My childhood was, by most standards, privileged. I wanted for nothing much materially. I grew up in a large family that gathered often. My home was party central for occasions celebratory, religious and impromptu. I liked the parties, despite the fact that I usually found myself on the fringe.
I was not just a loner, I was desperately lonely.
I was the only girl, the afterthought. My three older brothers ranged from 9 to 15 years older than me. The general belief was that I was a spoiled princess, as the long awaited daughter. This was an unfair assumption. More often I was ignored. More than occasionally I was made aware of the inconvenience of my existence. This is when I would go disappear into a book, doing my best to escape and escape notice.
My much older male siblings and parents regularly waxed nostalgic about family adventures that occurred almost a decade before I existed. My own family was like a club that I could never belong to at worst, at best it was the second marriage – the “other family” that the original siblings resent.
Some things are nobody’s fault really. They just are. Like the pollen count and whether it rains on your birthday. You just deal with it accordingly. My family is filled with well meaning people. I ‘m not forgetting this.
I was clever and precocious and held my own in adult conversations, and made the most of my world, like so many only children. But I still was the only one who had to go to bed before the party was over. I wasn’t allowed in the back room where the teenagers, college students, etc strummed guitars and made out with their girlfriends. For the best. When I was left alone with them I saw and learned things that I shouldn’t have.
How I longed for a sister. An older sister who would take me under her wing and make my brothers treat me better. A younger sister who would let me dress her up and play “Little House on the Prairie” on my canopy bed/covered wagon with me, in matching bonnets. A twin, who I’d probably loathe as much as I loathed myself at times, but at least she’d be my age and into the same stuff as me.
I tried to scratch my sister-itch with female friends. But my best friends were always already sisters themselves. They would confide in me, how much they hated their sisters and how frustrating they were. How awful. But they would abandon me in an instant for these dreadful sisters of theirs, pouring salt in the wound of my loneliness.
Each time a house went on sale in the neighborhood, I watched for a sign of a girl my age*. An only child, preferably. She never moved in.
So I grew up awkward in the ways of female friendship and I took my show on the road to a mostly male college. Things never really changed for me. I had female friends, as always (and still) but not the kind you would call a “sister”. For a brief period I hoped to marry into sisterhood. I crossed my fingers, wishing for a sister-in-law who would be just like a sister. Someone I could email and talk on the phone to. Someone to give me parenting advice and save baby clothes for my kid. I’d seen these things happen.
My brothers, all three of them, married women who came from families of several sisters. It’s a little comical, this common thread amongst the women they chose. All sisters, practically no brothers. My brother’s wives had no need of my friendship, let alone my sisterhood. They are lovely people, but we have little in common other than my relationship with my brothers. This relationship was never particularly close to begin with, and sadly hasn’t changed much with time, age and distance.
My husband’s sister is a nice person too, but she lives on the opposite coast and may as well live in another world as a childless professional.
I often question what I could have done, what I should be doing. How can I be a better friend and perhaps nurture my female friendships more? Surely there is something. This wages war with my feeling of inadequacy in general. It bleeds into self doubts as a parent, a daughter and a professional.
This is the sort of thing I’d talk about with a sister. If I had one.
Few topics bring tears to my eyes faster than this one. I’ve lived through half my life feeling something is lacking and my own deepest fears are that what is lacking, may be lacking in me. Some flaw in my character. Or perhaps my lonerhood is so deeply embedded and tattooed on my flesh so as to be off putting in some way. Is it indelible? Genetic?
For me, weddings, showers, births and crisis have all been tinged with a sting. The sting of something missing. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful mother but she is not a substitute for a sister or a friend who feels like one. A sister to help me shop for my wedding dress and lie about how skinny I looked. A sister to show up for a week and freeze casseroles when I had my second child. A sister to take me for a drink and tell me to hang on and keep the faith when my mammogram came back funky.
I would have loved a sister at all of those moments and many more. With or without the matching bonnets.
If there is any balm to soothe me, it’s the bittersweet perspective I have as I watch my own daughters navigate their relationships with others and each other. They fight, they claw at each other emotionally and physically. They complain to their best friends about each other for certain.
There is no doubt in my mind however, that they would forsake a friend for each other in an instant. I take so much comfort in the hope that they will always be there for each other in ways I only wish I’d had a sister there for me. It helps to heal the stilll-hurt part of my heart.
Watching them makes me feel better in a weird way. In that regard they are not only my daughters, they are my sisters too.
* I still feel that silly surge of girlish hope when a house goes on sale in my neighborhood. Maybe my “sister” will move in!