On Sisters

Sometimes I want to throw them in a cage and just let them go at it until one of them emerges, victorious.
Publish date:
November 1, 2011
parenting, kids, sisters

With sisters three, nine, and ten years older than me, and two older brothers in the mix, I’m the baby of a big blended family. They are my stepsisters -- I try not to differentiate, but I suppose it is different.

Though we don’t see each other often, my sisters and I, when we’re together we slip easily back into our shared language, shorthand we can fall back on when our dissimilar adult lives make common ground difficult to find.

We ended up in different places, but we were shaped by the same environment. We all remember sitting at the breakfast table together, eating Fruity Pebbles and steeling ourselves for another dreary day of school, or listening to our parents fight behind closed doors as the house grew dark and we wondered when we’d have dinner.

I hoped that my own two daughters would be best friends. My firstborn was in the room, winding up her music box and singing to herself, when her sister was born. Her first words upon becoming a big sister were, “It’s crying, Mom -- you better nurse it.” After checking to see whether “it” was a boy or girl, she announced, “Well, I guess we’re gonna be twins!”

Twins, they are not. Not even close. My shy, serious older child takes after me, from her blue eyes to her quick temper. Like me, she is both a perfectionist and a procrastinator, and would rather sit quietly and read a book than do most anything else. Her round-cheeked, brown-eyed little sister is charming and flirtatious; she goes with the flow in a way her sister never has, and forgives easily when her mischief causes her sister or me to lose those hair-trigger tempers of ours and say regrettable things.

“That’s okay, Mommy,” she’ll say, putting her arms around me. This behavior is nearly always met with indignation from her sister -- “Why does she have to act so PERFECT, the little MONSTER?” Watching her sister go from devil to angel in seconds flat is more than she can take.

Ever since the little one grew up enough to hold her own verbally, this has been the soundtrack at our house most days (on a loop): “Shut up, you stupid brat!” “You are SO MEAN! You’re the meanest person in the whole world!” “I hate you so much! My life was perfect before you were born!” “You make my life horrible; everything is your fault!” “MOM, SHE HIT ME!”

Sometimes I want to throw them in a cage and just let them go at it until one of them emerges, victorious. Of course that would never happen; they’d both end up in piteous tears, united in hatred against me, their chief enemy and tormentor.

I don’t even know what they fight about half the time -- it’s usually something like one of them humming while the other tries to read, or someone touching someone else’s things.

They are closer to each other than they are to anyone else in the world, yet they make each other crazy. This makes ME crazy. “Can we go one day, girls? Just ONE DAY?” I’ll plead when they start in on each other.

But then there are the nights -- most nights, until quite recently -- when my girls curl up together in the same bed and fall asleep intertwined. Between bloodbaths, they compare notes on their homework and discuss which school lunch aides are the scariest. They put on fashion shows and read books together; when one of them gets hurt, the other almost always rushes over to offer comfort.

I don’t remember fighting with my sisters much. My oldest sister read to me all the time: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Little Plum, A Little Princess; she introduced me to all my childhood favorites. Although now that I think about it, there was that time when I was six and she read me a chapter of Cujo.

She might have done that to be mean, but I think it’s more likely I coerced her into it because I wanted to know what my impossibly cool 16-year-old sister was reading. I promised not to tell Mom, but ratted her out when I started having nightmares. I think she got in trouble.

Maybe there were too many years between my sisters and me for us to fight the way my girls do, or maybe it’s because we are stepsisters. Is there something about sharing blood that makes people fight more?

Our families fractured down fault lines after we grew up, and now my sisters and I live in different states – two of us on opposite coasts, two in the middle.

We are rarely in touch, though we were close when I was young. Looking at my girls, I wonder if it's possible that we didn’t fight enough. Maybe doing battle actually bonds sisters to each other.

One of the good things about having two kids is that that I expect they’ll be around to take care of each other when their father and I are dead. Morbid, I know, but when I had children, death took on a whole new terrifying dimension.

I do not want to think of my children in the world without me; at least I can imagine them together.