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.