She and I are related not by blood but by the bonds of holy matrimony between her father and my mother. She was 11, my sister was 10, and I was 14 that first summer. She was a buffer between my sister and me, a cool spot in the heat of our sibling rivalry. Before her arrival in our midst, we had battled one on one; afterwards, we each tried to draw her to our side of the argument to gain strength through numbers. On rare occasions, such as the time we thought Daddy was giving her special phone privileges, my sister and I declared a truce long enough to align against her. Sometimes, if you can believe it, we all three got along beautifully.
In the small house where we first lived together as a family, we three girls shared a bedroom. I remember talking to her late into the night, lying there in the darkness, about dreams, plans, observations, and vaguely formed philosophies. We could discuss those kinds of things because I had no beef with her. It was my sister, not she, who, by virtue of birth, had stolen a huge portion of our mother's limited supply of affection. I was mean to my sister and she had learned to be mean right back, so deep conversations had never been part of our daily interaction.
Near the end of their first year of marriage, our parents strengthened the bonds of our blended family by producing a beautiful baby boy, a fine brother who was related equally to all of us girls. We moved to a larger house, I had a room of my own, and those late-night discussions came to an end.
Over the next few years our parents became increasingly quarrelsome, engaging frequently in loud bouts of put-downs and one-upmanship. I don't know how my siblings felt then, but I felt insecure in a big way. I didn't think the structure of our family was strong enough to hold up under that kind of assault, and I didn't know what would happen to us if the family fell apart. My private thoughts shifted more and more to my own personal future: When would I be able to leave this family and how would I go about doing it?
The daily shouting matches became the norm, but the marriage held together (for 39 years, until the death of my stepfather). I married at 18 and moved away, feeling guilty about leaving my siblings behind on the battleground. My stepsister married four years later, my sister a year after that. In discussing our early marriages with my stepsister this past Thursday, she asked if I had felt as she did upon leaving home, that the unspoken message of our parents was, "Don't let the door hit you in the behind." Yes. Yes, I did feel that way.
After we were married and scattered, we got in the habit of communicating through Mother instead of with each other. Long-distance phone calls were expensive, and with one call to Mother we could find out what was happening in the lives of all the others. We saved a few dollars but paid a higher price in that we got the news but not the feelings behind the news. We didn't learn to know each other well as adults.
My sister and I have managed to bridge that gap and have become best friends. We're similar in so many ways that I deeply regret the loss of her friendship during those early years when I focused only on our differences. My stepsister has just stepped back into my life after decades of very little contact, and I'm very happy that she initiated that reunion. One thing the three of us have in common is that we all want to be closer to our brother. If those family bonds are to be strengthened, it's up to us now to do it.
Left to right in 1960:
My stepsister, my sister, me, our brother
Left to right in 1982:
My brother, his wife, my sister, me, my stepsister
On Friday morning we talked mostly about the present and the future. We've survived difficult pasts, and we're both in good places now. We have moved on. We still have dreams, we still have goals, and some of them are things we might work on together. We still live miles apart, but we won't lose touch again. Family is family, blood or no blood.