Like Sisters

January 2004

We couldn’t have been more unlike each other, my sister Laura and I. Growing up, she was all sneakers, pixie haircut, tanned, rough knees, and board games. I was into dolls, party shoes, long hair, dress-up, and fantasy. Nevertheless, we loved each other; and we were very close. But still, there was always the feeling I had of a wish, unfulfilled. I wanted a sister who saw things the way I did. I wanted her to feel the ecstasy of the miniature hairbrushes, earrings, and shoes in my Barbie collection, or to give herself wholeheartedly to a game of Pretend.

Laura never wanted to do that. Her thing was the concrete, the logical. She played endless games of cards, learned chess, solved puzzles. Our interests intersected tangentially over Monopoly, where I tried to be happy arranging the hotels and the houses on the rainbow of properties, but they were all the same! Very infrequently, she would pick up a doll and try to play seriously, but her impatience with the restrictions of their dresses and empty heads frustrated her: Laura could not appreciate their beauty for what it was, and would toss them down all too quickly.

Our parents, who were teachers, took us on long vacations, Odyssey-like trips out West, camping in a tent trailer. It was there that things changed for us. Thrown in together for six weeks at a time, we grew to know each other’s minds and sense of humor and also which buttons pushed what emotions. From the backseat of the Ford stationwagon, as we watched with the same awe as the strange gray and white shadows over the flat farmlands of Indiana slowly became snowcapped mountains, we learned the sisterly art of communicating silently, or just with a lilting eyebrow. We were seven and nine, then nine and eleven, and we always got out of the car dutifully to appreciate vast red canyons and syrupy brown rivers, the likes of which we had never dreamed of from our shady green backyard in Connecticut. Taking me so thoroughly away from what I had thought was the entire world gave me both a sense of wonder and of the changeable nature of things. It was exhiliarating and unsettling at the same time. I think it was like that for Laura, too.

What went on inside the car was often just as fascinating as Mount Rushmore or Old Faithful. Back there was our kingdom. Away from the dollhouses and the collection of board games, my sister and I of necessity relied on books, pads and pens, and most of all, each other for amusement. We divided the backseat with the bumpy No Man’s Land in the middle, called “The Cutter,” over which we were not to pass. The Cutter was only invoked, however, when we were angry with each other. For the most part, we leaned companionably against one another, as accustomed to each other’s scent and feel as our own skin. Back there, we drew stories for each other. We gossiped about my parents, who “forced” us to look at trees and go on walks. We made up a language. We made each other laugh, particularly when she created “Dornie,” a strange character who was actually one of her only dolls. Dornie would die suddenly and horribly, a different death everytime, as only a doll can. Dornie’s head would also sometimes hide on our mother’s shoulder for long periods of time, with the two of us laughing because Mom had no idea the head was there.We would laugh until we had cramps.

Dornie was the only way my sister would play with a doll, of course, but I didn’t mind. I loved it, in fact. I, who had only known the pleasure of dressing dolls in candy-pink doll dresses and stroking their shiny platinum hair in wonder. There was the sweet seduction of doing something vaguely naughty by defiling dolls this way. But there was something more; the heady joy of playing with my sister, at long last.

As we grew older and Dornie was put away along with my own dolls, our differences became deeper. I got married fairly young and started a life away from my family — and her. She visited us frequently, though, and got along well with my husband; our sense of humor was still the glue that kept us close, even though we were interested in different things. I was a writer, she was a scientist. I was decorating my first apartment, she was setting up her lab. When she got married, it was not easy for us. Her husband was chosen from her cerebral side, not the zany Dornie side. For a while, we struggled to adjust to our new roles and these new men in our lives. We dutifully visited each other, and found some common ground by taking walks together or sharing large family holidays with our parents. But in some ways, it felt like it was all math and science and sneakers again.

Recently, however, something caught and held us. It may be that she now has children, too. I wonder if she is experiencing flashbacks to childhood the way I am, the giddy discoveries of how your children are just like you, or so very different. Despite our differences and the rough patches, Laura and I have been finding ourselves warmly ensconced in each others’ homes, sharing interests in movies and books, gossiping happily about our parents. Characteristically, our lifestyles are different, at least on the surface. Her house is large, new, and rural; mine is large, Victorian, and urban. Our children are friends, especially the youngest. My youngest boy and her little girl not only look alike, they have been like twins separated at birth ever since their birth. Their voices rise and fall from the playrooms of our houses, working out the details of the Pretend games they’re playing, using game pieces or action figures, or even dolls. They have crossed over The Cutter that divides tomboy from girlie-girl, and they have utterly and irrevocably smudged its boundaries.

So it seems that our children as cousins have easily achieved the sweet sibling relationship that I longed for as a girl. I no longer need that sort of relationship with Laura, being so comfortable with what we have. I have grown accustomed to our differences once again, and I no longer look for us to be The Same. My sister understand fashion? Okay, it’s not to be. I resign myself to enjoying the thrill of a gorgeous new outfit or a makeover by myself.

And then, the other day, I got a phone call. My pragmatic, hardheaded sister, was calling in the middle of the day. She was breathless with excitement.

“I just had to call you! I’ve just gotten my hair done, completely different. It looks so good! I just had to tell you about it. I’m so excited! I thought you would really understand.”

Did I ever.