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 How the Pandemic Reunited Me With My Sister

I've had time to get clear about who and what is important.

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Black and white image of two young sisters ripped and taped back together
Chris O’Riley (Images: Courtesy Nancy Kelton)
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During a recent conversation with my sister, Susan, we laughed as we recalled childhood memories. They included a visit from our pretentious Aunt Bea, who spoke with affectations. When she left, our father said, “She’s the only person who says ‘yes’ in two syllables. Ye-es.”      

For more than a year before the pandemic, Susan and I had not been reminiscing on the phone or even talking. Our 2019 distance was not our first. Our issues go back further: to my birth.       

Despite my presence, Susan, five years older, continued to occupy center stage without, it seemed, any limits. I did not understand how or why that happened. My parents would comment that she was “fragile.” Maybe they were afraid of her. She monopolized the conversation at dinner, talking about her friends, schoolwork and eventually her social life.  

Our evening meal was like a talk show with my sister, the main guest. I came on last when everyone was getting up from the table. I did not feel heard. I learned to talk fast. Susan’s picky eating got an inordinate amount of attention. Our mother commented on how she pushed her food around and left so much on her plate. 

“You can tell a lot about people by the way they eat,” Mom would say. I ate everything. I loved food and got approval.                  

Our mother — consumed with taking Susan to and from her afterschool activities and on Saturday shopping expeditions — ignored me. I was aware of her mental issues, requiring hospitalizations and regular psychotherapy, but did not feel less rejected by her or resentful of my sister. 

Only now, when Susan and I discuss our mom’s engulfment of her and indifference to me — and how differently we were treated by both parents — do we see how that contributed to our difficulties getting along and our mutual resentment.          

With the girls in the house excluding and ignoring me, I attached to my father. Being left with him initially seemed like a booby prize; however, it became a lifesaver and a blessing. He and I were a team. We fit. We were pals. We spent hours painting by numbers, doing errands and playing everything from beauty parlor to gin rummy to ping-pong. Dad laughed at what I said and made me feel like a fun companion. He validated me in a way he did not validate Susan.         

Whether she and I were getting along or not, I longed to breathe in her air. She wanted me to get lost. “Nancy, please,” she would say when I wanted to come into her room and sit on her bed late at night, listen to my “Annie Get Your Gun” record together, laugh when our mother sang “Ramona” and other songs from her time, or stand arm in arm singing “The Davidoff Sister Song” that I made up.       

Even now, I smile, recalling treasured moments like when she picked me up and carried me home a half a block to our front porch when a German Shepherd frightened me; when she was waiting at my first grade classroom door the day I got my first report card and, taking a look at it, said Mommy and Daddy would be really proud; and when we both got food poisoning while sharing a hotel room in Boston where she was looking at colleges and spent the entire night accompanying each other to the bathroom and holding each other’s hands and heads.     

In recent years, I felt close to her — yearned for her — while visiting a relative who does not understand who I am or lift my spirits. Feeling the distance, wanting to hear Susan’s voice, knowing she was there for me, I called her. Yes! Our longtime issues stem in part from the usual sibling rivalry. Jealousy. Resentment. Wanting to be a parent’s one and only.       

But our hugely different expectations, needs, personalities and ways of being in the world, which we now acknowledge and appreciate, have played an enormous role. Longing for maternal love from her, I always wanted and expected more than she could give. I demanded too much, pressuring her. I took it personally when she backed off and disappeared.

It takes two not to tango. Despite years of therapy and being self-reflective, in general, I was unaware of my role in our dance and chose not to deal with it. I had — still have — female friends who are like big sisters. Still, that is not the same. 

The pandemic has given me time and space to go more deeply inward and get clear about who and what is important.         

In March, after our semi-estrangement, I left Susan a phone message saying I love her, miss her and wonder how she is (she is divorced, has a boyfriend, and lives alone). I ended with “We’re family.” She called me. She said the “We’re family” got to her.         

Now we speak every week or two, sharing what we are doing, reading and eating, as well as memories about our family. We give each other space, bare our souls and discuss our vulnerabilities. Some are the same. Many are different. When she says she doesn’t want to discuss something, I respect it. I don’t push. She likes to give me advice. Usually, it is good. We laugh hysterically about things that only we get. We both have trouble hanging up.

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