Growing up, I knew a lot of girls who described their relationships with their best friends as being “like sisters,” but that analogy never made sense to me. Friends are people you actually choose to spend time with, people with whom you share your innermost thoughts and feelings. Sisters, on the other hand, can rarely stand to be around one another, much less trust each other with our delicate emotions—at least, that was the case in my family.
There are four years separating my eldest sister, K., and myself. The second-eldest, S., is just 13 months older than me. When we were little, S. and I shared a lot of things: a bedroom, matching fairy bedsheets, crushes on Zac Hanson, and afternoons spent pretending to have a babysitters’ agency (it involved a lot of paperwork and imaginary phone calls). K. was always the typical “big sister”: She separated her toys from ours, made sure to remind us that she was the oldest whenever possible, and took responsibility for choreographing dances to Steps, Aqua, and S Club 7 songs (a more late-’90s lineup has never existed) when our friends came over on weekends.
We also argued incessantly. We’d bicker about totally petty things, like whose glass of Coke was the fullest and therefore most unfair to the other two, or who got to wear their hair in Sailor Moon–style buns when we went out to dinner (because we would never have stood for matching). While we found a common ground in our shared love for movies about troublemaking gangs of kids, like Camp Nowhere and Now and Then, we just never really got the hang of communicating civilly about almost anything, especially as we got older, when we had learned enough about one another’s insecurities to insult each other in precisely the ways we knew would hurt most.
What made this more painful was that I knew it didn’t have to be this way. I saw the warm relationships my friends had with their sisters and the ones shared by siblings on TV shows like Full House and Keeping Up With the Kardashians and wondered what had gone wrong to prevent K., S., and I from having something like that. Later, I’d see siblings going into business, starting bands, or moving out of their childhood homes and into apartments together, and I didn’t understand how they could do it. Why didn’t my friend Sinead get irked when I invited her little sister out to dinner with us, as I would have had she done the same with one of my sisters? How can Beyoncé and Solange spend so much time on yachts together and seem like they’re having the best time ever? (OK, maybe because they’re perfect in every way, but you get the point.) All these lovey-dovey sisterhoods were totally foreign and impossible-seeming to me.
Once we grew up and moved away from home, our parents, and our childhood baggage, my sisters and I actually began to miss one another. We showed snippets of affection via social media and the occasional phone call, but our juvenile arguments, slammed doors, and silent treatments would resume when we all came home each Christmas. I would return from these visits wondering if we’d ever be able to move past our childhood animosity and get along.
But recently two things happened that made me want to look more closely at our relationship. First, K. attended her 10-year high school reunion, which means it’s been almost a decade since the three of us lived together, and then, a few months ago, our grandmother passed away. It was the first death of any of our family members, so we rallied around our dad and one another during a really tough period. I felt like it was the first time we were able truly put aside our differences, and it made me want to open up to them even more. I’ve known these people since the moment I was born, but I can’t remember a single time the three of us sat down and spoke honestly about our feelings together, so I asked them if they would do this “interview” with me about our relationship as sisters. Because we all live so far apart, I asked them to be on Facebook at the same time to talk to me for this piece.
Brodie: I feel like Nana’s funeral was a pretty big point in our relationship—like coming together to support Dad really changed our dynamic and brought us closer. What do you guys think?
K: I think it united us because we weren’t really sure how to grieve for Nana. We definitely made it all about Dad, and from memory, there wasn’t any pettiness or focus on ourselves. We just made sure we could do whatever Dad needed from us.
S: For sure, and we all know what Dad is like with stress. I think HE needed us all to be there for one another and, in doing that, we were doing the best thing for him, too.
It’s true that we were less volatile in the days following Nana’s death. As we went through that time together, I came to realize we were so much more than just bickering siblings—we were also three adults shouldering a shared history that I had taken for granted in the past. We all stayed together throughout those few days, and I was, as always, acutely aware of my sisters’ very specific personality traits, but I actually felt gratitude for them instead of my normal irritation. I was thankful for S.’s ever-present ability to distract me from the tough shit we were trying to cope with by telling me jokes and silly stories, and for the responsibility K. has always taken for all of us as the oldest. The way she immediately assumed management mode of every situation as S. and I clumsily attempted to comfort our grieving relatives was crucial in getting us through the funeral and its ensuing days. She’s had this sense of leadership since we were children—she basically assumed the role of a third parent as we were growing up. I’ll always remember the time she (rightly) stopped me from taking a ton of sugary vodka drinks to a post-prom party, then picked me up and bought me McDonald’s the next morning. Now that’s a caretaker. With these things in mind, I asked her if she tends to see herself the way I do.
K: I always feel like I am supposed to be the big sister when stuff like that happens…like, “It’s OK, I’m here to help.” Like, I couldn’t be too sad, because then what would you two do?!
Our relationships with our actual parents also became a central point of our conversation. Our mum and dad have always been the ties that bound us and the bodies that birthed us, but collectively, we’ve always been closer to our mum. As little kids, it felt natural to rely on her whenever we needed anything, and that didn’t change much as we grew up. When our parents separated, there was never a question of who we’d live with full-time. It was upsetting at the time, sure, but the way my sisters and I relate to our dad now, as a buddy and support system, is so much more rewarding and satisfying than how we did as kids, when he was an authority figure with whom we didn’t have very much in common.
B: When I was thinking about what to bring up in this interview, I kept coming back to our relationship with Dad.
K: And that it’s better now than it ever were when we were growing up?
B: SO much better.
S: Yes, agreed!
K: A kid at school said yesterday, “Why do people always call their mum when they need something?” I think so often mums are responsible for everything.
B: Especially with young girls, too.
K: All of a sudden, Dad had teenagers, who needed different stuff from him than what little girls needed, and he had to do it on his own when we were with him.
B: I’d never thought of it like that.
As we compared memories, my sisters and I were able to add new details and fill in blanks as only the three of us could do for one another. I’ve always been the “elephant” of the family—the one who can remember every detail of a situation or line from a movie—but there are parts of my childhood that are hazy, and I rely on my sisters to flesh them out for me. I asked my sisters what they remembered from the time in our childhood when our mum had to spend two months in a hospital two hours away from our home to be treated for breast cancer, during which time Dad became our sole caregiver. I was only about eight years old, so I barely remember anything about that period. I can recall eating Frosted Flakes for breakfast and watching a VHS of Hocus Pocus with Mum every night when I stayed with her for a week in the respite home, and falling asleep on the mattress in the back of our dad’s truck after a late night at the hospital.
K: I don’t remember much. S. was really sad. I got a student council merit badge at a school assembly when Mum was away and Dad couldn’t do my hair for the ceremony, so I had to go to [our neighbor] Marilyn’s, but she didn’t do my hair how I wanted it. It was sad that Mum wasn’t there when I got my badge, but it was OK.
B: Yeah, I remember that was the only year she didn’t make our outfits for the school Christmas concert. People asked me where she was and I was like, “SHE’S LOOKING AFTER HER BREASTS.” I had no clue what was going on—I don’t think anyone had even said the word cancer around me—but I remember thinking I was very mature for knowing to call them breasts and not boobies, like we did at home.
S: I have never really coped without Mum. I even missed her when I moved to a different house in the same town. But now that we live together again I could kill her, haha.
K: I remember [our mum’s father] Grandpa wanting to tell me what was wrong and he got mad at Grandma ’cause she didn’t think I needed to know, so I went and looked up cancer in the encyclopedia.
S: I don’t really remember much about Mum being sick besides all the flowers she got, and that when I went to her initial consult with her doctor, she was crying, and I had never seen her cry before then. She just said, “The doctor found a bump on Mummy’s booby and he has to take it out.”
K: That’s sad.
B: I never knew you were there with her!
It took 15 years for me to find out that S., to whom I’ve always felt closer than any other family member, was with my mum when she first found out she had cancer. This was the moment when my heart started to crack at the realization that there was so much of my sisters’ memories of our family that I’d never known—but that they’d offer if I just asked.
B: Do you guys remember us three spending time together when Mum was sick, or talking about it at all?
K: I remember so vividly walking into the hospital and saying, “You look like my friend’s mum when she doesn’t wear makeup!” And I thought that was a compliment, but also honest.
B: Did she laugh?
K: No, I felt bad ’cause I think I hurt her feelings.
B: You didn’t mean to. I feel like that’s the opposite of relationships between sisters—when you kinda know what might hurt someone or get them angry, and you say or do it anyway. We know the buttons to push if we really want to upset one another.
S: Yeah, that’s so true!
K: Oh, yeah. The amount of times I said you were fat or that S. was dumb makes me feel awful, but I remember getting SO ANGRY if other people said it about you.
B: Me too.
B: I remember when all I wanted in high school was for the boys to think I was cool, so I’d laugh with them when they said shit about you, K., and then you got sad and told me you always stuck up for me to other people. That made me so sad, but I never apologized, or said thank you.
S: Yes, I always defended both of you if people said crap about you.
The fact is that we’re three completely different people with one massive thing in common. The affection we share now is a result of more than 20 years of learning to accept one another’s habits, quirks, and pressure points out of biological obligation. Although asking my sisters if they thought we’d be friends if we weren’t related was the main reason I wanted to have this chat in the first place, it was also the moment I dreaded the most—I was worried it might upset or offend them. I imagined that if the conversation had taken place in person, it would be the moment when their bedroom doors slammed in my face. But I gathered my courage and asked anyway.
B: What do you think we’d connect over or talk about if we hadn’t known one another forever? Would we even know one another?
K: I dunno. Probably not, TBH.
That was literally it. All my stress was for naught—what I thought would be the hardest topic of our conversation was actually the least emotional part of the whole thing. When I set out to do this interview, I didn’t really know what I expected to come from it—I’d planned some conversation starters that, looking back now, seem so contrived and unnatural—things like, “Some people think that birth order determines personality, but as the middle child, S. wasn’t battling for attention.” (Blerg, who talks like that?!) I’m glad that, instead, we just talked like actual sisters—S. telling us this new detail of a major part of our past was exactly the kind of thing I had hoped for when I asked my sisters to have this occasionally awkward (and often sad) conversation. In it, we made up for the years of conversations we didn’t have. As our chat wound down, K. and S. gave me their impressions of how the whole thing had gone.
K: I’m sad. I need to go shopping now.
S: Yes, for sure, I have cried since this started.
B: Me too. I hope you both feel OK about it and not just sad??
S: No, I feel good, it just makes us think about things we wouldn’t necessarily think about otherwise, and appreciate one another more too!
Our relationship has always remained steadfast, intact, and specifically ours, and I love it despite the fact that, even if you squint real hard, it still doesn’t resemble the ones in old Mary-Kate and Ashley movies (which I’ve actually come to be thankful for—I would imagine it would get boring to hang out with someone just like you all the time). We might not turn to one another immediately in every single moment of personal crisis, but I think we also know ourselves and one another well enough to understand that that’s just not how our particular relationship works, or, as K. said at one point, “I don’t think that’s necessarily what you need from your sisters anyway.”
In the days following our Nana’s funeral, K., S., and I seemed a lot more comfortable texting and calling one another, not for any big reason besides just to talk. The same thing happened after we had this chat. It was like once the floodgates of FEELINGS had been opened, we were more comfortable discussing the day-to-day events of our lives that we would normally save for our friends. I know more about S. and K. than I ever have before. And sure, we might not have a relationship like those BFFs who say they’re “like sisters!” But I’m hoping that we’ll keep making the effort to trust and open up to one another as best we can—and maybe next time we won’t even need Facebook chat to do it. ♦