On a hot September afternoon in 1974, right after school had started again, right after I began that US phenomenon known as “junior high”, right after I had had my first proper music lesson and I was literally bursting to tell my Mom about this monumental discovery of having a musical instrument in my hand to terrorize the world with, I came home from school to a locked up house. There was no key in the usual location, no note taped to the front door. I could go around to the back yard and wait, but it was hot out there under the orange trees, and they were blooming. Anyone who’s ever been in an orange grove in bloom will know that the combination of heat and orange blossom can be almost narcotic.
Instead, I sat under a front lawn coconut tree and sulked. It would be hours before my workaholic Dad came home. Who knew where my mother had gone?
Some time later, a next-door neighbor came home. “Oh, you mean you didn’t know? Your Mom called the school, but I guess they didn’t tell you. She’s in the hospital. She might be having the baby now!”
I felt as if the ground had disappeared from under me, This wasn’t supposed to happen until late October, I knew.
I was promptly sent off to another neighbor and friend of the family to spend the night. And that night, I had a strange and disturbing dream, a dream that later turned out to be prescient and prophetic.
Next morning, I was informed that I had become the big sister to – a sister. A sister who arrived too early – the last time that would happen – and now, everyone came out of the woodwork to congratulate me, and I was not at all sure I needed that.
Commiseration would have been better. From that day on, I’d have to compete with this tiny creature for attention.
So began one of the most significant relationships in my life, and one of the most enduring.
It wasn’t an easy start, because I came to discover that she was indeed an attention hog from babyhood on. For one thing, she was disgustingly cute, whereas I was at that awkward age poised on the brink of puberty, and “cute” did not apply.
When our mother had a sudden fit and decided to leave our Dad in the worst way possible less than three months later, I found myself in another country, dealing with a foreign language, an alien world and a severe sense of dislocation. Once again, the cute and smiling baby hogged all the spotlight, all the time.
She grew and thrived and became an impossibly spoilt and rather bossy little girl. One day, I came home from school to discover she had gotten into my room and had applied Magic Marker to my heavily annotated Latin notebook on Caesar’s “Gallic Wars”. I took Latin very seriously. I promptly chased her through our grandmother’s house with a kitchen knife yelling at the top of my lungs “I will KILL you!”
It took our grandmother a good half hour to persuade me otherwise.
But somewhere along the way, we connected. We both knew our mother was absolutely nuts, and for that realization, you need an ally, a buddy, a friend. When I left home at 17, there were long gaps where we did not see each other, and those gaps made me sad, because by then, I saw just how special she was and was able to appreciate it.
Once she hit puberty, she needed an ally, and for a long time, I was the arbitrator between my mother and my sister. It literally got to the point of “Can you please tell her that..”, since they were not on speaking terms. And always, my sympathy was with my sister.
I have a photo of the two of us, taken on the day she graduated. It shows us both in profile, kissing each other square on the mouth. When it hung in my office in the US, it raised quite a few eyebrows. I always, because of those eyebrows, smirked when I explained to the disbelieving that it was my sister.
I had walked the path of adolescence alone, but my sister had a kinder fate. We celebrated many milestones together – musical discoveries, loss of virginity, great head-exploding moments. I brainwashed her with British Cosmopolitan in the late Eighties, just to make sure she would be aware of things like feminism, and that no one should impose limits on what she could achieve. Like me, she had read from an early age, and like me, she had a penchant for words and a talent for writing, but unlike me, she found out about it much earlier than I did.
When our mother died after a two year battle with breast cancer, we became closer, both of us aware that we were one step further toward our own mortality, We needed each other, and for the first time both admitted it.
One day at the airport three years later, when I was to embark on a Major Quest of my own, I whispered in her ear: “Somebody, stop me!”
She gave me a knowing grin, compounded of love, shared experience, and a palpable wrench of loss that we both could feel between us. “No!”
On the day Damien was born, she held my hand, and Damien, even, before I did. “A boy!” She laughed through tears. “But we don’t have boys in our family!”
Since then, through trials and tribulations and startling insights about each other and ourselves, she has been the one overriding constant in my life. We made a pact, when our mother died, that we would never hold back with each other, never withhold important secrets or information, and never, ever, pull any punches with each other.
I have been lambasted by her, chastised by her, chewn a new one by her. I’ve rarely had to return the favor.
She is the woman I can never be and the woman I sometimes wish I were, even as I know that we now live separate lives, with different dreams and inspirations.
I write a historical novel, she writes a crime novel. I write in English, she in Danish. She’s a journalist, I’m a thwarted archeologist and a big, fat question mark.
When I went to Copenhagen last week, she gave me a postcard. “Sisters”, it said, “are different flowers from the same garden.”
That’s it exactly. There she is in all her resplendent glory, a perfect Damascus rose, deep red, with many petals. And here I stand, a fading Malmaison carnation.
Different. But we bloom just the same. Separately but together.