Friday, May 11, 2007

Growing Up With Sister

For part one go here.

Part two here.

Around the time my sister was five years old I begin to have clearer memories of our interactions. This coincides with the major move our family made from southern California to the wilds of Oregon. The move was a positive one for my sister and I. We were delighted with the change. My mother was depressed and my dad was stressed. Six months after moving to the new state my parents bought a home on three and half wooded acres.

My sister was into girly-girl stuff. Playing "house", tea parties, dress up, dolls, Barbies. As I look back I realize that when we played together it was always one of these things we did. Which indicates that we did what my sister wanted to do, not what I wanted to do. My interests were more oriented to the outdoors. I was an avid explorer. I loved our new acreage and was often out climbing fir trees, building forts, hiking and biking. If my sister played outdoors, she was usually playing in the covered patio with her dolls venturing out from the covered area to make a mud pie or two.

I was also an avid reader from a very young age. It was utterly incomprehensible to my sister that reading could be a source of solitary pleasure, so when she saw me curled up with a book she would usually commence her nagging to come play with her. Around the age of ten playing with dolls was losing any appeal for me. My sister was about seven at this time. Rather than continually pushing away her pleas and demands that I come play with her, I decided to try to get her to join me. I liked several genres of books, but I decided I would introduce my sister to a good old-fashioned romantic classic, Jane Eyre. The book was mostly beyond her comprehension, so I would read a section to her and then interpret it into kid-speak. She loved it. Many years later my sister would bring up what a fond memory this was for her and claims that Jane Eyre is still her favorite book. I am convinced that the highlight of this whole experience for her was that she had my undivided attention and energy. It took us quite a while to wade through the whole book which means she had many, many hours of that attention. It is understandable that a younger sibling would like the attention. I'm not faulting her for that. What is the case, though, is that she was an attention hog. Mostly, what she wanted, she got because she had the long arm of the law, Mom, on her side. I'm also pointing out that I did go above and beyond. I didn't have to spend hours of my life reinterpreting Jane Eyre to a little kid. I was trying to give her something; I was attempting to infuse her with a love for books. Books were like a friend to me. I hoped she could come to see them that way too.

In recent years my sister has described what kind of sister I was to her. She remembers my patience and kindness to her. She felt like I protected her and was a mother-type figure to her. This was news to me...the mother figure part. I never felt maternal toward my sister. I simply tried to be decent to her. I remember her as being demanding and very bossy and taking advantage of my kindnesses. I would occasionally feel very vexed by her bossiness and would tell her to knock it off. I remember telling her once that it was a good thing I was born first otherwise she would order me around even more than she already did. She was a tattle-tale, too. Her memories of me as a child are far more favorable than mine of her.

I don't agree with my sister's present-day analysis that I was a mother-type figure to her as a child. I simply don't buy it. I can not look back at her behavior growing up and see her relating to me like she felt I was mothering her. If anything, she was usually trying to assert her will over mine and run my life. She liked to act like she was in charge. I sincerely doubt she behaved this way because she perceived me as a mother-figure. I think I have divined her current-day reasons for trying to put that spin on things, but I'll have to save telling you for another time. I do believe that my presence offered her protection, but that was really only because I was the first-born and I was held responsible for the both of us.

Years after the fact, sister told me how she was jolted to the reality of what a vicious bitch of a mother we had only after I left home. She said only then did she realize how much I had protected her from our mother. On the other side, my mother told me years later how it wasn't until I left home that she was forced to realize what a lazy, mouthy daughter my sister was. They had many, many clashes because now my sister was expected to do some of what I used to do ... and sister dear wasn't trained and wasn't motivated. She'd gotten off easy for the first fourteen years of her life. She wasn't inclined to let that change. It got ugly between those two after I left.

Perhaps you can get a sense from these two women's testimonies that I was caught between the two of them. There was a balancing act going on and when I left home that delicate balance was no more because I was the only one doing the balancing. The two females in our house who were exactly like each other were now forced to deal head on with each other. There was no buffer (me) between them. My mother had focused her anger and many expectations on me, the first born. My sister laid her demands and expectations on me, as well as hiding behind me to avoid accountability. With no one around to be the chief slave and whipping boy they were forced to deal with each other. The battles were ugly and fierce. They both fought dirty.

The picture I'm trying to make with as few words as possible is that our sister relationship during our younger years was largely uneventful. There were arguments and annoyances, but I was generally a patient older sister who put up with a lot of her childish crap because I really didn't have any other choice. If we argued too much my mother would threaten us with bodily harm. If my sister's importunities for me to play with her went on for too long, I would be ordered by mommy dearest to comply. My life was circumscribed by the wills of these two very willful females.

Then puberty struck. My reaching puberty first didn't bring about any significant changes in our relationship. I didn't treat her any differently. Her puberty changed everything. The sibling rivalry my mother was so quick to assume I was feeling as a very young child was now in full swing. It wasn't from me toward sister, but sister toward me. And not an eyebrow was lifted. No intervention from the Queen Bitch on this true incarnation of sibling rivalry. Suddenly, I was sensed there was a game on and nobody had told me what the rules were.

I was sixteen when our family went to Southern California to visit family and some friends for Christmas. We spent a whole day at Knotts Berry Farm. My sister had gotten a waist-high yellow jacket for Christmas that she thought made her look da bomb. She put on airs. Insufferable airs. She was suddenly too cool to be seen with me and our fat friend Rick. (Rick is a whole story in himself...kind of a quasi-sibling to me. We were exactly six months apart and had been thrown together since his birth. My mother expected me to treat him like I did my sister. I was, at times, persecuted for having to hang out with a fat kid with a temper. But I treated him well and never tried to disown him in public as my sister was trying to on the day I'm describing.)

Rick and I were scurrying around taking in the rides. My sister was hanging back trying to attract male attention and attempting to look too sexy for her coat. She had spent the day being snotty and mean to me. By the end of the day I was feeling quite deflated as she had hit her mark more than once with her nasty comments and haughty mien. A picture was taken that day that captured everything. There was a bench in front of a little western saloon. On the bench were a couple of shiny life-size mannikins who looked like chorus girls. There was space on either side of the mannikins for people to sit and pose with them. My sister is sitting there with her hands in her pockets striking a pose with all the attitude she had been displaying that day. You can tell from her expression she thinks she is hot stuff. Objectively, she was having a bad hair day and looking a bit chunky. She thought her hair was lookin' good, though. Between her layered cut and that stupid coat she was sure she looked like a babe. Then there is me. I'm not having a bad hair day. I'm looking pretty and trim and a little self-conscious, although I'm obviously giggling and having a good time with the silly photo shoot. No attitude. No airs. I had no idea how pretty I looked that day. (The picture testifies to that fact.) This was true for most of my teens and young adulthood. I never felt pretty. On the other hand, my sister was always very confident that she was gorgeous. It made her very haughty and full of herself. That picture captures our teen age years.

Her confidence seemed to emphasize to me my own lack of confidence. The more she asserted herself as being God's gift to mankind, the more I felt like chopped liver because she was good at acting like I was chopped liver. I was vulnerable to my family's interpretations of me so I could be easily convinced I was nothing much if they turned their efforts in that direction. It seems it was important to use me to boost themselves up by putting me down. I could never summon up the confidence she had. (Thankfully so in retrospect.) I am sure part of my problem was that my mother was engaged in full-out competition with my emerging figure and looks. She would not so subtly put down various aspects of my physicality making me more and more self-conscious. She would actually compare my body to hers when she was young. She had nothing to brag about in the present tense, so I was compared to her image of herself as a teen. What kind of mother does that? A sick bitch of one. Mom forbade me to wear any make-up. I didn't start wearing it until I left home at 17. She would keep me in clothes that made me look younger than my peers. I was still in knee socks long after the other girls were wearing pantyhose. So I felt like an oddball at all times. None of these things did my sister have to endure. It all came early and easy for her. I was the trailblazer. This was another way that having me around made my sister's life easier.

My mother let it slip once that when a woman has teenage girls that they can make the mother look older simply through contrast. Looking back at that statement it is easy enough to understand my mother's efforts to keep me looking like a child as long as she could get away with it. By virtue of me just growing up, she felt she was made to look older. She didn't want to face her age, so she denies mine. She made my teenage years much, much harder because of her selfish concern for how she looked. None of this was put on my sister, at least not until I left home. If it happened after that, I don't know.

As you have probably deduced, my sister and I were completely different people. Our interests and personalities were polar opposites. We were expected to get along...and the onus was on me to make that happen. My sister took advantage of the fact that I was a decent person. She could get away with being snotty and mean and I was expected to just "deal with it". Because I was responsible and reliable much was expected of me. I did the lion's share of work...my sister got to coast because if you want something to get done, you put it on the kid who will actually do it. That was me. I remember she would vex my parents at times because she wouldn't even do the little that was expected of her in a consistent and reliable way. The consequences for her were minimal so she was able to cultivate her laziness because my industry covered up for her by making her lack of effort less noticeable. Only after I left home did my parents realize what a lazy-assed kid my sister was. I could have told them that, but they didn't want to hear it when I was still at home.

The reason I made the effort to tell you that I was decent, considerate and nice to my sister is because of what I'm going to tell you about in a future installment. When my sister was put in the position of being a "big sister" to our younger female cousin, she did not treat our cousin like I had treated my sister. My sister is largely responsible for breaking up my cousin's family and set my cousin's feet on a course of ruin. These crimes remain unconfessed to this day.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't see your sister as being haughty, I think she feels ugly next to you and so compensates for that by posing.

You are the older sister, not her. I don't undestand why you give this so much attention.

Anna Valerious said...

I haven't attempted to psychoanalyze the reasons for my sister's attitudes. That is an exercise I leave to those intent on enabling and supporting a narcissist. I am focusing on behaviors. The "whys" are immaterial because none of us can change another person. But how they chose to act is what affects us. Starting at about age thirteen and increasing year by year, my sister was very confident of her looks. She did not feel like she was less to look at than me.

I have described the dynamic of my narcissist mother's ways of keeping me in subjection, and now I am starting to describe how my sister took advantage of this and was simply piling on. Your comprehension skills need a little work as evidenced by what information you choose to ignore in order to make your stupid comment. Which, by the way, if you don't see the reasons for why I'm giving these things attention that takes us right back to your comprehension skills. Non. Existent.

Anonymous said...

Anna, I feel like you wrote about my life with my older sister. Exactly. Everything from laziness, doing everyting she wanted to do or suffer, her thinking she was God's gift and me chopped liver... You did not mention name calling. Did you sister do this? Mine was the expert in coming up with names that she knew got under my skin. Actually she did anything to get under my skin. I too became concerned about my family's interpretation of me, only because I felt they were completely off and wanted them to know that I really was a good person. Now, at 38, I could care less what they think of me, because I know the will never know the real me. To know is to love, and they are lacking in the capabilities of loving others. Well, I hope you have healed from your family dynamics, you sound like a very smart, insightful women. Best Wishes.

Anna Valerious said...

To your question about name-calling...no, I don't remember my sister using name-calling, and neither did I. The reason for this was my mother's strict rule against it. My mother felt strongly about a few things, and this was one of them. "Shut up" was like profanity in our house. So put-downs were conveyed obliquely through attitude, tone and commentary.

I am happy to read that at 38 you are free of the opinions of your family about you. Your attitude about knowing in order to love is right on. Yes, I have healed from the perverted family dynamics of my family. I am free of all of them in every way possible. Which is why I am motivated to share my insights and experience; I am anxious for others to be free too. Thanks for visiting and commenting.