April 22, 2018


Friday night I announced that yesterday would be the day when I would finally tackle writing about my sisters.  I was then banned from e-mailing, texting, and blogging for a day by P.J., and I always trust her judgment when she says this.  I was as good as stoned.  I had allergies and a fever and cramps and anxiety all on top of each other, with a pill for each.  I kept falling asleep in mid-sentence and waking with jolts of panic every three minutes.  I was the kind of stupid I get when I'm sleepy, but without any aardvarks.

I faced all of this with maturity by insisting on painting the trim around a door outside, which was a project four years overdue and made perfect sense as a coping mechanism, since it involved climbing a step ladder and balancing when walking without stumbling was challenging enough, and trying to carefully not get paint on things while my eyes kept crossing.  Sometimes people say I'm brilliant.

I wanted to write, but I listened to P.J.'s wisdom.

Today is not yesterday, and I am still sick, and I don't know what to write about sisters, because I don't understand sisters at all.  I see sappy graphics on refrigerator magnets and greeting cards and Facebook about sisters and how much they mean to a person, how they're your first best friend, how they know you better than anyone else does and so forth.  That kind of sister is as fictitious to me as an angel or fairy.  It makes for a nice story, but it isn't real.

My fairy-angel graphic would say that a sister is the wrong end of a porcupine quill, someone who doesn't know you at all and makes you feel alien and defective.  Sisters make you glad you grew up and moved away.  A sister is a portrait frame missing its face.  A sister is your first best enemy, in beautiful, cursive pen, trimmed with lace.

I have three sisters.  We share a mother but have mostly different fathers.  That kind of turnover rate means you aren't going to end up around a dinner table together as kids.  The oldest two have the same father and are two years apart, and when the third sister was born during my mother's next marriage, their father took custody of them and moved them to south Florida, and my mother did not contest this or pursue them.  She never called them or wrote to them or spoke to them by phone.  She just let them go and tried to start over and do life right the second time.

I cannot comprehend sleeping at night knowing two of my children were growing up out of reach of my arms, my voice, my knowledge.  My heart recoils.

When the second marriage failed and my father came into the picture, followed by my arrival, we were a family of four.  The sister I grew up with saw my father, and me by extension, as the reason for all evils in the world in general and in her life in particular.  She hated my birth and my existence.  She was nearly seven years old when I came into the world, and I had single-handedly torn her family apart and subjected her to this other not-her-father man instead of leaving her alone with our mother's undivided love and attention.  I was the reason we had to stay with the babysitter where we were both subjected to abuse and neglect.  I was the reason money was tight.  I was the reason we lived in a terrible house and she had to go to the wrong school and wear inferior clothing and be unpopular.

She hated me, and I cannot blame her for it.  The sibling game was rigged against both of us.

In her resentment and pain, she found small ways to retaliate and act out.  Verbal cuts, sometimes plain and sometimes veiled.  Ugly.  Stupid.  Worthless.  Here, let me do your hair for you.  I trusted her again and again.  She burned me with a curling iron every time.  Looks of disgust followed by turning away and disappearing into her room down the hall.  Countless smacks, strikes, towering over me; left cheek, right cheek, threats of more if I told a parent.

I never told a parent.

When I was eleven and she a college student, the dynamic remained the same, but the interactions were mercifully fewer.  And in the midst of our sister-dance, the phone call came from the next-youngest sister, who had researched and dug around and learned the identity and phone number of her mother.  They reunited by phone, and some hidden things happened, and then she left home and moved in with us for almost two years, until she married and left.

This sister was different, but we were a decade apart in age and her story created its own barriers.  We scarcely spoke because we didn't have much to say, save for the morning it snowed and I woke her because I knew she had come from Florida and had never seen snow before, not in her living memory.  I had a sister that morning.  She became a kid again, and we made a snow fort together.  And snow angels, one big, one small.  They melted.

The oldest sister eventually came to visit, persuaded by her sister.  I remember meeting her.  She was tall and slender and dark-haired.  I held out my hand for a handshake.  She just looked at it.  I didn't know if I was supposed to hug her or stay quiet in the back of the room or disappear.

Everyone moved out and grew up and went their various ways, my mother the passive nucleus of a very unstable atom.  Thanksgiving and Christmas brought us together again each year, social custom serving as a substitute for bond.  We brought covered dishes and made plates and gathered around the television set in the living room with our plates in our laps.  We watched while we ate.  No one spoke.  We had nothing to say to each other in that room full of strangers.  Christmas gifts were always plastic gift cards, and smiles and thanks were always made of the same plastic.

When I was in my twenties and knew everything, I made the mistake of refusing to participate in that farcical dance one year, angry that I couldn't make us be a real family.  I suggested we have a picture made together or sit and make Christmas ornaments together, something meaningful.  Anything meaningful.  Not Wal-Mart gift cards and cold, dry turkey and re-runs on The Family Channel.  I was called Scrooge and I rebelled and boycotted family gatherings from that day forward.  No one protested except my mother, and that was feeble at best.

I earned final liberty when I came out eleven years ago.  One sister said she'd always known (she hadn't) and that she was a Republican and would always vote against me; one sister was deep into a fundamentalist evangelical church and said God hated my choice and what I was doing was sinful and wrong to my son, that I was damaging him by exposing him to my lifestyle; and one never even heard about it, because after meeting her many years ago, she went away and I do not know where she is or what her last name is.

My mother and I did not speak for five years after I came out.  When we reunited, I made it clear that that reunion would not include - would never include - my sisters.  I have not missed them in the least.  It has been sweet freedom to never again have to interact with them.  My mother has had to accept this and has done a pretty good job of honoring it, though I know she wishes it were otherwise.  She still invites us to every holiday meal.

I want to think my mother must have sat in the back of the living room on those Thanksgiving afternoons, pretending to stare at the television but watching us instead, chewing Stove-Top stuffing and pineapple casserole and taking us all in and wishing we were a family.  She might have felt responsible.  She might have known that what was done could not be undone.

I want to think she thought and felt and knew these things.  I want to believe that she sat and imagined her daughters were sisters.  I want to think we share that sorrow.

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