We were living in Ireland when I was born, and my sister's reaction upon first seeing me was, apparently, to say, "Give her to the Guards" ("Guards" being the Irish police). A lively illustration, perhaps, of the way toddlers often greet their new siblings – i.e. with a less than enthusiastic response. But the story, much told over the years by amused family members, does seem to have been a fairly accurate predictor of the way that our relationship was to progress.
The view of author Linda Sunshine that "if you don't understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child," tends to be the accepted view of how many sisterly relationships operate. But in the case of my sister and me, the part about love is missing. I believe that my sister and I have never loved each other, and almost certainly never will. We are close in age – she is 22 months older than me – but not in any other way. And throughout my life my wonderment at our complete inability to maintain a tolerable and civil relationship, has been matched by the reaction of most people to what they see as a veritable aberration.
Quite simply, sisters are meant to be close, in a particularly special and bonding way. They were put on this earth to love and support each other, in a kind of exclusive club where the membership rules are only that blood is thicker than water – and never more so than in the case of sisters.
My husband's three sisters fulfil this criteria to the hilt, and I am admiring and, it has to be said, a little envious of their obvious closeness. Whatever happens, they are there for each other. No prior engagement is too pressing and no distance too great that one of them cannot provide a listening ear or a helping hand to another in need. Their lives are clearly the richer for having each other, and I wish the same could be said for my sister and me. But explaining why our feelings for each other couldn't be more different is beyond me – and I suspect my sister would say the same.
My earliest memory of my sister is her unwillingness to play with me, and her bossiness in the odd game we did manage to briefly collaborate on. My grandparents, who brought us up, were quick to interfere, remonstrated with us equally in our frequent squabbles, and as we grew bigger separated us when the fights became physical. But occasionally I remember rare flashes of sweetness from my sister, as she coaxed me to join her in a dolls' tea party, or build a camp with her in the garden. And I remember too, the pleasure of basking in our temporary truce, and the feeling that I had, for whatever reason, found favour in my sister's eyes.
As our childishly tempestuous relationship lurched into a more vitriolic teenage phase, I can now see that this need for approval established itself into a relentless pattern. As my sister blossomed, and launched herself into a social whirlwind, I found myself struggling with the trials of adolescence. I was one minute resentful for what I saw as all the fun she was having, and the next grateful for any tips or hints she threw my way. She was clear-skinned, lovely and confident. I was plagued with acne, awkward and ill at ease with the opposite sex.
Occasionally she would pause in her whirlwind of college and part-time bar work to offer me advice on clothes and make-up. Excitedly I would embark upon the transformation, encouraged by my sister's praise, only to be knocked back by a passing comment – made perhaps because she herself was feeling insecure or out of sorts. Who knows?
I can remember once sunbathing in our garden, enjoying the way my new black bikini flattered (as I thought) my puppy fat. My sister swept past me and curled her lip. "Miss Bathing Beauty 1972 – I don't think," she smirked.
At that point, just like psychologist Terri Apter, writing in her book The Sister Knot, I loathed my sister with an intensity that made me wish her dead. Without actually fantasising a scenario of her death, I whiled away the rest of the morning conjuring up a complete picture of a life without her in it. A better life, free of constant undermining and put-downs.
And although that picture quickly receded, it hovered in the background for years to come, often prompted by an especially sore incident between us, to blaze forth in glorious Technicolor. One such was in 1981, two days after the birth of my first child. My sister came to visit me in hospital, along with her latest boyfriend. We'd spoken on the phone the day before and her words – that I was "very clever" – had crowned my post-birth euphoria. Now however, pain and exhaustion were taking hold and I was feeling tearful, overwhelmed at the enormity of this new, dependent life. I was breast-feeding my baby when the two walked in; my sister sat a safe distance from the bed.
She regarded me across the sterility of the hospital surroundings and raised an eyebrow. Both her expression, which seemed to be of slight disgust, as well as her words, are firmly rooted in my memory. "Ugh, it's like being an animal," she said.
A few years later my sister was a mother herself, to my two lovely nieces, now in their twenties. I had two more children, and, probably because we finally had something in common, for a while we managed uneasy and sporadic contact. There were even some rather uncomfortable visits to each other's homes. The cousins all got on beautifully, and my sister and I were kind and loving to each other's children. Unfortunately we failed to apply anything approaching similar sentiments to each other. I felt that I was trying my best to be chatty and friendly, while she seemed to find me at best an irritant, and at worst demanding and intrusive. Her responses to my perhaps rather self conscious overtures were clipped and terse, and I felt frustrated and angry at her peculiarly chilly manner.
Twelve years ago, during an excruciatingly difficult weekend, things came to a particularly unpleasant head. My sister and her two girls were visiting us, and after 36 hours of virtually monosyllabic responses from her, and what seemed to me to be one eyebrow permanently raised to hairline height, I snapped. As I heard yet another subtly worded put-down in answer to my attempt at light conversation, all the old childhood feelings came crashing into my head. Quite simply, I loathed her. Once again I wished desperately for to her disappear, taking her superciliousness and her ability to make me feel clumsy and inadequate with her.
I hurled various insults at her and told her to go – a day early. My husband was given the job of driving our reluctant guests to the station, but I did however, have a stab at retaining some kind of hold on my behaviour, managing to quietly explain to my elder niece, then 14, that none of this was anything to do with her or her sister. And that we would love to see them absolutely any time.
Having lost none of her icy cool during my heated barrage, my sister calmly offered me her cheek for a kiss as she shepherded her girls into the car. Snarling, I rejected it, and that was the last time we saw or spoke to each other, apart from exchanging passing comments at a handful of family weddings and funerals over the years. Sadly but unsurprisingly, I have also not seen my nieces, although I try to maintain some kind of contact via birthday and Christmas presents and the odd email – as my sister does with my children. I'm glad to say, however, that both sets of children have stayed in touch. How thankful I am that our offspring are all mature and delightful human beings who refuse to allow their mothers' unfathomable and incomprehensible divide to affect their own judgments.
Common sense and any claim to an adult approach tells me that at least some of the responsibility for our complete lack of empathy, bonding or any kind of sisterly feelings must lie with me. And although my memory is that my sister instigated and was responsible for all the discord and vitriol that coloured any time spent in each other's company, she may well remember things differently. But in the end, the result is the same. Two sisters, now in their fifties, who have clearly accepted that there never has been and never will be any kind of love – or even 'like' – between them. When our paths do occasionally cross, a tense smile or a civil nod is the most either of us can hope for.
I feel sad – and completely resigned. But I should say at this point that following my mother's death at a very young age, my father married again and had four more children. And I find immense consolation in my close relationship with my three delightful younger half-sisters and half-brother.
Two years ago, a medical crisis in my family prompted us to appeal for help from extended family, and one of the many generous responses came from my sister. Ultimately, her help wasn't needed, but although I can't say my basic feelings towards her were changed by her swift reaction to our need, I was deeply surprised and touched by it.
It seems that in the end, the old saying "blood is thicker than water" may well hold true.
Sisters, but not devoted
Joan and Jackie Collins: Asked to comment on Joan's books, Jackie declined, saying that she "never found time to read them". Joan responded, "I don't think Jackie was thrilled when I started writing."
AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble: When Byatt won the Booker Prize, Drabble was reported to have said, "Wonderful! I bet money on you." Another writer at her table asked what she would have done had Byatt lost, and claimed she said she'd be pleased. Byatt said of her sister, "She certainly thought she was cleverer than I was – but I never did."
Diana and Jessica Mitford: Fascist sympathiser Diana Mitford earned a pointed response to her offer to entertain her sister's son at her Paris home. Noting that her son was half-Jewish, Jessica eschewed the offer, as she "didn't want him turned into a lamp shade".
Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine: "I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia," said Fontaine, "and if I die first, she'll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it." De Havilland's response is not recorded – although her 40-year refusal to be in the same room as Fontaine is.
Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren: Of her sister, Van Buren said, "She wanted to be the first violin in the school orchestra, but I was. She swore she'd marry a millionaire, but I did." Landers spared no invective in her return volley: "She's just like a kid who beats a dog until somebody looks, and then she starts petting it."
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