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--let's call her "Joy"--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 didn't have a whit of sympathy. I found her display of emotions embarrassing and dangerous. I pulled away even more.
Sure, looking back, I feel sympathy. 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.
I see now how difficult it must have been for her. Although I viewed myself as teetering on the brink of catastrophe and failure, the reality was that I was a straight-A student, a much-in-demand babysitter, a reliable 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 an ideal 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. Mostly, I was concerned about being embarrassed by her. 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 and so I was on her list of people to write. 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 Asia. She'd come to visit. My youngest sister, my mom, "Joy" 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 "Joy" had arranged with a real estate agent for us to tour it. (I think she lied to get us in, actually.)
After our nostalgic walk-through of the shrunken house (it seemed so much bigger when we were so much smaller) we discovered that we were locked out of my youngest sister's 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, "Joy" mentioned she had a AAA membership. Hooray! We were saved!
Except that "Joy" informed us, "It's my
membership. I'm not letting [youngest sister] 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 [youngest sister].
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 drip another drop of emotions in the relationship.
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 replied that she was too busy to answer. 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 because I needed redemption of my junior high self.
And so, 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, has 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, but for three hours, I denied the obvious. 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, Babygirl was born.
In the following days, my sister brought the packets of pictures to me. 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 post-partum head. "Who?" I said, dumbfounded.
"Oh, [our brother] and Uncle Joe."
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.
When she left, she told my mother that I had stolen her
She came to say goodbye before returning to her home in Asia, 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 [youngest sister] what had happened and she reported that "Joy" had showed her a picture. "Joy" told her, "Mel doesn't want me to show you this."
I emailed "Joy" repeatedly. She ignored me repeatedly.
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 "Joy." I would respond to her, but I would not instigate a conversation. I would not extend myself. I wouldn't speak first.
And so, we did not speak. I realized that day 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 mentioned this broken relationship to friends over the past two years, people have gasped at my unChristian attitude. They can't believe I am holding a grudge. They wonder why I don't forgive her.
When I explain the details, they suggest perhaps she needs a good slapping.
But still. 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 on account of my horror at the thought of my exposed 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 "Joy" would be in town in May. I emailed "Joy" 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 other 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.