Monday, August 24, 2009

The Trouble with Siblings

Someone once said that while you can choose your friends, fate relieves us of that responsibility when it comes to siblings. They are assigned, like social security numbers, college roommates and eye color.

I was assigned three—two sisters and a brother. All of them are younger, which I suppose makes me the oldest. For the most part, I enjoy good relationships with them—except one. A sister. She and I have problems. Big problems.

My sister is a cornucopia of irritating personality traits. She loves the word ‘we’. She uses it to confer upon herself some kind of imaginary spokesman status, so when she issues one of her declarations it isn’t just her opinion, but the shared conclusion of a group. This coalition is usually whatever family members, friends, relatives, etc. aren’t in the room.

My sister is also prone to exaggeration. No one is ever upset, they’re PISSED OFF! My sister is all capital letters and exclamation points. She is also a fire-starter. And she needs lots of attention, which probably goes a long way in explaining her other traits.

She likes nothing better than saying something outrageous and having every head in the room turn towards her.

The same person who refused to be her sister’s bridesmaid because it would entail the wearing of a dress (an act which would reduce her to a cultural stereotype) is the same person who endlessly criticizes me when my hair is long because I don’t, in her words, “look masculine and professional.”

Hmmm. Let me think about that one.

She spins like a campaign manager. She is a commitment phobe. And she is cheap cheap cheap cheap cheap. (And it’s not ornithology of which I speak.) It’s best to take her with a salt mine or two. And to remember she needs to be filtered, translated and above all, managed. And it is exhausting.

Did I mention she is hyperactive with traces of OCD and ADD?

Like I said, we have problems.

When my parents sold our childhood home several years ago, I was unable to help with the move as I had recently lost a job and was working a temporary one which allowed no time off. Despite the gaggle of family, in-laws and professional movers, it was my sister’s opinion that my absence made the move three or four times as difficult as it needed to be.

Upon returning home, she called me and vented. And vented. And vented. She used the word ‘we’. She exaggerated. She spun.

A bit shaken, I called home. Imagine my surprise when no one was even remotely irritated by my absence.

I was now angry as well. I had seen this move coming. I had spent time on three earlier trips home helping my folks go through closets and crawlspaces and garage rafters, a claim my finger-pointing sister couldn’t make. I wrote her a long letter, with copies sent to my siblings to prevent exaggeration and spin and myth-making.

It stopped her in her tracks.

Then there was my move from New Mexico last fall. My sister volunteered to come down, ostensibly to help my girlfriend and I. That it also meant a free vacation and a free trip home were only convenient asides.

I was hesitant to accept, but an injury to my girlfriend’s lower-back precluded long stretches behind the wheel, and the discovery that there is absolutely no way one driver can operate three vehicles simultaneously was tough to ignore. With the voice of experience screaming “No! No! No!” I accepted her offer.

We agreed that after arriving she would first sightsee and then embark on a ten-day camping trip while my girlfriend and I finalized details of the move. My sister would return to help with packing, loading the truck and the drive east.

Wanting to make the leap of faith that might repair our fractured relationship, I loaned her my car for the camping trip. This despite knowing she and I view cars about as differently as it is possible for two people to view them.

For my sister, they are maintenance-free appliances which invariably become dented and scratched and are then discarded. I do silly things like change the oil and flush the radiator and never, ever park next to pick-up trucks and vehicles likely to contain great numbers of children and distracted parents.

With assurances that she would treat my car as I did, she set off for the Gila National Forest. I didn’t drive my car again until after arriving in Milwaukee. When I did, it was clear my car wasn’t in the same condition it was when it left New Mexico. The right front wheel pinged when I accelerated. The driver’s side window was off-track and didn’t close completely. And the rear bumper was covered with scratches.

This after she bailed-out early because the cross-country move wasn’t proving to be as fun as she thought it would be. Which is another thing about my sister. She can’t tolerate anything that isn’t fun. If it’s not a ride on a Tilt-a-whirl, sis has problems with it.

For my part, I confess that leaving New Mexico just as the nation’s economy was having a melt-down didn’t have me doing cartwheels and handsprings.

But no fun? Me? Didn’t you read my last post? OK—kidding.

Fast forward to August. My sister is visiting—again. I make an obligatory appearance. Like Obama and his fantasy of bipartisanship, hope springs eternal. (I am nothing if not the dutiful son/brother/employee.)

There are lots of people there. I am thankful for this because they act as buffers which neutralize my sister. Later, after everyone else has gone, my immediate family asks me how I’m doing.

I tell them about the job market. I tell them applying for work is like playing the lottery, with odds that are only a little better. I tell them how I waited in line for an hour and-a-half to submit an application for a job as a supermarket cashier.

I don’t tell them about the part-time temporary job that would have me knocking on doors in the most-dangerous neighborhoods in Milwaukee (with a shiny new laptop in tow), doing follow-up interviews for a government study. I tell them it is ugly out there. U-G-L-Y.

My sister, whom I haven’t spoken to since December, asks me when I’ll be able to repay the $109.00 she mistakenly charged to her credit card during the move. (My girlfriend and I had agreed to pick-up her lodgings and gas during the trip east.)

I tell her that was also the first question out of her mouth in December, and that nothing has changed. I again tell her that when I have money that isn’t needed for rent, utilities, gasoline and food, she will be paid. I ask when would be a good time to talk. She says there isn’t one.

I say goodnight and leave.

The news that the $109.00 went to the repair of my car window will be met with derision and the kind of screeching only a personality like my sister's could create.

The fact that I didn’t opt for the $500.00 dealership repair (which would mean she owed me money) but instead found a salvage yard with the appropriate regulator and had it installed for less than half that (which means I owe her ten-dollars and change) will be completely ignored.

My sister has adopted the belief that we are responsible for everything that happens to us. There are no accidents. No misfortune. No bad luck. Only good and bad choices. She sees other people’s lives in perfect hindsight, and freely dispenses what the work world calls “feedback”.

She doesn’t know it, but she would adore The Secret. She’d likely set it cover-out on a high shelf and light votive candles on either side of it.

And I have come to agree with her. It is about good and bad choices. And at long last I understand that continuing this relationship is a very bad choice. Our relationship requires vast amounts of effort with only brittle co-existence to show for it. It’s sad and it hurts, but what is, is.

Yeah, it’s all about the choices.


  1. I've learnt to let go of one of my brothers who only rings when he wants money and who the last part of fifteen years has never held a full time job, had a girlfriend or a car.

    There comes a time when sympathy turns to anger and then to a feeling where there is no feeling.

    What is, is.

  2. Sad to say, but I find that to be true.

  3. It's a sad situation, because somewhere deep down I'm sure you love her and it hurts to have to let go.

  4. The best word for it is exhausted. Life just doesn't need to be this hard.

  5. My brother is a drama queen and exaggerator as well, but he lives in Italy, so we don't get together much. Therefore, unlike you, I don't have any recent major sibling complaints.

  6. You're lucky. The relationships we have with our siblings are the longest of our lives. Longer than the ones we have with parents, friends and lovers. Consequently, the non-relationships we have with our siblings are also the longest of our lives...