All counted, I have nine sisters in my family. My two closest and dearest sisters are Marissa, my blood sister and Tara, my life sister. Both sisters augment my existence in very different ways and both sisters are essential to my daily happiness. I don’t want to imagine life without them. I love each of them dearly.
When my little sister was born three years after me I was given the job of looking after her. My mother tells that when Missa was a toddler my mother’s words to me, “Help her” echoed jubilantly in her little ears so that she went around parroting “help her, help her.” I never had a problem with that standard tax on elder sisterhood. We grew up close, sharing most things—a room, clothes, friends—most hours of our sprouting lives. We are undeniably different and I’ve always wondered what she would have been like without me. Without me to define herself against, what would she have defined herself as?
My sister does a lot that I could never do. She’s a nurse’s aide and—I find this harder to imagine—she loves this job. If I tried to be a nurse of any sort, I would leave pools of tears in my wake. She has three kids while I can barely see straight to raise one. That’s bravery and kiss-it-to-the-wind that my logic oriented brain can’t compute. Marissa possesses the thick-skin and steely stubborn genes that evaded me. These same traits can drive me batty even as I admire them.
Differences aside, I would do a lot to keep us close. My family makes the 4 hour drive up to Vermont once a month. I try to assess the patterns of her phone availability, as well as share mine with her. I try (try try) to recognize—before it’s out of my mouth—that my helpful advice in her ears is probably criticism. I take my auntie role to my niece and nephews seriously. If you’re ever up in Vermont and meet a nice, diminutive, black-haired lady named Marissa, you’ll see—my sis is awesome.
When I met Tara twenty years ago we were in many ways babes just hatched into the nest of Emerson College with all the other artsy, Broadway-bound, geeky fuzzy chicks. We thought that because we’d left one parents’ home we were all growed up. When we caught our sage teachers sharing winks behind our backs, we were offended. What we didn’t know was that we were on a course that includes many homes: childhood, college, singleton, decent salary, partnered, with kids to name the doorways most walked through. Yet we were the most dewy-eyed and wet-behind-the-ears as they come. It took my mother many hours, weeks and months of list-making, buying supplies and phone calls for her to handle my leaving home. I thought she was being very Sicilian. Ahhh youth. Now I know different. Now I can see what she saw.
At Emerson we thought ourselves the artiest of the arty; Tara with her shaved head and me in black-rimmed glasses and combat boots. We birthed a women’s art group that gave us opportunities to learn some good lessons. We wavered and circled, and leaned on other friends more. But as the years rolled out, over hills and down valleys and round long bends, we’ve always found a way to meet up in a parking lot or land with bags in hand for a brief, sweet interlude before she falls asleep, because she is the morning person. I’ll be talking and she’ll get that drawn out effect to her words and then she fades.
We’ve worked like blacksmiths hammering out the red gooey blob we began with. We’ve sweat and honed and somewhere during our baby-mama years we realized that we are as sister as sister can be. There is no other word for what we share. When you’ve been through the worst catastrophes and storms and you are on the other side still talking, that’s when you realize nothing can come at you that will break your link. That’s sisterhood. That’s trust.
I’ve also acquired three sisters, who came to me as presents through marriage. There are my husband’s two sisters, who I almost never see. The Foley family is from Dublin and once they got their degrees they scattered to the wind. I have always wished it was different. I’ve always wanted to share more of their lives, but that Atlantic Ocean is wide.
A happier sisterhood is what I share with Lora. Last year my brother married this Oklahoma girl after a couple of years of dating. When I met Lora I had high hopes that she would become another close sister. We met for tea. We share a zillion likes in common. I semi-secretly believe that my brother likes her because, although there are some major differences, she’s a lot like me. However, achieving this idyllic alliance has been more problematic than I bet on. There was the infamous couch incident.
There’s also contrasting lifestyle, which can be easily broken down into: they have a life (aka they have no kids) and we have no life (aka we have a 5 year old). Apparently, rarely the twain shall meet. Yet, I admire Lora and am thankful that she sees my brother’s awesomeness, even if he never learned to clean. I have hope for Lora as a possible real sister one day; only time and distance from the couch incident will tell.
My last set of sisters hail from very different tribes came to me by that mark of modern life: divorce. When my parents divorced o so long ago they each married again and we gained two new step-families. My mom married an older WASPy dude and my dad married a younger Puerto Rican chica so you might visualize some of the differences. It’s the stuff of a sitcom for sure. Between these blended marriages came my distant sisters Nidia and Jessica, two young girls, and Meg and Erin, of our age group.
I could not imagine more varied sister experiences than with these duos. Yet they are all great women who I’ve been happy to spend a small amount of time with over the years at the odd family gathering big enough to merit their travel from Florida and San Francisco to New England. Basically we see each other at weddings, sashaying in our satin dresses, holding up skirts as we Macarena, clinking champagne glasses and escaping for late nights in diners to play catch up. It’s been wild watching them grow alongside us over the years and comparing notes of progress from teenagers to adults, kids to mothers ourselves. Our connections read like a pack of tarot cards in my head, one for each bi-yearly meeting over the past 20 years.
My sisters—parts of my tribe, submerged and known, cool and affectionate, distant yet sharing the most intimate of connections.
Yet… my sister list is still incomplete. I need to include friends who were sisters to me over the years. We shared our New Jersey childhood as our area sprang up around us from old farms, fields and dump sites. Most of our parents were immigrants, one skip away from their New York landings. We shared bathing suited summers at the pool and beach, skeet ball, cotton candy, Sicilian pizza and rollers coasters that Sandy hurled and left in the sea.
We shared bowling and roller skating to Led Zeppelin’s All of My Love and Dire Straits’ Roller-Girl. We pretended we were afraid on Monday dates nights so we could experiment with closeness to the other sex. We played a lot of Pac Man and passed through the sieve of dozens of teachers like awful Mrs. Ledbetter. We tried out for cheerleading although we weren’t friends with anyone on the squad and so of course were not chosen. We admired and feared the learned Dr. Godbold.
We strolled down cobbled Amsterdam streets and splashed our bikes through rivers of puddles. We practiced guttural Gs, and danced and split jars of peanut butter. We shared lofts and dresses and art school and writing groups and umpteen rehearsals. We sold theater tickets and were volunteer ushers. We were adventurous and flirty, young and mischievous, and our dating life generally sucked.
We’ve stayed tried and true. Or our glue dried and our pages pulled apart. But the parts that touched still show signs of where we pressed. There were sisters I met like flash floods; we were together intimate and hourly, until the torrent of our sharing burnt away; the DNA of those cinders is coded with some of the best times of my life.
My sisters, close sisters and blood sisters. Far and distant and lost sisters. The sisters who I ended badly with. The sisters I want to know better and the sisters I’ll never understand. And the sisters yet to come, still waiting farther up along the way. Happy Valentine’s Day. Love to you from my dot on the map, traveling all of the routes to the separate strands of your lives.