Silence Between Sisters
My sister, Harmony, is 16 months younger than me. I suppose my mother expected that her two daughters close in age would be close emotionally. That has never been the case.
My earliest memories of sharing a room with her include my disgust at her sloppiness. She could not fold a blanket, which seemed to me a rudimentary skill in a girl's life. She left whole sandwiches under the bed to fossilize. She whispered at night while I tried to fall asleep. She even bit me once!
She is blue-eyed and has the long nose from my dad's side of the family. She looks a lot like he did. I take after my mother with brown eyes. I remember clearly the day we moved from our childhood home--my dad was divorcing us (I say us, meaning my mom and the kids, because that's how it seemed to me at the time) and we were moving out. Harmony was sobbing. She was always very dramatic, very emotional. We all dealt with the shattering of our lives in ways that drove us all apart.
But I digress.
When we were teenagers, I was mortified by Harmony's behavior. She refused to wash her hair, so it was stringy and greasy. She struggled with acne. She never really figured out the social skills necessary to get along with her peers. I was doing my best to not embarrass myself in junior high and high school and I was admittedly self-centered, as teenagers tend to be.
So, I didn't really pay her attention if I could help it. We had nothing in common, other than genetics. When we got home from school, we went to our separate rooms. I read, I played the piano, I volunteered and went to church and kept myself busy getting perfect grades.
She was always in my shadow and she always resented me for it. She wanted my approval, but I was a child myself and not capable of bolstering her up. I was trying to survive myself in a family whose members were isolated from one another. We had little parental support or approval.
When I was a senior, I met an exchange student from Japan. She needed a place to live and my dad agreed to let her live with us. She and my sister became fast friends. They eventually went to community college together, and then two other colleges, before they graduated from Western Washington University. After that, they moved to Japan, where they have lived ever since. That was over 10 years ago, maybe 12. They've actually lived together for about 20 years.
In our adult years, we've had a cordial relationship. We were pen-pals for many years, exchanging harmless letters without any true exchange of emotions. We saw each other on holidays and she visited several times. We had a couple of spats about ridiculous things, but that sort of thing stopped when I vowed to myself to just treat her like a pen-pal, not a sister. No emotions, just a plain vanilla relationship.
A few years back, after a particularly trying visit when she upset my mother with her constant demands and rudeness, I realized that if I viewed her as a fourteen year old I would not be so upset with her. After all, do you expect a fourteen year old to plan ahead? To take other people's schedules into consideration? To take care of their own errands and chores? To pay for their own dinner and to offer to pay for someone else's?
See? You would just say, "Well, she's fourteen, you can't expect that she'd be considerate at all times. A fourteen year old is completely self-centered. She's a teen! What do you expect?" And once I started thinking that, I adjusted my expectations and my annoyance level lessened considerably.
So, when she decided to take up photography and spend literally thousands of dollars on equipment and lessons, I said, well, of course, a fourteen year old would spend all her money on her own hobbies. And when she expected us all to drop our lives and throw a party when she visited (unscheduled, without warning), I said, well, what do you expect from a fourteen year old?
When I found myself unexpectedly pregnant for the second time, I started to think about who I'd invite to the birth. I wanted my mom to be there and my youngest sister (because we are close). I wanted to have video tape and photographs this time, but who to ask? Ah, my sister, Harmony! She has spent a fortune on photography equipment and lessons! Plus, she'll probably never have a baby herself, so it would be a great experience for her, plus, I'd get photographs!
So it was that I invited her to my birth. She agreed and seemed excited about it.
I told her what kind of photographs I wanted. No flash. Nothing graphic (I'd be in a tub, so figured nothing would be graphic anyways). She talked to her teachers and talked about what kind of film to use. She planned when to come for the birth.
Fast forward to the day of the birth. I realize I'm in labor at noon. I decide I can't be in labor because I'm three days from my due date. By two, I'm timing contractions. By three, I beg the midwife to come. By four-thirty, she examines me and informs me that I will have a baby "today." By five, I'm flinging myself to the ground every two minutes, moaning through contractions. In between, I call my sister, my mother, my friend and tell them that I will be having a baby, but that there is no hurry.
By 6 p.m., I am writhing in the birthing tub, screaming my way through contractions. My midwife and her two assistants have arrived. My mom and sister arrive at 6:15 p.m. I look up and say, "Hi. I am having intense labor. In a moment, I will be screaming. Do not be alarmed." Then I clutch the sides of the pool and scream.
Harmony starts taking pictures. I tell her to slow down, not to take a million pictures of me just screaming. I think labor will last a lot longer. Hours, days, possibly months.
The baby arrives at 6:52 p.m. Harmony has shot seven rolls of film.
The next day or so, she brings me four packets of pictures. These are the only rolls she remembered to take in. She's only had single prints made of each roll because she wasn't sure they would turn out. (This does not inspire confidence in me.)
The pictures are grainy and pretty much underexposed, but at least they are pictures. She managed to take some very unflattering and graphic pictures. I hurry through them while the baby sleeps and promise to pick out the pictures that I want reprints of.
She visits every day or so and asks repeatedly if I'm finished with the pictures. I keep saying, "no", because I'm busy with my newborn baby. Finally, I say, "Why do you want them?"
She shrugs and says, "I just want to have them in my purse. I'm just weird."
Oh. Okay. I say I'll try to get to them.
The next time she asks if I'm done with them, I say, "Why do you want them?"
"Because I want to show them to people."
"Show them to people? Who?" I think my mouth has sprung open and my eyes have bugged out.
"Well, to Tim [our brother] and to Uncle Joe."
I am stunned. She wants to show pictures of me partially naked to my 70 year old preacher uncle and my brother. When she leaves, I call my mother in a panic and tell her what Harmony has said. I tell her that I don't want Harmony to have pictures if she intends to show them to people. She agrees with me.
I decide to go through the pictures and take out all the ones that I deem unacceptable for public viewing. I edit out maybe half of the pictures. The next time she comes, she brings the three remaining packets of pictures. She's had double-prints made of them, one copy for me and one for her.
As I look through them, I edit them, setting aside the graphic, unflattering, scary pictures. (She's taken pictures of the midwives sewing me up, for instance. And pictures of my backside as the baby emerges. And just plain ugly pictures of me looking like a shark has dragged me underwater in a violent attack.) As I do this, I explain to her that I am not comfortable with people seeing certain pictures and that I decided to just take out the ones that I am not comfortable with.
She nods. I assume she understands. I give her stacks and stacks of pictures which are acceptable.
As she leaves, she says, "Where are the rest of my pictures?"
I say, "I gave you all the pictures I want you to have. I am not comfortable with people seeing the other pictures." I ask her to bring back the negatives from the first four rolls of film. She'd taken them surreptitiously during one of her visits.
"Oh," she says, but I can tell that she is angry.
She tells my mother that I stole her pictures. I am shocked!
She comes by for a final visit before she leaves for Japan. She photographs my baby's feet next to mine. When she leaves, she says, "Here's your stuff." She lays an envelope on the dresser. She seems pleasant enough. But the last thing she says as she walks out my bedroom door is, "So are you going to give me back my negatives when you are through with them?"
And I think about lying, but instead, I say, "No. I already gave you the pictures I am comfortable with you having."
So she's gone. I put down my baby when she's finally asleep and pick up the picture envelope.
In it, I find negatives in the sleeves the developer uses when you order reprints. But I hadn't ordered any reprints. I look at the negatives and find that she's had about a dozen pictures made, including some shots of my naked posterior birthing a baby, which was a picture I specifically excluded from those I gave her. I did not want my nude butt shown all through East Asia.
Completely furious, I marched myself downstairs and wrote her a terse email in which I demanded that she return the photographs which she took without my permission. I told her that if it was about money, to please send me a bill and I would be happy to reimburse her for the cost of the film and developing. I gave her two weeks.
She did not respond.
In two weeks, I fired off another email demanding the pictures.
I did so every month for about seven months when I gave up.
Eleven months after she stole my birth pictures, our paths crossed. My brother and his wife held a wedding celebration reception in their backyard. I decided on the way that I would respond if Harmony spoke to me, but that I would not initiate any conversation.
I realized that I have initiated every conversation with her for years and years and years. Probably since high school. I ask her questions, I respond to her comments, I try to make her comfortable.
But no more.
The backyard barbecue was a very small affair, maybe just a dozen people, perhaps twenty. My other sister, my mother, and my stepmother were there, as well as assorted in-laws. I walked through the fence, took note that Harmony was standing near a table and said to my stepmother, "Where's Harmony?"
Shoot! I meant, "Where's Becca?" because I was an hour late (conflict in my schedule) and I figured I'd be the last one there. Becca, however, took that award for lateness!
Anyway, I corrected myself and said, "Oh, I know that, I just wondered where Becca is."
Harmony never spoke to me, other than a comment indirectly spoken to a small group I was in: "Do you want a brownie?" I did not make eye contact, did not initiate a conversation. I am finished being the one who holds together the flimsy relationship we have. I am finished excusing her because she's "fourteen." I am done overlooking the selfish, wrong things she does. I am just done.
So, that's why we haven't spoken in over a year. I do my best not to put other family members in the middle. I know they all still email her. I know she'll visit again and I'll do what I can not to make anyone uncomfortable.
But she's not welcome in my home.
She's not welcome to have a relationship with my children.
She's certainly not welcome to show my naked butt to strangers in Japan.
The funny thing is, I haven't noticed any loss or vacancy in my life. I'm just annoyed that she never sent me the pictures of my newborn's feet nestled next to mine.
Other than that, it's a relief not to have to deal with a perpetually petulant fourteen year old.
Posted by Mel
at 9:57 PM PDT
Updated: Friday, 30 July 2004 10:30 PM PDT