WHEN THE PHONE RANG SUNDAY MORN-ing, I knew it was my sister, checking in for our weekly long-distance call. We chatted for 30 minutes, or rather she did most of the talking. When I hung up, I felt irritated: Why can't she listen to me more? Then I wondered, why do I need to connect with her each week? Now that our parents are no longer alive and can't bug me to keep in touch with her, maybe I won't call her. I could just sever the tie, finally break the sibling bond that our parents thrust upon us over 40 years ago.
I remember the day Anne was born. My best friend, Nan, and Idressed in dungarees and sneakers, were hoeing the sod in our grassless back yard, pretending to be farmers, when Nan's mother ran over excitedly and gave us the news. I tossed aside my spade, squealed and leaped with joy. Little could I, as a 4-year-old, anticipate the complexity of the sibling relationship.
Our childhood, in a small Midwestern town, has become a blur of photo snapshots: At 4, I am sitting on the print sofa in front of the fireplace, my legs dangling over the edge of the seat, all smiles, holding my 6-month-old baby sister. At 4 and 8, Anne and I pose in front of our small brick house, holding hands in our matching navy-and-white polka-dot dresses. And then two years later: Trying to look sophisticated, I put my arm around Anne's shoulders and strike a model's pose as we show off our new
spring coats and hats.
Behind the forced smiles in posed snapshots, we were twtypical sisters, vying for our parents' love. As the elder and the goody-goody, I set the example: straight A's, quiet, obedient, in control. Unable or unwilling to keep up with me, Anne became "the character." She threw tantrums, screamed at Mother and cursed.
Snow White and Rose Red, our Aunt Lillian called us. "Are yoPatti's sister?" Anne's teachers would ask incredulously. "You're different." We were different, yet we never really clashed, having carved out our own unique space within the family. Part of me admired her brashness, her willingness to risk. She said what I couldn't, did what I dared not.
Yet I remained her role model and her nemesis. I was thyardstick against which she measured herself and her achievements.
I also became her substitute mother. Not that Mother wasn'there. She was, but she had little tolerance for emotions, dilemmas or ambivalence. "That's life, Bub," she would quip. "Get it done now." "Don't discuss it; it's nobody's business." So Anne turned to me. I listened, I didn't judge, I accepted her and her mood swings, her anger and her fears.
In turn, I felt revered, grown up and important. But being a LittlMother took its toll. I became the rock, solid and steady but not free to express my feelings. Everything was always "fine" with me, for how could I reveal my true self to someone who placed me on such a pedestal?
During high school, I didn't want to be bothered with my littlsister. I hated her hanging around when my friends came over, resented her stupid questions and nosiness. When I'd complain to my mother, she'd remind me, "You can pick your friends. You can't choose your family."
But at night, Anne and I became united against the 'rents, as wcalled our parents. In flannel pj's with Clearasil on our noses, we'd lie in bed, propped up on our pillows and yak. We would gab and giggle, on and on. "Enough already," Mother would yell from the living room. But we ignored her and talked on until eventually we dropped off to sleep.
In spite of our late-night tete-a-tetes, I couldn't wait to leavhome. I went away to college within the state and then moved east for graduate school. Each time my parents called or wrote, they always asked, "Have you talked to Anne? When did you last see Anne? Give her a call."
I stayed east, married a businessman, had two kids and moveto the suburbs. Meanwhile Anne, a true child of the '60s, became a vegetarian, slept on a mattress on the floor of a commune and dated a cabdriver during her college days. Except for family get-togethers, we hardly communicated. Within a few years, though, she, too, married but she moved west, also settled into suburban life, launched her career and had three kids. Then suddenly we were both back in the Midwest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at our father's grave one stark February day 12 years ago. "Stay close to Anne," my father had urged six months before he died when he took me out to lunch to prepare me, the older, responsible one, "in case anything should happen" to him.
In the years following his death, Anne and I did stay close: Wvacationed together without our husbands or kids, made sure we reunited our families once a year and talked often by phone. Our conversations often centered on Mother. We'd analyze her health, her appearance and her energy level as well as her psyche. As she aged, our mutual concern drew us together.
When Mother developed cancer, we rallied, one or both of uremaining at her bedside. When we weren't there, we were on the phone discussing her diagnosis, her care or her spirits. When she died, we consoled each other. Six weeks later we gutted Mother's house, the home where we grew up, savoring almost 40 years of memories, discarding what we could. During the year following her death, we comforted each other through the long-distance lines.
Two and a half years have passed since Mother's death. Anne and I have picked up our lives -- our families, our friends and our careers on opposite sides of the country. But something is missing. It's not just the dwindling family circle, the dull ache at holiday time, the absence of grandparents at graduations. We no longer have a parent reminding us to "Stay close" or "Call your sister." Although the blood tie will always be there, we are no longer obligated to talk to each other. We are free to see each other whenever we please -- or not. The responsibility is on me and on her. The choice is both of ours.
We grew up in the same home with the same parents. We share memories and a family heritage. But that's no longer enough. We must create a new relationship as grown women, adult sisters, if we want to have any relationship at all. Although we're still "different as day and night," we must refashion our sibling relationship to meet both our needs as adults. As adults without parents.
Recently, Anne and I decided to get together with our families for the holidays: The two of us go out for breakfast. We appear to be well-dressed professional women sitting at a booth conversing. But we are once again two sisters, back in our childhood beds, yakking past our bedtime. We linger, chewing slowly and chattering. We dawdle longer and longer, sipping coffee,
reminiscing, exchanging confidences.
We don't want to break the spell because we know how easy iis to slip into other roles. Old roles we want to give up. I don't want to be the all-knowing, all-powerful parent to Anne, the helpless child. But I want the intimacy we had late at night as teens: the talk, the sharing, the laughter. And I want back simply what I've always given her: unconditional acceptance.
I want all that in my sibling relationship, but that may be a pipdream, because 2,000 miles and a 40-year history lie between us. Because for most of the year, our relationship is reduced to a weekly phone call, a call that is as vital to my well-being as a hug from my husband. Because when my sister calls, I hear a voice, as familiar as my own, drawing me back to my childhood and reminding me of how close we are and how far apart.
PAT SHAPIRO is a free-lance writer living in Pennsylvania.