A longer version of the essay appears in More Magazine, Sept. 2007, “A Tale of Two Sisters: Joyce and Rona Maynard”
Rona's version, on her website: A Tale of Two Sisters
Here’s a situation that comes up surprisingly often in my life. I will make a friend. We come to know each other pretty well. Months pass -- longer even -- before the following piece of information comes out: I have a sister, four years older than me -- the one remaining relative from my family of origin, the only one who will ever understand what it meant to have our mother and father as parents, the one person on this planet who remembers the day of my birth.
"You never mentioned her before," my no longer very new friend will say.
I haven’t asked my sister this question, but I’m betting that the same situation has come up in her life too. I doubt she speaks of me any more often than I do, of her. Though the space she occupies for me -- or maybe it’s the space left by her absence in my life -- has been vast.
"You two had a falling out?" my friend may ask. No, I say. Not that. Or rather, that part is over.
"I love my sister," I always explain. "We’re just very different. She lives far away." I’m not just speaking of miles here. In fact, even when we lived in the same house, a gulf separated my sister Rona and me. And in an odd way, the same things that link us -- our blood, and our history -- are what divide us now. We know too much. We are each, for the other, a reminder of where we came from and the family that shaped our lives. This is both the good news and the bad, the thing that holds us together, and the thing that drives us apart
This is not one of those stories about sisters who share clothes and recipes and secrets, sisters whose phones are set on speed-dial with each other’s number. We are not one of those pairs who turn to each other when something happens that breaks or bruises one of our hearts. I would not have asked my sister to take care of my children if their father and I died, or give me a kidney if I’d needed one so I could live. And though I would do those things for her, I know, too, that she never would have asked, and the knowledge that this is so has been one of the sadder facts of my life.
I always dreamed of having that other kind of relationship with my sister: intimate connection, shared sorrows, shared fun. I’ve sought out that kind of relationship -- and even found it, or something close -- with a few good women friends, and when I do, I sometimes describe that friend as "my sister of choice" -- meaning, she’s like the sister I wished I had.
But, of course, one essential aspect of a real sister is that you didn’t choose her, and she didn’t choose you. My sister and I have spent our whole lives trying to make peace with the fact that what we ended up with was each other. Mostly what that meant was we kept our distance. In fact, on the rare occasion when I call my sister, I have to look up her number. I’m sure the same is true for her.
Memory plays a huge part in our story. It’s not so much that we have different memories of our childhood as that my sister remembers things I do not. Even when we were very young, Rona had an amazing ability to hold on to the smallest details of events and stories: whole conversations, paintings on walls, but most of all, feelings…particularly the painful ones. For me, the years of our growing up are a hazy blur where, for her, certain moments of childhood are illuminated with the shattering intensity and sharpness of a lightning bolt. They are not usually happy ones.
So we are two women four years apart in age, in possession of radically different pictures of what took place in our family. Maybe it’s our different natures -- a chance of birth -- that accounts for this. Maybe it’s the fact that she came first and I second, and that her role as the frequently contrary worrier left me with the obligation to be who she was not: the cheerful, ingratiating pleaser, the sunbeam to compensate for her darkness.
Joyce and her sister, Rona.
I was famously affectionate -- leaping on the lap of whichever parent appeared to need a little love -- while Rona was known for her distaste for human touch. "Hot face," she had said when she was small, when one of our parents bent to hold her once. This became the family line. I was a joker and a flirt; my sister was serious and shy. I could be egotistical and devious; she was honest and pure. Accurate or not, the list went on. She would make trouble with our troubled father. I would make him happy, or try to.
When you grew up in a home where trouble lurked, there is little motivation to revisit the old days. For me, there is less of a problem with painful memories, because I possess so few, but for Rona, the territory of childhood is a haunted house. I am all that remains of a life my sister has worked hard to leave behind.
Our father was an alcoholic. And for all the years the four of us lived together in a house where our father got drunk almost every night, we never mentioned that fact. I remember being amazed, years ago, when Rona voluntarily relinquished all claim to our vast and wonderful collection of family Christmas ornaments. At the time, I wondered how she could part with them, and felt only supremely lucky to get the entire stash. Now I understand better. For her, our family Christmas was about our father getting so drunk he once knocked down the tree
Though 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 (and her shame that her Jewish parents had told her all along it would be a disaster to marry this gentile), all lay like a thick fog over our household. Our parents’ marriage had disappointed them, and so had their lives. 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 (this was in the days before those yellow happy-face stickers came into fashion). 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 provided by family photographs of our childhood years, I cannot summon a single image of her smiling.
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 our parents cards, 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. (I don’t know. I can’t remember.) 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 in those days, 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 about me that must have driven her crazy. There is probably nobody less lovable to an older sibling than a younger one who’s so busy being cute.
Here’s the story I always tell, of how the relationship began between my sister and me.
Rona was four years old when I was born. Our mother -- herself the younger of two sisters, four years apart, who had never enjoyed a good relationship -- came up with the idea that one way of defusing potential trauma to her elder daughter would be to allow her to pick the new baby’s name.
A highly precocious child and lover of Greek mythology, Rona had selected 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. "I don’t want to call this baby Daphne," she told them, and they -- too swiftly -- agreed. Forever after, I have gone by my middle name of 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 favourite."
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?
We were raised with a sense of obligation to become accomplished women, but with a curious mix of old-fashioned standards. In our mother’s value system -- one I embraced but Rona railed against -- we should be super mothers like her, showering our children not simply with our love, but with time and energy and, above all, stimulating activities. We should be baking and gardening, doing art projects with our kids and taking trips to the ballet. We should be making a beautiful home. And still, we should be publishing books and giving speeches and winning the admiration of the world.
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 though 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 awhile; Dear Abby and Ann Landers each had their own newspaper syndication deal. But more often, the story of sisters and their accomplishment features one who gets the greater glory, and the other back in the shadows, like 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. Although Rona was always the more serious student, 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 well versed as the most skilful 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 21st birthday) and almost immediately got pregnant. I had always been the one who loved babies, but in 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, still 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 picture of things anyway, the toast of the town.
Perhaps the cruelest irony lay in the other part of my story: that even as her own once-bright star seemed to have been eclipsed, 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 watching television and dancing around our living room to ever read the book.
Then 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 -- never voiced her pain at all 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 relationship with my sister has been one of signals missed, feelings registered but never expressed. Only a year before I dropped out of Yale, I had begged our parents to let me come with them to Rona’s hastily planned wedding. But (knowing this was my all-important college application year), our mother had told me it was more important not to miss school. At the time, Rona knew only that her only 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. It was Rona who saw things most clearly and anticipated the trouble that ultimately came 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.
It’s hard to forge a closeness with a sister for the first time in adult life. Eventually, I married, had children of my own. Still later, I divorced, moved to the West Coast. Wrote books she never mentioned reading. Bought a house she never saw.
Once, a reunion of our mother’s extended family was held not far from my home, and my sister flew to California to attend. She stopped by my house for the briefest of visits before moving on to spend the weekend with relatives we’d barely ever met.
I had love affairs. Her marriage endured. Our father died; we met briefly at the funeral. More and more, as Rona and I moved into adult life, and built our separate lives -- in two countries, even, a fact that seems symbolically significant -- I think we found our sense of ourselves at least in part by forging our independence from each other.
When you are one of "the girls," you will always be perceived (even to yourself, maybe) in terms of all the ways you’re different from the other one. When you are no longer a sister, but simply yourself, comparisons can fall away at last. To my friends who knew me only in the years since leaving home, I was no longer "the flighty, impulsive sister," she was no longer the melancholy and fearful one. We were simply Rona, and Joyce, and as much as I missed a sister in my life -- and not only a sister, but my sister -- there was a relief in that.
But there was a sadness too -- so much so that of all the hopes I held for my own children’s lives, none was greater than this: that they would be, for each other, the kind of siblings my sister and I had never been for each other. (Like our mother, and her sister, I gave birth to my second child when my daughter was four years old, but never for a moment considered giving her the option of naming him. The morning after his birth -- at home, at midnight -- when our daughter came downstairs to find her newborn brother in our bed, she bent tenderly over his head and said, simply, "My dream came true.")
We made our own families -- flawed in all kinds of ways, but neither of us recreated the pattern of our parents that had set us on such a difficult course with each other. (My sister avoided the problem altogether by having only one child.) During our late twenties and thirties, Rona and I saw each other every year or two, and never for more than a day or so. I didn’t become, for Rona’s son, the kind of aunt I would have liked to be. She didn’t become that for my children either.
Then, 18 years ago, we were thrown together again, in the saddest way. Our strong, seemingly irrepressible mother (divorced from our father by now, and happily remarried) was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour and given weeks to live. The moment I heard the diagnosis, I left my home in the U.S. and moved to our mother’s house in Toronto. I couldn’t imagine not being with her, to take care of her for the final summer of her life.
As always, Rona and I approached the same situation, same events, in radically different ways. I wanted to cook for our mother, sit by her bedside, make her happy. My sister -- plunged in her own grief as I was, but manifesting it in her way, not mine -- preferred to keep a certain distance from a few harsh realities of terminal illness. I never viewed it as a sign of inferior love that Rona stopped in only at the end of her day at work, or that she was unlikely to bathe our mother or change her sheets.
Looking back on that time now, with the knowledge of all the things that went terribly wrong between Rona and me over the four months that were our mother’s last on earth, I can recognize all the signs of trouble.
Years before, on one of the rare visits in which I ended up feeling, as I always did, rejected by my sister, I had asked Rona if maybe she didn’t even love me.
"No, it’s not that," she had said, slowly, as if actually considering this possibility, before rejecting it. "It’s just that you…take up…so…much…space."
My sister is a person of precision in her use of words, and these stung with unassailable accuracy. It had been the story of our life from the moment our parents brought me home from the hospital -- nestled against our mother’s breast, all cooing and cuddly. And the worst part about taking up so much space -- if that’s what a person does, and I recognized at once that this was true -- is that there’s not a single thing you can do about it.
Now, as if someone had put on a rerun of a show you hated the first time around, I was at it again: invading my sister’s territory; crashing into her world, her country, the place she had finally found to carve out her life, free from her infuriating little sister. We were 35 and 39 that summer, but we might as well have been five and nine. There I was again, taking up too much space. There was my sister, left in the shadows, gritting her teeth.
From the moment I arrived in Toronto, I was impossibly domestic -- cutting flowers, baking pies, messing up the kitchen. I was impetuous, imprudent -- taking our mother on walks to the park, one of which resulted in her falling on the stairs. ("But she needs to see the flowers," I protested. "But you weren’t being safe," my sister responded. Not yelling, never yelling.)
Partway through that long summer of loss, I returned home briefly to see my husband and children. While I was there, a telegram arrived from Sydney, our mother’s husband. The telegram informed me that I would no longer be allowed to stay at my mother’s house and take care of her, assuming I chose to return to Toronto, as I did. A professional nurse and a cook had been hired to replace me. Neighbours across the street were willing to put me up in their spare room. I could come see my mother twice a day -- hours specified -- for no more than 60 minutes per visit. And one more thing: no more baking.
When I was able at last to breathe normally, I picked up the phone. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was turning to my sister for reassurance and support. I was sure she would tell our stepfather how crazy and cruel his ideas were.
But when I told her what had happened, her words left me with a despair as terrible as any I had known over those long months of watching our mother die.
"Actually, Joyce," she said, "I agree with Sydney’s position. This was my idea too."
There it is. The hardest story. Eighteen years later, I can finally tell it without tears, though I will always deeply regret the fact that I was not present at our mother’s bedside when she died, or able to take care of her as I had wanted to over those final weeks of her life.
For years after, I could barely speak to Rona, I was so hurt by what had happened. But eventually, it was my knowledge that I only had one sister, and that the two of us were all that remained -- a family like no other, and a family she alone can understand -- that forced me to come out of my room, finally, and knock on her door. I suspect it was much the same for her, when she opened it.
With other people I have loved in my life, when a situation comes up in which great pain has occurred, I have chosen to talk about it. My way would be to sit down together and lay everything on the table. Cry perhaps. Maybe we’d raise our voices. Dive into the wave, I would say, to get past the breaking point.
With Rona, I knew, we would move differently past the the scars our mother’s death had left us with. I recognized a long time ago that my sister has no taste for emotional drama. We both knew what happened. What more was there to do but move on?
There was one thing to do, actually, but it was a solitary act. I tried, as never before, to imagine I was my sister: a person who experiences life so differently from me, and always has. I imagined that I was Rona, watching me come into our mother’s house that summer, seeing me move toward the bedroom, bending to stroke our mother’s hair, to bathe her naked body. I saw the little girl she once was -- that "cool customer," as our mother had portrayed her -- out in the hall, alone, while I climbed under the sheets to embrace our love-starved mother.
And then I saw myself as the little girl I once was too, feeling a desperate need to fix things the only way I knew how, with my own body. There were no criminals in this story: not 50 years ago, or 18 years ago, or now. There were only two girls who wanted to find their place in the only family they’d known. The cost has been nearly losing sight of each other.
As much as I needed to forgive Rona for the pain she caused me with her choice to exclude me at the moment of our mother’s death, there were crimes of my own -- most particularly, perhaps, the impulse to show her up, to win the Best Daughter contest -- for which she needed to locate forgiveness too. Silently we understood all of this, and decided, simply, to let it go.
My sister is, as I have often said, the only one left who remembers the moment of my birth. It is a fact that came up not so long ago, actually. My daughter (a young woman whose brothers keep her number programmed in their phones, a fact I love) had decided she wanted to draw up my astrological chart. (She was trying to make better sense of her relationship with me. Which, though deeply loving, has not always been an easy one.)
"What time of day were you born?" Audrey asked me. I shook my head. No idea. And so, with both my parents dead, it looked as though our efforts to plot my place in the stars would be thwarted forever.
This happened the week before my birthday, a few years ago -- one of the many days, as I had sometimes noted to my family, when my sister does not call me. That particular year, though, a card arrived, precisely on November 5. Only one sentence written inside.
"I will be thinking of you at 6:53 p.m.," Rona had written. No one I ever met has a memory to equal hers.