It was nice growing up with a sister — someone to learn from, someone to lean on, someone to tell on
By the time I was two, the house was ringing with cries of, “She’s on my side of the couch!” or even, “She’s breathing my air!”
My sister and I would do whatever it took to annoy each other, as long as it was too subtle to show up on Ma’s radar. We would irritate each other even if it required long, convoluted planning; even if we weren’t really in the mood to fight; even if we knew the retaliation would be dire; even if it meant the other one was never going to forgive us. If you’ve never thought, “I love you but you must be destroyed,” you’ve never had a sister.
In spite of all that, it was nice growing up with a sister — someone to learn from, someone to lean on, someone to tell on. Living together taught me things that everybody needs to know (fairness and cooperation, how to settle arguments, and how to negotiate), and especially things that every Jew needs to know (how to live with totalitarianism, oppression, condemnation, constant critical judgment, and people unwilling to compromise). And she was only in fourth grade at the time!
My sister and I trudged through childhood sharing strep throats and shampoo, arguing over the sizes of our desserts, locking each other out of the room, but mostly, competing for Ma’s and Ta’s affection. If they’d been really listening, they would have heard me davening, “Give me all the attention and all the toys and send Devorah to live with Grandma.” They weren’t that interested, though, and preferred to avoid the conflicts. “We love you both equally,” they claimed, but we never believed them. What did they think, that we lived in the Communist USSR?
Eventually, I won the battle for parental approval — I was the one who was good, righteous, and easy to live with. (Take that, Devorah Musya!)
Strangely enough, my sister doesn’t remember it that way. She’s convinced that we all genuinely appreciated being wakened by the dulcet sounds of her French horn at 6:30 on Sunday mornings. She says it was me who put the car in neutral and watched it barrel down the driveway; I’m sure it was her. I know that she was the one who was responsible for our not brushing our teeth for many months, when she pointed out the disgusting sludge at the bottom of the toothbrush holder, but she says she knows it was me.
Sociologists use an hourglass to model sibling relationships — sibs spend a lot of time together at the beginning of life, then, as they leave home and get involved in their new families, they’re together much less. Finally, at the end of life, they’re there for each other again.
Life isn’t really that tidy. My relationship with my sister is more accurately, and appropriately, modeled in the shape of brass knuckles. When we see each other, we argue, we point out each other’s frailties and mistakes, we tumble back into the insecurities we’ve had since childhood, and then we’re sorry to see each other leave.
There are events that pull us together. Ta’s petirah drew us closer than we’d ever been, but after a few years, we slipped back into a sort of apathy. Triumphs and tribulations occasionally bring us temporarily closer. Who else would listen so compassionately to my frustration about finding shidduchim for the kids, or shop so enthusiastically for my grandchildren? Whom else would she rather brag to about her triumphant litigation on behalf of Holocaust-era slave labor victims that led to the recovery of $7 billion? Our paths in life diverged long ago, but we still crave each other’s sympathy and admiration, and sometimes, I’m incredibly proud of her (not that I’d ever dream of letting it show).
And yet, she can cause me to simultaneously fume and laugh for days. Once, I jubilantly found the Scrabble word she’d challenged in the dictionary, only to hear her sniff, “Well, if you’re going to use that dictionary. It’s full of made-up words.”
My relationship with my sister has survived decades of atrophy and resurfaced after quarrels that would have sunk any friendship. It flourishes with a hundred different degrees of closeness and distance, loyalty and distrust. I’m even considering forgiving her for setting my seashell collection free.
To the outside world, we’re growing older, but to each other, we’re still wearing matching pajamas with feet and tails. We know each other as we always were. I just wish she’d stop smirking when I tell the kids, “Stop fighting! Someday you’re going to be best friends!”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 293)
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