When my younger sister brought her first child home from the hospital, I spent the night at her house to help. My brother-in-law had crashed, the house was dark and quiet, but Lori and I were still up at 2:00 in the morning, trying to decide why Max started crying the second he hit the bassinet sheets. Was he hungry? Cold?
"Think you ought to try him on the other breast?" I asked carefully, working hard not to sound pushy.
"I don't know," she said. "You're the one who's done this before. What do you think?"
It's an ordinary exchange when there's a new baby in the family. Except in our family.
Lori's six years younger than I am, five years younger than our brother, Billy. He and I were a team, raised almost as twins. We read the same books, shared the same group of friends, played the same games. Lori came along late in the family narrative and was never quite on the same page. Not that she didn't try like a champion: "Can I play?" "Can I watch?" "Can I help?" "Can I have a turn?"
Our usual answer: "You're too young; you'll wreck it."
Lori spent her entire childhood trying to catch up with us, trying to prove that she was just as smart, just as fast, just as strong. By the time she could talk, the relationship was often adversarial. When Billy and I wouldn't let her join in, Lori retaliated the only way a younger sibling can -- by reporting on our activities. She was the enforcer, the snitch, and because we shared a room, there was no escaping her surveillance or my annoyance: "Crybaby!" I would hiss. "Tattletale!"
I shouldn't have been surprised that by the time she was an adult, Lori carried a sequoia-size chip on her shoulder where I was concerned. I had plenty to say about her life, but let's just say she didn't welcome my advice.
In fact, my sister spent her early adulthood making choices that seemed designed explicitly to rebuke my own. When she was over 30 and I had cracked some joke about a ticking clock, Lori told me, "I don't want to make the same mistake you did, getting saddled with obligations too early. When I have children, I want to be sure I'm ready to settle down."
We loved each other, of course; during all those years, that was never in doubt. We talked
on the phone several times a week and spent every birthday together. But it wasn't the kind of sisterly relationship I'd read about in books. There were too many squabbles over nothing, too few moments of absolute understanding.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing editor to Parenting.