Sisters from Cradle to Grave

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Sister relationships are some of the most authentic relationships we have. A sister-sister relationship is unique and unlike any other. The closer in age, the better your sisters understand the things you have gone through. We are each other’s confidantes and combatants. We share common memories and similar experiences. A sister is there for the big moments in life and knows family skeletons. It’s who you call when the unexpected happens, tragic or terrific. Female siblings know and deal with aging parents and are there for each other as we age and face illnesses.

Raising my four daughters often reminded me of growing up with four sisters, especially the two sisters closest in age. Our unified identity was that of a wolf pack. 

My daughters, like their mother and aunts, kept secrets from me. They didn’t understand that their mom was no amateur when it came to sisters’ shenanigans. A sister is a partner in crime. When one daughter took the automated phone calls from her sister’s high school about her skipping classes, instead of telling me, she said her sister, I have your back, but be careful. Sisters know better then Santa if we were good or bad.

Sisters borrow and steal clothes from one another. We understand why that time of the month sucks and give each other space. Sisters mean more makeup and hair products and yelling in frustration when “stuff” in the bathroom leaves no room for another sister’s toothbrush. They get under each other’s skin with a surgeon’s precision. Fights between sisters are like no other. We give advice wanted or unwanted. Sisters critique each other but push back if those outside the wolf pack take the same liberty. If anyone dares knock down your sis, you defend her to the death. 

Sharing time in history and family dynamics makes sisterhood a unique alliance. Family folklore, stories, and jokes between us is something nobody else can truly appreciate. When reunited with a sister, be it a month or ten years apart, we connect immediately. Calling my sister, Jórunn, in Iceland or Stella in Michigan is to slip into a deep and comfy space. When COVID-19 put us int isolation, we Zoomed or texted every single day. From young to old, sisters’ lives unravel from the same spool from cradle to grave. 

As the youngest, my two oldest sisters were a second mom, while the two close in age bossed me around, and I tattled on them. Mother dressed us like triplets, delighting me and horrifying them. Visiting downtown by ourselves, they made me walk on the other side of the street and then waved to me, laughing like I was a walking comedy act. Our memories may differ, but not when it comes to the extraordinary bond we feel for one another. We know each other insides and outsides better than our husbands or children. Our parents die, our daughters grow up and have their own families, but sisters are for life.

Recently, I asked Jórunn why she and Stella had insisted for the longest time that I was adopted, and that I should not talk to mom about it because it would hurt her feelings. After a pause filled with laughter from both of us, she said, “We were toughening you up for life. It was in your interest and our way of saying we cared.” When I pointed out that I was only five, she countered, “Never too early to start.” 

Sharing a bedroom with your sister meant more fights and more opportunities to talk with each other, whispering after the lights were out. I recall listening to my two oldest daughters trying to come up with a survival plan while sharing a bedroom. “OK, Andrea,” Naomi would say, “You promise not to come to my side of the room, and I won’t go on your side of the room.” Of course, the power is always with the older one, which explains why Naomi had the door on her side. Andrea would try to please her oldest sister until she quit and fought back. Sisters’ extensive contact and companionship during childhood are where we learn through conflict to negotiate, persuade, and problem solve. Older sisters boss younger sisters around while living under the same roof, and sometimes this part of the relationship resurfaces in the last period of our lives. 

Sitting with a hospice patient, Sara, 93, she talked more about her younger sister than her husband and or her children. Listening to the sisters talk together on the phone was as if they were back in time when scotch tape divided the sisters’ bedroom. When Sara got off the phone, she’d complain, “She keeps saying the same thing over and over again. Never anything new to tell me.” Sadie and Bessie Delany, civil rights activists, were the subject of a New York Times bestselling book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years. A quote from the musical based on the book, Bessie (age 101) complains about her sister, “Sadie (age 103) doesn’t approve of me sometimes; she kind of looks at me in that big sister sort of way.” More than a hundred years later, Sadie was still the big sister. 

In the early years, there are times you may wish your sister would just be gone from the face of the earth. You’ve had it with her. But a study of siblings between 25 and 89 found that sisters having children brought them together (unless competition of children’s achievement interferes) as well as parents’ health concerns. The study also found that sisters phone and see each other more than other pairs of siblings. 

In The Complete Book of Sisters, Dr. Luisa Diluter writes, “I interviewed women who mostly spoke of their sisters affectionately, although this was mixed with regret for those who were estranged from their sisters. Sisters who were close said their sister knew them better than anyone, which meant they could hurt them and also support them the most. ‘My sister takes no prisoners – when we meet, there’s a lot of verbal rough and tumble,’ said one woman in her 40s. ‘But if I murdered my husband, I know they’d be round, no questions asked, with a bulldozer to bury the body.’ And all the sisters I spoke to knew the two golden rules of sisterhood: never borrow clothes without asking and never go after your sister’s bloke.” 

Sisters, like a wolf pack, are irreplaceable, and no matter what life brings, from cradle to grave, that will never change.

3 thoughts on “Sisters from Cradle to Grave

  1. Edith,
    This Sister essay on Mother’s Day is so relevant! Having lost my sister to cancer less than two months ago, I could picture the two of us dressed like twins since she was 12 months younger; sharing a bedroom as other siblings came along! There is that special loving sister bond that transcends death. Thanks…


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