Zelophehad’s Daughters

Sisters

Posted by Lynnette

I’m sitting in my bedroom, and thinking about the fact that all five of my sisters live hundreds (and in the case of Kiskilili, thousands) of miles away. Looking around, though, I can see traces of them everywhere. On my wall hangs a giant poster of Aragorn–a recent surprise gift from Amalthea (who personally prefers Frodo). Over my desk is a calendar of “Nuns Having Fun,” courtesy of Melyngoch.

Next to my bed sits a small, sad-looking stuffed bear by the name of Juliana, who is frequently (and unfairly, I might add) accused by family members of being involved in white collar crime. Despite harboring such suspicions, however, Amalthea once sent her a care package; I remember explaining to the people in the office that yes there was in fact a Juliana at my apartment–my, umm, teddy bear. Past roommates have learned to check the return address of mail addressed to unfamiliar names before assuming it was incorrectly delivered, to see if came from one of my sisters.

On a shelf above my books is a little stuffed devil, complete with horns and a heart on its belly reading “love me.” I can’t remember which sister put that in my stocking at Christmas, though I’m guessing Melyngoch, who also gave me chocolate-covered insects one year. (Yet another year I received a little plastic nun that breathed sparks when you wound it up. Elbereth has recently been threatening to distribute something even more deadly: family history charts.)

At the end of my DVD collection sit seasons four and five of Angel, currently on loan from Elbereth, who doubtless has the best DVD collection in the family and has been generously willing to share. My seasons 5-7 of Buffy are also thanks to Elbereth, who alerted me when she found them on sale at Costco. Stacks of flash cards make me think of Kiskilili, who’s made thousands and thousands of them in her study of various languages.

On my desk are two books on narrative loaned to me by Eve (and full of her notes.) I also still have Kiskilili’s copy of Winnie the Pooh, which I borrowed to check my translation of Pu der Bär. The long row of German novels on a shelf reminds me of the delightful summer Kiskilili and I spent studying German in Germany–and the nightmare of lugging all the books we’d ordered from Amazon.de back to the U.S. Other books scattered throughout my collection are a product of the time Eve and I visited Kiskilili, and never made it past the bookstores to see the sights.

All of the Star Wars visual dictionaries except for Episode II are neatly lined up on a bottom shelf. I remember Kiskilili and I discussing for hours the meaning of the phrase “the Old Folks Home” in Attack of the Clones, until Amalthea lay down on the floor and put her hands over her ears. On another shelf sits a well-worn copy of Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World, a birthday present one year from Eve, and one which for the first time made me aware that there was actually poetry out there that I could like.

I’ve never known life without sisters. And even now, as geographically scattered as we currently are, I find that they’re still closely woven into the narrative of my life. So many different cues bring them to mind; they show up regularly in my dreams, in my random thoughts, in my conversations.

Yet the saccharine way in which sisterhood sometimes gets described makes me a bit crazy. Growing up with five sisters was hard in so many ways. How do you negotiate the challenge of finding a place for yourself, an identity, when there are so many of you? How do you find room to breathe? How do you cope with the older sister who orders you around, or the younger one who mercilessly copies you? (Behaviors which, I should confess, I’ve not only experienced, but I’ve also done to others.) I can’t say that I feel particularly warm and fuzzy when I hear the word “sister.” There are few people in my life with whom I’ve had such bitter feuds, or such complicated relationships.

At the same time, there are also few people with whom I have as much fun, or around whom I feel so un-self-conscious. There’s a side of me that they bring out that rarely emerges elsewhere; I’m not sure anyone can say that they really know me if they haven’t ever seen me interacting with my sisters. And sometimes I find myself looking at them and thinking, wow. They’re really kind of amazing–the things they’re good at, the people they are.

When I think of sisters, I think of being hit over the head with a chair when I was eleven. I think of glares across the dinner table. I think of lying on my bed and contemplating the possibility that I was adopted. I think of elaborate games in our backyard. I think of five and even ten-hour phone conversations. I think of people uncomplainingly helping me carry boxes nearly every time I’ve moved. I think of tense moments, of jealousy, of rage. I think of utter silliness, of laughing until I cry. When I think of sisters, I think of people who, no matter how annoyed with me they might be, would nonetheless come bail me out of jail–and who then might well use the drive home to remind me of past stupid things I’ve done, but would still stop to get me chocolate.

For better or worse, I simply cannot imagine life without them.

16 Responses to “Sisters”

  1. 1.

    This post is made with sincere apologies to Ziff, who taught me to read the stats on a baseball card and what an F-15 was, who adds more than his share of silliness to family gatherings, and who has been and always will be my favorite brother.

  2. 2.

    What a good thread! You remind me why people with big families are lucky, and why I may want to have more children than I am planning.
    The more I read about the ZD sisters, the more I want to learn about your parents. . . Do they ever post?

  3. 3.

    I have four sisters. Two are my best friends, although that is a static case, sometimes others are my best friends. Because I am the oldest, I am the boss. I’ve never lost that advantage. When we were little, I could always beat them up by sheer will power, even though they were tougher than me.

  4. 4.

    Thanks, Jessawhy. You raise an interesting question. Truth to tell, I don’t entirely know what I think about big families. Obviously I wouldn’t trade any of my siblings for anything–but I definitely don’t want to over-romanticize life in big families, either. While more siblings can mean more fun people in your life, when there are family problems (as there inevitably are), it also means having that many more people entangled in them. I’m not convinced that those with lots of siblings are necessarily better off than those with fewer (or vice versa)–I think a lot of factors come into play there.

    And nope, our parents aren’t on the blog. Which means that we don’t post much about them; I’m more comfortable talking about my siblings, since they’re around to correct any wild claims I might make. ;)

    Annegb, ah yes, the oldest child. I’m rather fascinated by how such dynamics persist into adulthood. I spent my childhood feeling like I could never quite catch up to Eve, and even now that we’re in our thirties, I’m not sure that sense is entirely gone.

  5. 5.

    Great post, Lynnette.

    Annegb, it’s so true; the oldest is born with a whip in her hand. I wasn’t afraid to use it. As a child I hated younger children, and I never saw babies or children as cute or interesting in the least. When people goo-gooed over babies and toddlers I was sure they were making it up; all I saw was diapers and crying. As Lynnette describes, I felt a relentless sense of pursuit from my younger siblings, who were coming up behind me, challenging me, and had to be smacked down. Lynnette describes lying on her bed and wondering if she was adopted; I remember dreaming of being an only child and not having to elbow everyone else out of the way all of the time for a piece of the pie. As she says, it can be suffocating to be one of so many, especially when family outsiders get you mixed up and call you by each other’s names and think you’re all just variations on the same person. (Kiskilili once termed this misconception “The Zelophehad Sister Interchangeability Fallacy.”)

    But now while I’m barely in touch with the junior high and high school friends who were so vital to me as a teenager (I exchange Christmas cards with a few, and I’ve lost touch with all the rest), I can’t imagine my life without my siblings. I feel as if my relationships with them fundamentally constitute me. I would not be the same person without my sisters and my brother.

    It makes me laugh that Lynnette is still wondering if she’s “caught up” to me. It’s clear to me that she, Kiskilili, and Ziff have long since suprassed me (she and Ziff both passed their exams this fall, and all three are much nearer the ends of their doctoral programs than I am; I have years of course work to go). I feel as if adulthood has allowed us all to spread out a little and each find our own space of personhood, our own lives, intellectual pursuits, and interests, and I really hope the old strict hierarchy is dissolving into a field where there’s breathing room for everyone.

    One of the things I like about Lynnette’s observations is the way they contradict our fluffy, substanceless Relief Society “sisterhood.” Sibings in scripture are rarely so cosy; Cain and Abel? Jacob and Esau? Benjamin and Joseph and all their brothers? Nephi and Laban? Real sisterhood and brotherhood are characterized by a shared history of blood feuds, rivalry, and rage, and an undying loyalty–you can torment your younger siblings, but just let the cousins show up, and watch the ranks close!

  6. 6.

    Eve (my eternal older sister to whom I will never catch up, no matter what you say), I agree that our scriptural accounts of families are refreshingly authentic. Tying up your younger sibling? Trying to kill him/her? I can relate to those things! Sometimes when I hear the way the term “sisterhood” is used at church, as opposed to my life experience of it, I have to wonder whether this is similar to the current claim about “preside”–that its church meaning is something different than its at-home meaning. ;) However, the thought has also crossed my mind–if we really acted like sisters at Relief Society, would that be good or bad? On the occasions when I’ve had the opportunity to attend RS with numerous sisters, I can’t say that we were terribly well-behaved. More than once, in fact, such an experience has left me with bruises.

  7. 7.

    You sisters must know how blessed you are, right?
    Not all of us have cozy relationships and fond memories of ours. My sister, 2 yrs younger, has and still is my arch-nemisis. I have a clear memory of a fist-fight the summer I got married. (as I recall, she horse-kicked me across the room we were sharing)
    I think personalities, parenting, and perspective have a lot to do with grown-up relationships. (of course, I question whether my sister has grown up, she is still living at home at 25)
    However, close relationships can come from other places. I have been surprised that after 6 years of marriage, I am better friends with my husband’s brother than any of my own siblings (and also closer than they are as brothers) and my husband relates better to my HS age sister than he does to any of his own siblings.
    So, that’s what I like: new siblings through marriage.

  8. 8.

    Lynnette, being the oldest is no fun anymore. Now it’s the eternal jokes about being a geezer and offers to get me walkers, etc. Sure, you’ll never catch up because I’ll hit forty, and fifty, and sixty, and seventy, and eighty first–and die first! ;) (But Amalthea has planned a lovely funeral for me. She’s promised to stand on my coffin and read poetry over my dead body. It’s all in hand.)

    Jessawhy, oh, we’ve definitely had lots of horse-kicking and fistfights and years and years of bitter emnity in our various sibling relationships. But I do feel blessed to have all of my siblings nontheless. ;)

    I do like your point about gaining siblings through marriage. I’m very fond of my brother Ziff’s wife, our only brave sister-in-law who had the courage to marry a man with six sisters (even though she’s not at all an Internet or email person so we don’t see her around here) and I look forward to seeing her and talking with her over Christmas vacation.

    Ziff, if you’re reading this–please tell your sweetie happy birthday belatedly, and I’m sorry I’m such a horrible flake (blame it on the papers I’m allegedly writing right at this minute, heh heh). And thanks so much for the cards to me and to my husband. We really enjoyed them.

  9. 9.

    I’m so glad I read this post today. :) I am meeting one of my three sisters for dinner tonight to discuss the bad state of our relationship. I was thinking how cool you all seem and then to read that you too have had “tense moments of jealousy, of rage,” made me feel a whole lot better.

    So, thanks. :) Hope you don’t mind my pointless post. Wish me luck! I’m scared to talk about all this junk with my sister.

  10. 10.

    Good luck!

  11. 11.

    cmac, that does sound really scary and difficult. I think it’s always hard, frightening even, to talk honestly about difficult and complicated feelings–and with siblings and family members, we’ve got a whole lifetime to build up complications. For what it’s worth, we were anything but a band of loving, kindhearted sisters–and we still tend to be fairly salty spirits, all of us, as I think Amalthea once said of herself–although we get along better than we used to. (That’s the trouble with online! Inevitably, we only reveal certain aspects of ourselves and our lives here.) I don’t think I’ve ever been as awful to anyone as I have been to my own family members.

    Anyway, good luck. I do hope it goes well for you.

  12. 12.

    I wish I could have a better relationship with my sister. It is inspiring to hear your stories!

  13. 13.

    Thank you Jessawhy for the good luck, and thank you Eve for what you wrote. It’s nice to have a little bit of e-pep. Just so you now know (because I know you’re interested :) ) it went swimmingly with my sister. I know there’s probably a long road of getting back to normal with her, but at least we’ve made a start.
    So, thanks again for helping me remember it’s worth it to work stuff out with my sister, but also helping me realize it’s normal and okay to have bumpy (sometimes at best) relationships with siblings.

  14. 14.

    cmac, I’m glad it went well with your sister, and I hope your good conversation bodes well for the future.

    I think it’s extremely normal to have “bumpy” relationships with siblings at times–really, with anyone we’re close to.

  15. 15.

    I’m very fond of my brother Ziff’s wife, our only brave sister-in-law who had the courage to marry a man with six sisters.

    I’m fond of her too. :) I remember that, growing up, I always hoped for each new baby to be a boy so that I could have a brother. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve enjoyed having sisters. Sure, I missed out on all the typical brother activities like wrestling, but my sisters taught me to enjoy talking like brothers never would have. I’m also grateful because women are much more likely to keep up with their relatives than men are, so with six sisters, I can’t lose! Even if I’m a slacker, someone will always keep up with me. (Yes, I know. Typical man.)

  16. 16.

    I was 2nd of five, with 2 boys on the ends and us girls in the middle. I was the boss too…even though i had an older brother. we had a life much like the childhood you described with the fighting and jockying for position and all, only we weren’t actually close at all. Still, somehow as adults I’ve gotten to the same point Lynette writes about in this entry with my sisters. I’m getting closer to my younger brother, but still don’t have much to do with the older one.

    What your post got me thinking about is, how come with my sisters, i managed to just get over our issues and differences and bad history, and forgive and move on, but I haven’t been able to do that with my brother or my parents?

    I never noticed this before, and have spent years wrestling with my relationship with my parents. We don’t even speak now, but only because I stopped being able to do so without it making me crazy and miserable. My sisters can’t talk to them either. One hasn’t in over 5 years, the other still struggles wiht the minimum obligation phone calls (every couple months). I didn’t even go to therapy to become good friends with my sisters. It just seemed to happen. Hmmm. Something to think about.

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