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?