Monday, April 25, 2011

Disclosing Dysfunction

The last time I spoke to my little sister, Jennifer, my 20-year-old daughter, Amelia, wasn’t old enough to drive yet.

It was Christmas 2006 and we were visiting our parents in Atlanta. Jenny, who’s two years younger than I am, brought her 12-year-old son, Joseph. I brought Amelia and the woman to whom I was married, Alessandra, who would leave me three months later. (I’m pretty sure her sudden, unexpected departure had nothing to do with meeting my family.)

My nephew was a sweet boy. His mother was not.

I loved Jenny but I didn’t like her much anymore. She was hard-assed and argumentative and egotistical and confrontational. At one point, when we were all sitting around the dining room table after dinner playing Scattergories, it occurred to me that the moment would have made a good ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit – a boorish, self-absorbed, masculine woman was pontificating about anything and everything and not letting anyone else at the table get a word in edgewise and not even stopping to take a breath, it seemed, until the rest of us felt like inflicting severe bodily harm with a butter knife, a pen, even a car key just to make her stop.

I tried to tell myself that this was the behavior of an insecure woman who had felt overlooked as a child, who had perhaps been overshadowed by her witty older brother, and who was now utterly determined to grab as much attention as possible whether her unwilling audience liked it or not. I clenched my fists and my jaw and bit my tongue and tried to persevere but I just couldn’t take it anymore and I finally blurted out, “Jesus, will you just shut up for a frikkin’ minute?!”

The visit went downhill from there.

Jenny stopped speaking to me completely, and our mom informed me the next morning that my sister and nephew would be leaving that very afternoon to return to California. Jenny had told her that she didn’t feel comfortable around me and didn’t need to take this sh*t from anybody and would spend her holidays among people she loved and that didn’t include me anymore. Or words to that effect. I haven’t seen her or Joe since.

I received a nasty e-mail from her a few years later when she heard that Amelia and I were having a hard time (and were in fact estranged), and I receive occasional updates about her from our mom, although they’re infrequent because Jenny and Mom have their own issues. But for all intents and purposes I find myself without a sibling at the age of 49.

I wish I had just kept my mouth shut and let her use hers to excess. I wish we still connected like the childhood pals we were growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s. I wish she didn’t resent that I might have received more attention when we were kids. I wish she was aware of how cool she had turned out to be – she had moved out to Los Angeles alone after college to carve out a whole new life, had earned a master’s degree, was raising a son by herself, and displayed a strong personality that I secretly envied – and didn’t feel the need to go overboard trying to convince her family that she was lovable. I wish I saw us reconciling at some point, just burying the hatchet and starting over, but I don’t.

I wish relationships weren’t so complicated and difficult for me to maintain sometimes.

Although we’re not even Facebook friends, I visit her page sometimes just to see what my 47-year-old baby sister looks like now.


  1. Pat, this is good, personal writing!

    I can sympathize with your feelings but I'd say that if your sister's relationship with your mom has difficulties, it's probably NOT you that has the issue.

    I don't know if you're interested in 'Peace' between yourself and your sister but if you are, don't be afraid to extend the olive branch anyway you can. Then at least if she rebuffs your overtures of peace, you have done what you can and at least be absolved of most of the guilt over the situation.

  2. Maybe you did the right thing. Family should be able to let words pass with understanding and forgiveness. I also have this strange belief genetic links to others do not translate into life long connection or inseverable ties. Has she considered how uncomfortable she made others. It's stressful to be around constant negativity and aggression. It becomes difficult to celebrate joyous occasions. You mentioned you were already drifting. If she is not mature enough to move past the simple "shut the hell up" from a sibling than I can only imagine the turmoil she causes herself in life.

  3. Pat, reach out and make the first effort at repairing this relationship.

    I lost my only sister to a drunk driver. She was 12, I was 18 when she died. So often I wonder what she would have become, what she would have been passionate about, loved and pursued in her life. I still mourn not having an adult sister relationship. Julie and I would have been great sisters to each other-- I just know it.

    Go for it. You'll be happy you did regardless of the outcome.

  4. Patrick,
    I was very moved by this posting and commend you on the courage to publicly write about such personal feelings. I can tell you are very fond of your baby sister and I think you should reach out to her. I'm very aware that half my life is behind me -- so there's no room or time anymore to be stubborn or inflexible.Why not think of a favorite childhood memory to open the conversation? My siblings and I were reminiscing [and laughing] about how our Mom would call us home every night from the front porch when the street lights came on. She sort of sang the call with the same cadence every night, "Susan, Michael, Barbara -- it's time to come home." We used to be embarrassed by it -- but now, look back with appreciation that she cared that we came home. We were also laughing about our water hose fight in the backyard one summer that resulted in my baby sister whacking me on the head with the metal hose [no plastic in those days!]and leaving a bump on my head that lasted for months. My Mom believed my sister's story of denial and that made me very mad! Now, my siblings are my best friends and have stood by me during some very difficult times. I, in turn, have done the same for them. Siblings can relate to each other in ways others can't -- because they have shared so much together -- good and bad. I encourage you to reach out to Jenny with a funny childhood story to break the ice. And then, slowly, let a new relationship develop. I have a feeling she will be receptive to your outreach.

  5. Pat - reach out. You'll be glad you did and it sets a good example for your children. My two aunts got mad at each other and didn't speak for over 25 years. It was upsetting and awkward for the rest of the family. They finally had some kind of mending several years before they died. Sadly and predictably, siblings in both of their families became estranged after their parents died. Again, more awkwardness and trying to get along with both sides. My brother, sister and I are very close. We are very different and do argue sometimes, but it doesn't last long. Life is not really about letting other people's behavior dictate our reactions, but about what kind of person we choose to be and how we live up to that, regardless of what others say and do. Mostly life is about love.