I’m in pink. She’s in blue. I was born in 1965 and she was born in 1966, just sixteen months later. You might imagine that we grew up braiding each other’s hair and playing Barbies together. You might picture us whispering secrets from our matching twin beds covered with pink chenille bedspreads. You might think I am lucky to have a sister so close in age.
You’d be wrong.
My sister and I have never been friends. Sure, we were housemates for seventeen years, but never, ever friends. I had little patience with her when we were girls. I didn’t want to play with her–she did not follow rules, she was a slob and she couldn’t fold a blanket into a neat square. She whispered at night, keeping me from sleep. She left sandwiches under the bed. She bit me more than once.
By the time we were in junior high, our parents had divorced. She took it hard. I will never forget seeing her in the kitchen while my mother packed boxes. Tears streamed down her face. She cried–the ugly cry, as Oprah would say–at my mother’s wedding, too. Her grief swallowed her whole and I couldn’t muster up any sympathy. My own distress preoccupied me. I found her display of emotions embarrassing and dangerous. I pulled away even more.
Sure, looking back, I feel sorry for her. I wish I’d been softer and kinder. But early on, I switched into self-preservation mode. I kept everyone a safe distance and worked hard at being good and right and smart. I didn’t have time for sniveling people who didn’t wash their hair. And I was just a kid myself.
I see now how much more difficult it must have been for her. Although I felt like I was teetering on the brink of catastrophe and failure, I was a straight-A student, a favored babysitter, a committed member of my youth group, a participant in student government, a passable singer, an avid pianist, a bookworm, an eager volunteer, a good daughter, teacher’s pet and a loyal friend. I considered myself a jack-of-all-trades–competent in many areas, excellent in none. I wasn’t popular, but I was a good daughter and student.
Everything I was, she was not. I overshadowed her, but not with malice. In fact, I didn’t give any thought to her at all. I sound so ruthless, but in my family, it was every man for himself. I found her embarrassing. I wanted distance between us.
All she wanted was my approval. I see that now.
When we were in college, we became pen-pals. She had pen-pals all over the world. I was just another name on her list. We exchanged the most cursory correspondence, nothing of substance, nothing emotional. My letters to and from her had no depth, but they were regular.
I remember the last time we argued. I was newly married and she was newly employed as a language instructor in Japan. She’d come to visit. My youngest sister, my mom, my sister and I drove to the house we grew up in, the house in Whispering Firs. (My youngest sister was born in the master bedroom of that house, as a matter of fact, attended only by my completely unprepared father, but that’s another story.) The house was for sale and my sister had arranged with a real estate agent for us to tour it. (I think she lied to get us in, actually.)
After our nostalgic tour of the shrunken house (it seemed so much bigger back then) we discovered my youngest sister had locked her keys in the car. We stood in the driveway, helpless, hapless. My mother suggested asking a state patrol officer friend a few streets over for help. That plan failed. Then my sister mentioned she had a AAA membership. Hooray! We were saved!
Except that she informed us, “It’s my membership. I’m not letting HER use it.” She’s selfish like that.
I said, “No, no, no, it doesn’t cover your car, it covers you. So, you can use it, even for her car!” I thought she just didn’t understand.
She understood, but she was not willing to use her resources to help us.
We argued loudly and I pointed out her failures to her, as if she hadn’t noticed them before. I was unkind and mean. She was worse.
Eventually, we called AAA.
I decided to never fight with her again. No more yelling. In fact, I decided we’d be shallow acquaintances from that moment on. I wasn’t willing to be vulnerable again.
And so it went. We continued being pen-pals. At one point, I wrote, “Let’s start over. Tell me what you like. What color? What music? What dreams do you have?” She said she didn’t have time to answer my questions.
Every time we interacted, I grew frustrated with her until one day, I realized that my expectations were too high. She acted like she was fourteen–completely self-centered, self-conscious, inconsiderate–and when I began to expect that, I could excuse it. After all, don’t we make some allowances for young teens, knowing that they will eventually mature?
Despite my misgivings and vows, I did keep trying. After all, my dad was dead (when I was 24 and she was 23) and she had no one but family. No husband, no boyfriend, no children, few friends. I extended myself to her, probably out of guilt, maybe to atone for my earlier sins, perhaps to redeem my junior high self.
When I became pregnant for the second time (what do doctors know anyway?), I invited her to photograph the birth. I wanted photographs, but I didn’t want a stranger during those intimate moments. She dabbles in photography, had taken classes, so I thought I could share with her the miracle of birth and she could be my photographer. I thought it was a great idea, a generous offer.
I went into labor on Labor Day. My contractions were two minutes apart when my midwife arrived. By then, I was flinging myself to the ground and howling. In the moments between pains, I telephoned my sister. When she arrived, I was in the birthing tub, clutching the edges of the pool, screaming through the contractions.
I looked up when she and my mom walked in and said, “I’m having contractions. I will scream in a moment. Do not be alarmed.” And then I slid into another avalanche of pain. She clicked the camera, snapping picture after picture. I was vaguely aware of her camera, but my attention was riveted on my baby and the pain my unborn daughter was causing me. Less than an hour later, my baby was born.
In the following days, my sister brought the packets of pictures to me. (Obviously, this happened in pre-digital days.) She told me to look them over and decide which ones I wanted reprints of. I said, “Why?” She told me she just wanted to keep the pictures with her. I said, “Why?” She hemmed and hawed and admitted, “I want to show them to people.”
Ding-Ding-Ding-Ding! Alarm bells went off in my postpartum head. “Who?” I said, dumbfounded.
“Oh, our brother and uncle.”
I went into full cardiac arrest and when I was brought back to life with those paddles (“CLEAR!”) I sprang into action. I sorted through the stacks of pictures and removed all those which were unflattering and unsuitable for public viewing. She’d taken some graphic shots of things even I didn’t want to see. The next time I saw her, I handed over a heavily edited stacks of photographs. I explained that I had removed the pictures I wasn’t comfortable with people seeing.
She nodded as if she understood my feelings.
After she left, she told my mother that I had stolen her pictures.
She came to say goodbye before returning to her home in Japan, dropping a final packet of pictures on my dresser. After she’d gone, I finished nursing my baby, picked up the envelope and pulled out the pictures. I found the negatives in sleeves, with twelve of them marked for reprints. I held them up to the light and discovered that she’d made copies of twelve of the pictures that I had deemed too private to show. The pictures she’d taken were of me at my most vulnerable, at the moment my daughter was being born. I was livid.
I emailed her a furious demand that she return the pictures. She ignored it.
I told my youngest sister what had happened and she reported that our sister had showed her a picture. Our sister told her, “Mel doesn’t want me to show you this.”
I emailed her repeatedly. She ignored me.
Almost a year later, our paths crossed at a barbecue held by my brother to celebrate his marriage. The small gathering was held in their backyard. No room to hide. I decided on the drive over that I would be polite to my sister. I would respond to her, but I would not instigate a conversation. I would not extend myself. I wouldn’t speak first. Would she reach out to me?
And so, we did not speak. I realized then that I had always been the one to say, “How are you?” “How’s your job going?” “What are you doing for fun these days?” “Did you enjoy your trip?” “Are you classes going well?” I’d been throwing out a rope time and time again and she never bothered to catch it. We had no connection.
As I described this broken relationship to friends over the past two years, people express shock at my attitude. They can’t believe I am holding a grudge. They wonder why I don’t forgive her.
When I explain the details, they are even more shocked at my sister’s behavior.
A few months back, I decided that someone needed to be the grown-up here. I hate for my mother to have bickering between her children. I don’t want to make the rest of our family uncomfortable as a result of my horror at the thought of my naked self being seen in photographs by strangers.
So I emailed her. I simply asked, “Are you willing to discuss the reason we are not speaking?”
After several days, she emailed back, “I’ll call you when I’m in town.”
I immediately replied, “When will that be?”
She did not answer.
My youngest sister let slip that our sister would be in town in May. I emailed our sister and said, “I’d really like to discuss this issue before you arrive in May. Please email me back.”
She never did.
Ten days ago, she arrived for a one-week visit. She stayed with my mom, in my town. She made a point of taking my niece and nephew on outings. She ignored my kids entirely. She had dinner with my youngest sister. She saw my brother and his wife. She did not call me. I didn’t see her.
I guess that’s the end of my tale. Maybe it’s just the middle, but I think it’s likely the end.
And the pictures? They weren’t even that good.
January 2016 . . . we are still not on speaking terms. She has never reached out to me and in fact, when I reached out her to her in 2009 to send her a gift, she responded with this. I’m still not sure if I’m the whale or the sloth.
Did you send me an email recently or is it spam?Mom says I should write to you and talk to you, but I have nothing to say. I am not angry at you. There is just absolutely nothing that I want to share with you and I am not interested in hearing about what’s happening in your life. If you want to write to me, that’s fine, but don’t expect to hear from me.The way I see it, one of us is a blue whale swimming around in the ocean and the other one is a sloth happily hanging from the branch of a tree surrounded by leaves and noise. What is there for the whale and the sloth to talk to each other about? They can’t comprehend or care about the other person’s life… That doesn’t mean either of them has a better life than the other. They cannot be compared. The whale does what feels comfortable and natural for the whale while the sloth does what feels comfortable and natural for the sloth.You and I are just too different to have anything to talk about. That’s the way I understand it, anyway…