't know she truly felt the same way until that moment.

Lauren is not only giving me a chance to travel to a place I've longed to see.

She's giving me a dream realized of standing by my sister on her wedding day.

Amanda Gragert is the editor at Capital City Weekly.

Courtesy photo My "sister" Lauren Hannah and me at our birthday celebration in 2001.