Joyce Maynard’s Tale
(For Rona’s side of the story, pick up a copy of the September issue of MORE, on newsstands now.)
Here’s a situation that comes up surprisingly often in my life: I make a friend. We come to know each other pretty well. Months pass — longer, even — before the following piece of information comes out: I have a sister, four years older than I — the one remaining relative from my family of origin, the only one who will ever understand what it meant to have our mother and father as parents, the one person on this planet who remembers the day of my birth. And still, my sister and I speak so seldom, I don’t know her telephone number by heart.
"You never mentioned her before," my no-longer-very-new-friend will say.
I haven’t asked my sister if this is true for her, but I doubt she speaks of me any more often than I do of her, though the space she occupies for me — or maybe it’s the space left by her absence in my life — has been vast. "You two had a falling out?" my friend may ask. No, I say. Not that. Or rather, that part is over.
"I love my sister," I always explain. "But we’re different. She lives far away." I’m not just speaking of miles here. Even when we lived in the same house, a gulf separated Rona and me. And in an odd way, the same things that link us — our blood and our history — are what divide us now. We know too much. We are each, for the other, a reminder of where we came from and the family that shaped our lives.
Views of the Past
Memory plays a huge part in our story. It’s not so much that we have different memories of our childhood as that my sister remembers things I do not. Even when we were quite young, Rona had an amazing ability to hold on to the smallest details of events and stories: whole conversations, paintings on walls, but most of all, feelings — particularly the painful ones. I have a good memory too, but strangely mine began to sharpen only in adult life. For me, the years of our growing up are a hazy blur, where for her, certain moments of childhood are illuminated with the shattering intensity of a lightning bolt.
So we are two women four years apart in age, in possession of radically different pictures of what took place in our family. Maybe it’s simple chance — the accident of our different natures — that accounts for this. Maybe it’s the fact that she came first and that her role as the frequently contrary worrier left me with the obligation to be who she was not: the sunbeam to compensate for her darkness.
I was famously affectionate — leaping on the lap of whichever parent appeared to need a little love — while Rona was known for her distaste for human touch. "Hot face," she had said once when she was small, when one of our parents bent to hold her.
I was a joker and a flirt; my sister was serious and shy. I could be sneaky and egotistical; she was honest and pure. Accurate or not, the list that characterized us as opposites went on and on. She would make trouble with our troubled father; I would make him happy, or try to.
I can never enter the story of our family without first laying one card on the table, a card that determined how the rest of the deck would play out. Our father was an alcoholic. And there’s this fact, as difficult to deal with as the first, more so in many ways: For all the years the four of us lived together in a house where our father got drunk almost every night, we never mentioned it.
When you have grown up in a home where trouble lurked, there is little motivation to revisit the old days. For me, painful memories are less of a problem, because I possess so few, but for Rona, the territory of childhood is a haunted house. I am all that remains of a life she has worked hard to leave behind. I am the scent that hung in the air while soldiers ransacked the village, the sole surviving witness.
For decades, I pursued my sister and grieved over what we didn’t have with each other. I wanted her to invite me to visit, know my children, ask about my life, tell me about hers. I looked enviously at friends who took trips with their sisters and spent hours on the phone together, and felt the chill wind of my sister’s reluctance to seek me out. The sister I wanted was not the sister she wanted to be.
Although insufficiency of love from our parents was never the issue, the home where we grew up was filled with uneasiness and fear. My father’s depression, my mother’s frustration over her stalled career, their doomed marriage, all lay like a thick fog over our household. Our parents’ lives had disappointed them. They looked to us — "the girls" — to make everything right.
My sister rebelled. I acquiesced. When I think of my childhood, the image that first comes to mind is of a smiling face. I drew them a lot. The smile was so much a part of my identity in our family that on the rare occasions when my lips didn’t turn upward, our mother would put one finger into each corner of my mouth and move them into position for me — while, off in some corner, Rona looked on. From the scant record of our childhoods provided by family photographs, I cannot summon a single image of my sister smiling.
I had friends and school activities, but my main energy in childhood went into making our parents happy. I put on shows in our living room: acting, dancing, singing. Every day, I drew cards for our parents, reminding them of what they meant to me — which was everything. I started every morning by jumping into our mother’s bed (she slept alone) to cuddle with her — a practice that continued for way too many years, according to my sister’s memory. As for Rona, I guess she hung back, cringing.
I used to look at my sister sometimes — see her arguing with our father or retreating wordlessly to her room to play her guitar or read — and I’d wonder why she’d want to make life difficult when it was so easy to make things nice. What did it cost a person to climb up on her mother’s lap and stroke her hair, or reach for her father’s hand and suggest they take a bike ride together? (Forty years later, I might provide an answer to my own question and say, It could cost plenty. But back then, Rona’s refusal to play the game only baffled me.)
I used to ask myself, why isn’t she nicer to me? Now I look back, imagining the scene as she must have viewed it, and see readily all the things that must have driven her crazy. There is probably nobody less lovable to an older sibling than a younger one who is so busy being cute.
Here’s the story I always tell of how the relationship between my sister and me began. Rona was four years old when I was born. Our mother — herself the younger of two sisters, four years apart, who never enjoyed a good relationship with each other — came up with the idea of defusing potential trauma to her elder daughter by allowing her to pick the new baby’s name.
A highly precocious child and lover of Greek mythology, Rona chose her favorite name, Daphne, for her baby sister. And so that was the name given to me; it is the name on my birth certificate.
Two days after our parents brought me home from the hospital, my sister changed her mind without explanation. Forever after, I went by my middle name, Joyce, though it was three decades later that she explained to me the reason for her change of heart.
One of the many things I admire about my sister is her scrupulous, sometimes painful, honesty. "I realized once I saw you," she finally told me, "that the last name I’d want you to have would be my favorite."
On Salinger and Sibling Rivalries
I have no memory of resenting my sister when we were young, but I guess she resented me. I do know there was always the sense of competition, the need to be what only one of us could: the star. Children of two brilliant but unhappy people, we became the repositories of our parents’ dreams. The pressure was on: Which of us would deliver the prize — paint the best pictures, get into the best college, create the most dazzling life for herself?
We were always writing, and maybe that’s where the competition began in earnest. When she was 14 or so, my sister — prodded by our mother — entered a national writing competition and won the first of what would ultimately be a series of top awards. As soon as I was old enough to enter, I did the same. And although in theory the kids with whom I would compete were the ones in my age group, my real competition, I knew, lived at my address.
There is seldom room for two champions in one family. Venus and Serena Williams hit the prizes back and forth across the net for a while; Dear Abby and Ann Landers each had her own newspaper syndication deal. More often, the story of sisters and their accomplishments features one who gets the greater glory and the other, who lives back in the shadows, such as Carly Simon and her two singing sisters, Lucy and Joanna (names known only to someone like me, who follows sister stories with obsessive attention).
In our case, I was the one who appeared to take the prize early. Rona was always the more serious student (she read constantly; I watched television), but she failed to deliver to our mother the great dream of admission to Radcliffe. I can picture well enough why. Her essay would have been brilliant, her grades high. But there must have come a moment when some interviewer asked the question, "How do you feel about attending our college?" and my ruthlessly honest sister would have furrowed her brow, expressing what she always felt: extreme ambivalence.
I, on the other hand — as versed as the most skillful politician in how to say exactly what was wanted, whether or not it was true — sailed off to Yale on a big scholarship. Mysteriously, for a person who had seemed so aloof and so completely uninterested in children, my sister married young (on her twenty-first birthday) and almost immediately got pregnant. The same year that she delivered her son, I trumped her — unintentionally, but no doubt the effect was devastating: An article I’d written for a magazine was picked up by a publisher who gave me a contract to write a book. Rona was broke, unemployed, carrying the extra baby weight and home with a son she wasn’t sure she knew what to do with. I was making lots of money, off in New York and, in my sister’s view anyway, the toast of the town.
Perhaps the cruelest irony lay in another part of my story: What should arrive in my mailbox but a letter of admiration from the one writer whose voice had seemed to be speaking to Rona throughout her adolescence: J. D. Salinger. For her, Catcher in the Rye was the Bible. I’d been too busy dancing around our living room to ever read the book.
Then, suddenly, I was corresponding with Salinger. Then I was paying him a visit. Then I was dropping out of Yale to live with him.
At the time, Rona said little about any of this and never voiced her pain at the attention coming my way. Never said much about the other part either: that she recognized trouble and was worried about me, as our mother, who voiced only approval, should have been. Our father was simply too far gone to liquor to weigh in at all.
So often, the story of my sister and me has been one of signals missed, of feelings registered but never expressed. Only a year before I dropped out of Yale, I’d begged our parents to let me come with them to Rona’s hastily planned wedding. Our mother had told me it was more important not to miss school. At the time, Rona knew only that her sole sibling didn’t show up.
Now, as I dropped out of college at 18, my sister alone registered the thing I’d wanted from her all my life — tender concern — but though she wrote stern words on the subject to our mother, to me she said nothing. Only Rona anticipated the disaster that happened when my relationship with Salinger came crashing down less than a year later.
When that day came, though — and grief overtook me in a way that took years to recover from — I didn’t turn to my sister.
Eventually I married and had children of my own. Still later, I divorced and moved to the West Coast. Wrote books Rona never mentioned reading. Bought a house she never saw.
Once, a reunion of our mother’s extended family was held not far from my home. My sister stopped by my house for the briefest of visits before moving on to spend the weekend with relatives we’d barely met.
I had love affairs. Her marriage endured. She made a highly successful career as the editor of a leading women’s magazine in Canada. Our father died; we saw each other briefly at the funeral. More and more, as Rona and I built our separate lives — in separate countries, even — we found our sense of ourselves at least in part by forging our independence from each other.
When you are no longer known as "the girls," comparisons can fall away at last. To my friends who knew me only in the years since leaving home, I was no longer "the flighty, impulsive sister"; she was no longer the melancholy and fearful one. We were simply Rona and Joyce, and as much as I missed a sister in my life — and not only a sister, but my sister — there was a relief in that.
A Summer of Loss
Of all the hopes I held for my own children’s lives, none was greater than this: that they would be, for each other, the kind of siblings my sister and I had never been. I gave birth to my second child when my daughter was four years old but never for a moment considered giving her the option of naming him. The morning after his birth, when our daughter came downstairs to find her newborn brother in our bed, she bent tenderly over his head and said, simply, "My dream came true."
Rona and I made our own families — flawed in all kinds of ways, but neither of us re-created the pattern of our parents that had set us on such a difficult course with each other. (My sister avoided the problem altogether by having one child.) I didn’t become, for Rona’s son, the kind of aunt I would have liked to be. She didn’t become that for my children either.
Then, 18 years ago, we were thrown together again, in the saddest way. Our strong, seemingly irrepressible mother (divorced from our father by then and happily remarried, having left New Hampshire for Toronto) was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given weeks to live. The moment I heard the diagnosis, I left the United States and moved to our mother’s house.
As always, Rona and I approached the same situation in radically different ways. I wanted to cook for our mother, race around fixing things, make her happy. My sister, plunged in grief, manifested it in her way, not mine, stopping by at the end of her workday for quiet talks.
Looking back at that time now, over the four months that were our mother’s last on Earth, I can recognize the signs of trouble.
Years before, on one of our rare visits, when I ended up feeling, as I always did, rejected by my sister, I had asked Rona if maybe she didn’t even love me.
"No, it’s not that," she’d said, slowly, as if actually considering this possibility before rejecting it. "It’s just that you . . . take up . . . so . . . much . . . space."
Now, as if someone had put on a rerun of a show you hated the first time around, I was at it again: invading my sister’s territory; crashing into her world, the place she had finally found to carve out her life, free from her infuriating little sister. We were 35 and 39 that summer, but we might as well have been five and nine.
From the moment I arrived in Toronto, I was impossibly domestic — cutting flowers, baking pies, messing up the kitchen. I was impetuous, imprudent — taking our mother on walks to the park, one of which resulted in her falling on the stairs. ("But she needs to see the flowers," I protested. "But you weren’t being safe," my sister responded. Not yelling, never yelling.)
Partway through that long summer of loss, I returned home briefly to see my husband and children. While I was there, a telegram arrived from Sydney, our mother’s husband. The telegram informed me that I would no longer be allowed to stay at my mother’s house and take care of her, assuming that I wanted to return to Toronto, which I did. A professional nurse and a cook had been hired to replace me. Neighbors across the street were willing to put me up in their spare room. I could come see my mother twice a day — hours specified — for no more than 60 minutes per visit. And one more thing: no more baking.
When I was able at last to breathe normally, I picked up the phone. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was turning to my sister for reassurance and support. I was sure she would tell our stepfather how crazy and cruel his ideas were.
But when I told her what had happened, her words left me with a despair as terrible as any I had known over those long months of watching our mother die.
"Actually, Joyce," she said, "I agree with Sydney’s position. This was my idea too."
Finally, Moving Forward
There it is. The hardest story. Eighteen years later, I can finally tell it without tears, though I will always deeply regret that I was not present at our mother’s bedside when she died.
For years after, I could barely speak to Rona, I was so hurt by what had happened. But eventually, it was my knowledge that I had only one sister, and that the two of us were all that remained, that forced me to come out of my room, finally, and knock on her door. I suspect it was much the same for her when she opened it.
With other people I have loved in my life, when a situation comes up in which great pain has occurred, I have chosen to talk about it, to sit down with them and lay everything on the table. Cry perhaps. Maybe we’d raise our voices. Dive into the wave, I would say, to get past the breaking point.
With Rona, I knew, we would move differently past the scars. We both knew what happened. What more was there to do?
There was one thing to do, actually, but it was a solitary act. I tried, as never before, to imagine I was my sister: a person who experiences life so differently from me, and always has. I imagined that I was Rona, watching me come into our mother’s house that summer, seeing me move toward the bedroom, bending to stroke our mother’s hair, to bathe her naked body. I saw the little girl she once was — a "cool customer," our mother had sometimes called her — out in the hall, alone, while I climbed under the sheets to embrace our love-starved mother.
And then I saw myself as the little girl I once was too, feeling a desperate need to fix things the only way I knew how, with my own body. There were no criminals in this story: not 50 years ago, or 18 years ago, or now. There were only two girls who wanted to find their place in the only family they’d known.
MY SISTER IS, as I have often said, the only one left who remembers the moment of my birth. It is a fact that came up not so long ago, actually. My daughter (a young woman whose brothers keep her number programmed in their phones, a fact I love) had decided she wanted to draw up my astrological chart.
"What time of day were you born?" Audrey asked me. I shook my head. No idea. And so, with both my parents dead, it looked as though our efforts to plot my place in the stars would be thwarted forever.
This happened the week before my birthday, a few years ago — one of the many days when my sister does not call me. But that particular year, a card arrived, precisely on November 5. Rona had written only one sentence inside: "I will be thinking of you at 6:32 PM." No one I’ve ever met has a memory to equal hers.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2007.