I’m in pink. She’s in blue. She was born sixteen months after me. 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 were never friends. Sure, we lived under the same roof for seventeen years, but we were never, ever friends. We were so different as little girls. I had no patience with her. I didn’t want to play with her–she did not follow rules, she was messy and she couldn’t fold a blanket into a neat square. (That really bugged five-year old me.) She whispered at night, keeping me awake. She left sandwiches under the bed. She bit me more than once.
By the time we were teens, our parents had divorced. I will never forget seeing tears stream down her face in the kitchen while my mother packed boxes. She ugly cried at my mother’s wedding a year later. Her grief swallowed her whole.
I didn’t comfort her. I didn’t know how. I could barely keep my own head above water. I was broken and distraught but coped by striving for perfection. My emotions were tightly wrapped, under control, hidden.
Of course, from an adult vantage point, I feel sorry for her. I wish I’d been softer and kinder and less self-concerned. 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.
My family might have been in smithereens, but I appeared to be thriving. I continued earning good grades, babysat, attended youth group, participated in student government, played the piano, read a lot, volunteered even more, and kept myself so busy I didn’t have time to worry that I was a failure. I did fear I was on the brink of catastrophe at all times if I were less than perfect. I coped with our disrupted lives by controlling my own life with grim determination.
My sister struggled. Everything I was, she was not. I overshadowed her, but not with malice. In fact, I didn’t give it a second thought. I sound so ruthless, but in my family, it was every man for himself. We were very separate, isolated in our own bedrooms, never hanging out together. She was a grade behind me in school but I never saw her on campus.
And finally, I left home when I was eighteen.
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 pleasant correspondence, but we didn’t share our hearts. I always answered her letters, though, and tried to share my life.
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 in Whispering Firs where we spent our elementary school years. (My youngest sister was born in the master bedroom, 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 a tour. (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 she informed us, “It’s my membership. I’m not letting HER use it.” 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. She was just inexplicably selfish.
We argued loudly and I admit I veered off topic, pointing out her failures, as if she hadn’t noticed them before. I was unkind and mean. She was worse.
Eventually, we called AAA.
After that, I vowed never to fight with her again. No more yelling. Ever. I hate conflict and didn’t want to be vulnerable again. I’d be polite as if we were mere acquaintances.
And so it went. We continued being pen-pals. As years passed and I had children, I thought maybe we could begin again. 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 until one day, I realized my expectations were too high. I had grown up, gotten married and had kids while she was still living a weird adolescence. She acted like she was fourteen–completely self-centered, self-conscious, inconsiderate. For instance, she’d fly in from another country, appear on your doorstep and expect you to be excited to drop everything and entertain her. I expected adult behavior and grew annoyed, but when I adjusted and expected teenage behavior, I could excuse it. After all, a teen doesn’t know better and they will eventually mature.
So you can overlook their attitudes, make excuses for them, stop expecting things. You can laugh instead of grind your teeth.
Despite my misgivings and vows, I did keep trying. I really did. 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. We were family. I extended myself to her over and over, probably out of guilt, maybe to atone for my careless teen actions, perhaps to redeem my junior high self.
When I became unexpectedly 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 and owned a fancy camera. I thought I could share the miracle of birth and she could be my photographer. I thought my idea was 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. 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 arrived 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 contractions consumed my attention. 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, “Look them over and I’ll get reprints.” I said, “Why?” She told me she wanted to keep the pictures with her. I said, “Why?” She hemmed and hawed and finally 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 . . .” she shrugged.
I went into full cardiac arrest and when the paddles brought me back to life (CLEAR!”) I sprang into action. When she left, I sorted through the stacks of pictures and removed all 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 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 specifically deemed too private. 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. No response.
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. How awkward! I decided I would be polite. I would respond to her, but I would not instigate a conversation. I would not extend myself. I wouldn’t speak first. Would she?
And so, we did not speak. It dawned on me that I had always been the one to reach out first. It was always me 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?”
She had never really cared about me before. That realization changed everything.
We had no connection, not because of me but because of her.
As I described this broken relationship to friends over the past two years, I sound like the villain holding a grudge. Why don’t I just forgive her for . . . what? Stealing photos I asked her to take? Ignoring my emails? Ignoring me? Cutting off my children entirely? Being rude and selfish?
I mean, it’s just so weird.
A few months back, I decided that someone needed to be the adult here. I hate for my mother to have her children estranged. I don’t want the rest of our family uncomfortable because I was mortified strangers would see my birth photos.
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 our sister would be in town in May. I emailed her 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 a few miles from my house. 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.
UPDATE: 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…
UPDATE: August 2022: And her final email to me in 2009 after we went back and forth and I explained my viewpoint:
Ok. You lied by telling me months before the birth that you would pay me for the pictures I took and then never giving me any money or any kind of compensation for them. You stole the negatives and prints that legally still belong to me and you refuse to return them to me. You lied to me shortly after the birth when you said you would write down the numbers of the pictures on the negatives so I could make copies of them for you (generous on my part, not even expecting you to pay me for them) at Costco before I took the negatives with me when I returned to Japan. You agreed to that at the time we arranged it, but then when it came time for me to take the negatives with me, you had hidden them and you refused to give them back to me. When I was there for the birth, you NEVER offered to give me any money. I lost close to $5000 for missed work (I had no paid holidays), plane tickets, car rental, gas, film, a special lens that I bought specifically for the birth, a cell phone that I had to rent and leave on so you could contact me any time of the day or night, no matter where I was… I would not have had to spend any of that money if it wasn’t for you. I would not have even gone back to America then if it wasn’t for you asking me to be there because you so desperately wanted me there. You seemed to want me to be there but then after the birth, you never said you liked the pictures I took. You never said “Thank you. You did a good job.” or “Thanks for being here.” You never said anything…
Yes, I went to Costco and made reprints of the negatives that legally belong to me. They are my pictures.
Yes, I showed some of those pictures to Becca. She was invited to the birth. She was there to be the first person (other than the midwives and you) to hold your baby. How can you say that it’s ok for her to see the birth but not to see the pictures of the birth?!!
Yes, I told you when you asked that I wanted to show some of the pictures to a few of our close family members. I think I take good pictures and I am proud of some of my work. Why should I not be able to share MY pictures with a few special people?! Of course I wasn’t going to invade your privacy by showing all of your pictures to everybody. You asked me to not show pictures of the birth to people who weren’t there or weren’t invited, so I didn’t. What kind of a horrible person do you think I am? I DO have the wisdom and the conscience to not do what is wrong and what I have been asked not to do!!! Give me a little credit!!!Her final email to me
To which I say:
I did offer to pay for the film and photos after the birth. She said no.
She “legally” owns the negatives and prints of MY BIRTH, the one I invited her to attend? Come on. That’s crazy. If I took photos at your kid’s birthday party at your request, would you expect me to keep them? I did not hire her. I allowed her to attend my birth as a personal favor to her. I cannot even begin to understand her viewpoint.
(And I’ve been in her situation. Before I had kids, a midwife friend invited me to a birth. When I arrived, I was handed a camera and asked to take photographs. I did so, and then GAVE BACK THE CAMERA ((and negatives, obviously)) to my friend. In a million years, I wouldn’t have thought I owned them.)
I invited my sister to my birth. I never, ever mentioned paying for her flight, car rental or anything. In fact, in those days she visited the U.S. every year and often went on holiday to other places as well. She could have declined, citing the lack of vacation or the expense. I just figured she’d work around my due date since she’d be in the States anyway on one of her frequent trips. But mainly, she NEVER EVER EVER mentioned this before this email. She simply agreed to come to the birth and seemed excited to do so.
I did not desperately want her there. I invited her as a favor to her. At my previous birth, I simply had a church friend photograph it for me (and guess what? that lady did not keep any of my photos!). I invited my sister in the spirit of generosity knowing that in all likelihood she’d never get to be present when a baby was born.
I was very disappointed by the actual photographs. They were poorly lit, not focused well and extraordinarily unflattering.
The bottom line was that she believed she owned the photographs that I had asked her to take. (This is still baffling to me to this day.) This was not a contract between strangers but an agreement between sisters and I guess that’s where I went wrong.
Can you imagine showing photographs of someone’s private birth to random friends across the globe? Imagine.
Finally, I started to really think about her outrageous beliefs and behavior and came to believe she has narcissistic personality disorder. So maybe I should feel sorry for her. It must be difficult to be her.
And yeah, we still don’t speak, twenty years later.