On the call, I first asked about her new baby. I leaned against a giant oak tree, stretching my calf and gripping the bark as she told me about giving birth without an epidural, about how so far the baby is easy-going and fond of sleeping. I asked how the firm was handling her maternity leave, how her other children are handling their new baby sibling. I asked about the baby’s room and about upcoming Christmas plans. I marveled at her workload, her children, her modern way of getting it all done. I asked. I listened. I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. I took interest. I followed up. I sistered the best way I knew how.
“So, I wrote a book and a publisher bought it,” I said. I stretched out my right leg and bent down for a hamstring stretch.
“When’s it coming out?”
“They haven’t said.” I stretched out my left leg and bent forward again. Blood rushed to my head and my heartbeat throbbed at my temples.
“It’s a memoir. But not about our family. It’s about my group therapy. It opens when I’m an adult, and there’s not much backstory. It’s dark but also funny.” I turned toward home and baited my sister with more facts—the name of the publisher, other books they publish—but she swam away from each shiny lure. She asked no other questions. It felt like a lack of interest, but maybe we lacked the vocabulary to express desire or curiosity or concern. She never sat on my bed growing up while I imparted wisdom. She went to swim team before sunrise; I stayed at ballet rehearsal until nine at night. We never divulged secrets or shared a bathroom. We never developed a shorthand. We each made our own way, alone. Un-sistered.
She called back an hour later with a plea: Please leave me and my family out of your book. Please. Just leave us out of it. I agreed instantly, before she finished speaking the request. I agreed before I could tell her she and her family weren’t in my book.
There was a study I first heard about on a morning radio– you know the kind of show where jokey DJs banter about sex and rip on city government. The head jokester mentioned the study as I drove down Lake Shore Drive toward my kids’ school. Researchers from De Montfort University in Leister and Ulster in Northern Ireland surveyed 570 people and found that those who grew up with sisters were happier and more optimistic than those who didn’t. Two of the radio hosts took turns telling stories about their sisters, and the one with only a brother had a mock realization about why he was never happy. Through the rearview mirror, I looked at my kids in the backseat. My boy with his sister; my girl with her brother. I thought of my sister three states away. I pictured her in a navy power-suit, her starched collar hitting her hairline as she popped bagels in the toaster for the kids, while mentally going over a presentation for a Board of Directors scheduled for noon. What would she think of the study?
I think the study doesn’t account for people like me. I’m a statistical aberration. An outlier. Had they surveyed me, they would have thrown out my answers.
I’m obsessed with famous sisters. My favorite famous sister genre is where one’s fame, popularity, business savvy, beauty or wealth greatly exceeds her sibling’s. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwell. Kate and Pippa Middleton. Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle. Jessica and Ashley Simpson. When sisters appear on the cover of tabloid magazines, I linger in the check-out line at the grocery store, pouring over snippets about Nicole Kidman and her brunette sister or studying the photos of Jennifer Gardner and her two friendly-looking sisters in a Southern Living spread. These sister relationships carry the added weight of celebrity and public scrutiny. How do they survive the strain of our curiosity and projection? Are any of their fights fair?
My literary-sister obsession is the Brontes. A house full of sisters writing on the moors in the mid-1800s. Jane Eyre was assigned reading the summer before I started ninth grade. I thought that the love between Mr. Rochester and Jane was the most thrilling, romantic pairing I could ever imagine, and I thought Charlotte Bronte was a genius. The next summer I read Wuthering Heights and Catherine and Heathcliff usurped the title of most-compelling literary couple, and Emily Bronte usurped Charlotte as the most genius novelist. I didn’t know there was a third sister. Also a novelist. I didn’t know Anne Bronte’s name or the details of her publishing career until I was in my forties.
All three Bronte sisters published their first novels in 1847 under male pseudonyms. Wuthering Heights was criticized for being violent and immoral, but sales were considerable given it was a novel by an unknown who defied prevailing narrative conventions. It was Jane Eyre that went on to be the best seller. Anne’s book, Agnes Grey, fictionalized her experiences as a governess; it sold well, but was outshone by her sister’s Wuthering Heights. One year before her death, Anne, the Bronte only English teachers know—the one whose books are never assigned to high school students—published her second, more ambitious novel, The Tenant from Wildfell Hall. It was an instant, phenomenal success, selling out in six weeks. It rapidly outsold her sister’s Wuthering Heights and quickly went into its second printing. Its publisher, trying to persuade American publishers to print the book declared that The Tenant from Wildfell Hall was “superior to [both] Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.”
But Anne’s novel also drew criticism for its coarse subject matter—a family’s financial ruin owing to the patriarch’s alcoholism. In response to the criticism, Charlotte wrote to the publisher a year after Anne’s death discouraging any further printings of the book, thus condemning Anne to temporary oblivion.
Anne Bronte’s second novel cost me zero dollars to download on the Kindle app on my phone. In the introduction, Anne is described by novelist Mary A. Ward (1851-1920), as the “measure” of her sisters’ genius. Anne is “like them, yet not with them.” Ward points out that Anne was considered the “youngest and prettiest of the sisters, with a delicate complexion, a slender neck, and small, pleasant features.”
Imagine Charlotte in her fine clothes and plumed hat, telling the publisher to cease publication on Anne’s second novel. Imagine all the reasons a sister might do that.
When I was four, my mom announced she was having another baby on a hot sunny Texas afternoon. We were in the backyard—she stood by the door to the garage and Dad was pulling up weeds along the side of the house. I remember craning my neck so I could look up at her. I thought she was joking. She smiled and said she wasn’t. Her shirt was floral and for the first time I noticed her bump. Dad had stray pieces of grass stuck to his shirtless chest. Beneath my ribs, my heart thudded, and a question swirled in my girl-child mind: What does this mean?
I knew it was a baby girl. I never once pictured a baby brother.
The March morning my mom went into labor with my sister, Dad bought me and my brother chocolate-covered doughnuts and dropped us off at my mom’s best friend’s house before sunrise. Lynn let us watch cartoons and took us to the park. I stood underneath a blue slide when Lynn told me that my mom had given birth to a baby girl. She told us her first and middle name, and it was the most beautiful six syllables I’d ever heard. First name, soft and sweet like a Southern breeze, a state with a North and a South. Middle name regal, fit for an English queen. We shared the thread of a last name. Would it be enough to stitch us together?
The next day Dad took me and my brother to the hospital, but we were too young to visit the room where my mom and my new baby sister slept. We stayed in the childcare center with a nice lady who gave us peppermints and taught us to play hopscotch using squares on the colorful carpet. When it was time to go home, Dad steered his burgundy Chevy around the side of the hospital. Six or seven floors up, we saw Mom in the window. She waved to us. I can’t remember if she had a baby in her arms.
My kids and I just finished watching Next in Fashion, a Netflix reality show hosted by Queer Eye’s Tan France and fashion model Alexa Chung. One of the two finalists was Korean designer Minju Kim, whose designs were billowy, colorful, and infused with luxurious whimsy. As she and the other designer, a blue-eyed sweetheart named Daniel W. Fletcher designed the 10 looks that would comprise their runway finale, we learned more about their families. In a behind-the-scenes interview, Minju described how she and her sister ran her self-named design business in Seoul. Minju described her sister, who served as her business partner, as one of her biggest champions and also one of her biggest critics. From Minju’s description, her sister served as a governor, keeping Minju from designing clothes that were too outlandish or “out there” to sell. In an emotional reveal, the families of the contestants emerged from a curtain to surprise Minju and Daniel. Minju’s reserved sister wore a shy smile that broadcast her admiration of her sister. After the runway show, just before Minju’s victory was announced, the camera panned to Minju’s tearful sister, who, when interviewed, said she only now understood the brilliant, far-reaching range of Minju’s imagination and talent. It also horrified her to contemplate that perhaps she, as the business manager who often nixed Minju’s ideas, had stifled her sister, preventing her from reaching her full potential. I remember the horror in her eyes more than I remember any of Minju’s winning designs.
At work, I sit next to a woman whose best friends are her sisters. Through the thin walls of our government offices, I can hear Sara’s cell phone chime, and then moments later she’s laughing, a joyful burst of glee and I know: she’s talking to one of her sisters. They text each other inside jokes all day long. Sometimes when I pass by Sara’s office, she’s laughing so hard that tears are streaming down her cheeks. When she tries to describe what’s so funny, I never really “get” the joke. How could I? It’s not meant for me. Sara’s younger sisters are twins and the three of them make up a whole universe. They live within a half day’s drive of one another. They convene at their parents’ house in Ohio for every major holiday. I ask Sara if they ever fight, get jealous of each other, or gang up on one another. I’m searching for the dark seed, for some ballast against all that lightness and laughter I hear through the walls. “We fought like cats and dogs through childhood, but not really anymore,” Sara says. That’s it? Sara shrugs and acknowledges her luck. She thinks all sisters are as close and happy.
In fifth grade, I begged my parents for a kitten. I didn’t care much for animals, but my favorite ballet teacher had pinned a note to the bulletin board in the studio offering a free kitty to a good home. The ballet teacher had eyes filled with soft wonder and the tender voice of someone who spent her day with small children. She lived down the street from our elementary school with her four daughters—all of whom had beautiful doe-like brown eyes and long legs perfect for ballet. I envied the sisters who got to grow up in their two-story house with their sweet mom and with each other, all looking out at the world from their wondrous brown eyes. I wanted to bring some part of their life back to my house.
I picked the tiniest kitty. The gray one who mewled and looked right at me with a curious expression. When I got home with the kitten, I introduced her to my sister and brother. My sister stroked between her ears, and the kitten began to purr. We named her Cuddles. That night, I tried to get Cuddles to curl up on my pillow next to me. The instant I stopped petting her, she would leap off the bed and race down the hall where I would find her nestled in the crook of my sister’s arm. Several times, I’d try to lure the kitty back to my room, but it never stuck. I eventually gave up.
I have this idea that the word sister is a verb, should be a verb. To sister is to play the role of almost-mother, nurturer in training. A mother stripped of troublesome authority but armed with the gifts of connection and care. A sister holds your secrets and tells her own. A sister picks up the phone. A sister fills you in. A sister holds the history of a family in her body, she puts words to the experiences that happened under the roof of the red brick house with the American and Texas flags out front. To sister is to love with words, with stories—hers and others. To sister is to keep the narrative going.