I have one sister.  Only one sister.

She was born when I was six years old, and, unlike my friends now, who encourage their first-born children to hold their newborn siblings within hours or days of her birth, my first memory of my sister was that I was not allowed to touch her, let alone hold her.  I’m guessing it was the norm for the time, maybe a recommendation of the renowned Dr. Spock (Benjamin, not the vulcan) whose book played a role in my upbringing.

My sister and I suffered a chaotic childhood together – moving homes frequently, parents fighting, changing schools.  Later in my adulthood, I realized that, were it not for the stability of our mother’s parents – our grandma and grandpa – we probably would not have come through the experience as intact and successful as we both have managed to do.

We were so far apart in ages and interests that we never really could connect as kids.  I do remember some wonderful times with her when we were small, but there were many more times when we simply weren’t on the same page.  We also tended to separate from each other through our affiliation with separate parents – I was my daddy’s girl, and she was her mother’s support and confidante.  It wasn’t that our parents didn’t love us both individually, but there was a tendency to divide in the way in our family.

When I reached adolescence, my strategy to survive the chaos and uncertainty that was the definition of our family was to leave.  I essentially moved to my best friend’s home from the time I was about 12.  At 16, I left for a visit to London, UK, and stayed for 5 months before coming back to the US, taking the GED to escape high school where I was miserable, and went away to college (and I went as far away from my family as I could manage).

My sister stayed.

She stayed with our mother through thick and thin.

I felt guilty for leaving her.  But, she was 11 or so, and I certainly couldn’t take her with me.  I think I imagined that I would rescue her someday, but, although I tried to help in times of crisis, to her credit, she ultimately was her own rescuer.

The years passed, and we both grew to adulthood, finished school, married, and started families.  I was so proud of her, and always felt that she had overcome more than I did because she had to fight her way out of a very confining relationship with our mother.  My departure was easier.  And, by this time, we seemed to have reached a point where we could now be friends.

Until one fateful day.

I travelled across the country to help out with yet another of mom’s crisis moments.  My sister had begged me to come, as she was struggling with juggling the caregiving role that she continues to assume for our mother (on her terms, now), while also tending to the raising of two beautiful and talented boys.  Not to mention, caring for her husband and their relationship.  I stayed for a week with my sister’s family while visiting our mom daily, and trying to help sort out her situation.  Over the week, I had felt the tension between my sister and me rising, and it finally reached a peak on the morning of my departure.

We fought, and all the old wounds, resentments and pain we had suffered, either from the world, from our parents, through the loss of our father (I was 19 and she was 12 when he died an accidental death), and from each to the other, came pouring out, yelled at full voice at each other on the sidewalk in front of her house.

And, I left.

And, in the ensuing month or two, some very angry emails were exchanged.  They were the kind of emails that we probably each should have written, read through, and then hit the delete button without actually hitting “Send”.  Sadly, the emails were sent.

And a year passed.

We didn’t talk of it.

And, then, my family came out to stay with her family for Thanksgiving.  And, we had started tentatively discussing the possibility of trying to find a way forward from the hurt and pain we had placed on each other and on our selves.

And, that Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we met with a therapist (who is a genius!) and talked through our pain.

And, now, it’s gone.  I’ve left out all the details, and if I thought hard enough, I could remember them, but I prefer not to.  They’re not relevant anymore.  I think I may even have the timeline wrong (as I think about it, the horrible emails may have preceded the dreadful fight by a couple of years, in fact, I think they must have).

I wouldn’t have thought we could ever have become friends after the hurtful things that were said, but, I’m so happy to say that we are.  I love my sister, and I hope she loves me.  And I hope we never hurt each other like that again, because there’s one thing about having a sister – she is the ONLY one who knows what I’ve been through and can really understand it on a gut level.  And that level of understanding is not replaceable.

Hugs and kisses to my beautiful, talented, and extraordinary sister.

A-Constellation-of-Vital-Phenomena-by-Anthony-MarraThis post was inspired by the novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. In a war torn Chechnya, a young fatherless girl, a family friend, and a hardened doctor struggle with love and loss. Join From Left to Write on May 20 as we discuss Anthony Marra’s debut novel. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

12 thoughts on “Sister-strife

  1. Nalini says:

    I like your post, Janaki. I agree, that I think the emails were years earlier…during my postpartum depression/anxiety…at least from what I remember.

    I think when children are raised by an alcoholic father (struggling with issues of racism and acculturation) and by a severely mentally ill mother, there is inevitable fallout. I am with you when you said thinking about the siblings pairs and previous generations make you dizzy! Me, too! We are from a rich family of intellectual intrigue and illness. I agree with you completely that the presence of grandma and grandpa in our lives saved us from a fate potentially far more devastating.

    Thanks for checking in with me…I think what is ultimately true in families is that each one of has our own unique story. Yours is different than mine, but no less valid or true. I see this all the time in my work and it helps me greatly in my own life.

    1. Janaki says:

      Oh, Nalini…thank you so much for that lovely comment and reflection. I'll have to send you this book, it's amazingly good!! I have been worried about what you might ultimately think about what I wrote, and I wasn't sure if you would read it, and, then, when you did, if you would find it objectionable.

      I am so glad that we have found a path to a more solid and supportive relationship.


  2. Nancy C. says:

    My sister and I were not that close growing up, and it wasn't until we were out of college, married and had our kids that we really started to have the relationship we have now. We live in the same town, our kids are close in age and we really rely on each other a lot. For that, I am so grateful that we were able to move past sibling rivalry and be there for each other!

  3. Julie says:

    I am the youngest of my sisters (there are three of us) and can I ever relate to your story. I am several years younger than my sisters and I was a novelty, almost a play-toy when I came along. But our lives were also devastated by the early death of a parent and the fracturing that followed. Today, I am very close with one sister, and kinda-sorta close with the other, after all our ups and downs. For me, it's been worth it to struggle to hold onto those family ties. I hope the same is true for you.

    1. Janaki says:

      Definitely worth it, but not always easy!

  4. Thien-Kim says:

    I, too, have a younger sister. We gone through many ups and downs. While I cannot understand why she does or says the things she does, we are still sisters. Much love to you and your sister.

    1. Janaki says:

      Here's to surviving the ups and downs!

  5. mamawolfeto2 says:

    Sisters…I have three, and the relationships are each different. I almost wrote about this, too! I'm glad you and your sister found a way through the pain and back together again.

    1. Janaki says:

      I would imagine that each relationship would be different. Our mom is the youngest of three sisters, and each pairing has its history – it makes me dizzy to think about it.

  6. Gayle Opie says:

    I don't think that all families were against a child holding an infant sibling. I'm older than you and I have pictures of both my brother and my sister holding me when I was an infant. Only a couple because that was 1942 and film was very difficult to get — it was mostly reserved for military use. I also have several very nice pictures of my brother holding my older sister as an infant (more film available before the war) and then a few months later several of him reading to her and showing her pictures even though she is still to little to care. None of me holding my younger sister because she was too close to my own age and I might well have done her in then instead of wanting to later.

    1. Janaki says:

      thanks, Gayle, for that insight. I was giving my mom the benefit of the doubt, but I honestly suspect her prohibition of me holding my sister likely stemmed from her own anxieties. i never did read what Dr. Spock had to say about parenting…so, I probably should attribute bad intentions to him!!

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