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.