Persisterhood is Powerful
I wrote and performed this essay at Generation Women, a monthly women’s storytelling night in New York City, founded by the awesome Georgia Clark. The theme that month was "persistence."
I’m the second of four daughters. Growing up, we were glommed together in a primordial sister soup, undifferentiated, “the girls;” four of us born within six years to our mother in her twenties, a “single mother with a husband.” She did it all.
I roomed with my sister, Bridgit, who’s a year and a week older than me, our birthdays often clumped together into one July birthday celebration. I resented her, as she resented me, as we resented our two younger sisters, who were born two years and a week apart–the March birthday celebration. How did I resent and punish Bridgit? Once, when we were in junior high school, someone in my class brought in a box of kittens to give away. At the time, we had a terrier named Ms, whose love the four of us competed for. We’d sit in different corners of the living room, each of us calling, Ms! Ms! to see who she’d go to first; and that would be the one she obviously loved the most. Ms never went to me. I’d always wanted a cat. So, I took one of these kittens home and hid it in the bottom drawer of my dresser, which I cleared out to put in a water and food dish because I wanted a pet who would love me, alone. Well. Bridgit’s eyes swelled up. Her throat closed. She couldn’t breathe. Welts formed on her skin. And my mother said, “It’s as if there’s a cat in the house.” Did I mention Bridgit was deathly allergic to cats and I knew it? And I didn’t care. I had convinced myself she’d made it up to deprive me of the pet I longed for. To this day, she asks: Why would I lie about a cat allergy? Good question.
Even though she was a year older than me, Bridgit was petite. I was big. She could wear all my shirts, while I was not allowed to wear any of hers, lest I “stretch it out.” She did have one baggy sweater that I could wear without stretching. But she refused to let me wear it. So I brought the case before the ultimate judge, my mother, who ruled in my favor, and decreed that it was only fair since Bridgit can wear everything of Laura’s, that Laura be allowed to wear this one item of Bridgit’s. But nobody tells Bridgit who can and cannot wear her clothes. So, rather than surrender, she burnt the sweater in the fireplace. After which I took all of her nail polishes—she had a lot of them, paid for with her summer job, her hands were always beautifully manicured–and I threw them in the trash bins at the end of the dirt road. Weeks later, she’d wonder aloud where the hell is my Fancy Fuschia? And I’d feel triumphant, thinking, wouldn’t you like to know?
My younger sister, Alexis, was born eighteen months after I was. When we were very young, I remember her happiness caused me physical pain. Once I was sitting next to her in the back seat of the car and she was holding a blue ball and humming a little ditty to her ball and I became so incensed by her contentment that I snatched the ball and threw it out the car window. I’m not proud. I’m just saying it happened.
I hated her because she was cuter and sassier and smarter and more popular than me, and still she used to follow me and my friends around, when we were teenagers, sneaking outside to smoke pot. In a rage, I threw rocks at her to make her go away. My friends were shocked at the brutality when I hit her on the forehead, inflicting a bloody gash and lump.
As for my youngest sister, Julia: There are stories our parents’ friends tell about witnessing us three older girls walking past Julia as she bent over her homework at the kitchen table. One by one each of us would smack her across the back of the head as we passed by, leaving her weeping over her books. When I got my first car in high school, my mother made me drive Julia to school with me, which I hated, so I forced her to get out of the car before I pulled into the school driveway, so no one could see us together.
We used to rationalize our behavior, claiming that we were not as bad as our Chicago cousins, also four girls. They pulled each other’s hair out in clumps, leaving literal bald spots. We didn’t do that. They slammed each other over the head with their wooden Doctor Scholes sandals. We never did that. Which is all to say, it’s easy to find people who behave worse than you do, and also to say, the death-match competition ran in our extended family. It’s built into the structure: that the elder children who once enjoyed their parents' love must hate the younger ones who usurped it. And the younger ones are doomed to grow up as the objects of a primal, impersonal hatred they can’t fight.
Alexis got her revenge years later when she fucked my boyfriend. He then fucked her best friend. We banded together and made him eat out of a dog food bowl, but that’s another story for another night. Julia, as a defense, adopted the moral superiority of victimhood. No one was better than she was at making me feel like an asshole. Bridgit refined a Teflon exterior of cheer that only we sisters saw fracture into bouts of mirror-punching rage.
I had a boyfriend when I was nineteen who once said, Bridgit’s the nicest sister, Alexis is the funniest and Julia’s the prettiest. And I said what the fuck are you doing with me, then? Why don’t you go out with them? He lasted longer than he should have.
As adults, life gave us distance. When we did see each other, it was hard, because we were forced back into the sister soup but we didn’t fit, which caused conflict. In 1988, when we were in our 20s, my aunt Joan died of lung cancer at sixty-one. My mother was 54, younger than I am now. They’d been close friends as well as sisters. There was a big Catholic funeral in Chicago, with my mother’s extended family, which included our fighting cousins—who are currently feuding with each other. I remember my mother and I were in the bathroom at my aunt’s memorial. My mother was crying. She said, “I’m glad you and your sisters are friends like Joan and I were friends. Don’t ever forget what a gift that is.” And I thought, "You’ve GOT to be kidding. What planet do you live on? They’re not my friends. We don’t even like each other."
But I should pause here to say that I think a part of me wished that my sisters and I were friends, and perhaps there was a spark of hope that my mother could see more than I could about life.
Flash forward five years from that memorial to my father’s cancer diagnosis. My parents had been separated since I was eleven. My father was an actor. He worked in theater in New York and Minneapolis, then he worked in TV and movies in LA as a character actor, playing outliers and thieves, misfits and vagrants. He was charming and he was cheap. You never took a taxi with him. Taxis were profligate. You did not order drinks in restaurants, you asked for water, which was free.
During his illness, we four sisters took turns, traveling from New York to LA to help take care of him. He was dying. We shopped for snacks to serve his friends who’d come to visit, and he said, cut back on the food, we don’t need to bankroll their dinner.
We sisters hadn’t been forced into such closeness since we’d left home, which we’d all done as soon as we could. We were exposed, fraught, angry. The grief and grievance were so enormous they threatened to swallow us all, and we were forced to recognize how disparate our realities were. Even though we shared bedrooms and birthdays and parents and bathrooms, we had each grown up in a different family. There existed no consensual, objective truth.
No one can hurt you like a sister can. It’s deep, it’s primal, it’s animal. But no one can appreciate you more than a sister, who knew you before you could talk. We had to make a choice about how and who to be with each other. It was Julia, who’d endured our hatred and disregard, and who’d successfully made us all feel like assholes, who suggested a talking staff.
So we gathered, the four of us and my mother, in a circle; and we spoke of our separate realities. No one was allowed to interrupt or refute another. Instead of screaming, it was not like that! You’re wrong! We found ourselves saying, so that’s what it’s like for you. And you. And you. This meeting created an opening in what had been a closed circuit.
Dad left a small fund when he died. It’s replenished modestly year upon year by residuals from the odd rerun of Law and Order or Cagney and Lacey. These residuals have been enough to pay for dinner once a year, on the anniversary of his death. Until it recently closed, my sisters and I always went to Spring Street Natural on Lafayette Street because they’d let us sit for hours, and they’d bring us extra napkins when we cried. We always cry at these dinners. It’s never easy. We’re still a family of hyper-vigilant, rejection-sensitive, defensive women, but every year we understand each other more deeply. My father’s residuals pay for our taxis home. We tell each other: he would’ve wanted us to treat ourselves. We order drinks and dessert, and laugh saying he wouldn’t want us to scrimp.
We persisted in becoming friends because we did not want to be strangers. We share a bond that feels mystically close. I can say to my mother, because she’s here in the audience: You were right. Maybe you’re always right! My friendship with my sisters is a gift beyond measure. Because, nevertheless, we persisted. Sisterhood is powerful. Persisterhood, even more so. And, even though they could not be here tonight, my sisters approved of this message.