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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

Sisters: Best of Friends . . . yet Worst of Enemies

July 31, 1998|SANDY BANKS

"I hate you!"

The words ring out with disturbing frequency during these long, hot summer days, hurled like spears from sister to sister.

Too much togetherness, maybe. Too many opportunities for their fragile equilibrium to be upset, for their idiosyncrasies to rub one another the wrong way.

Their shouts roll off one another's backs. But the words "I hate you" pierce my heart, because I see these girls not just as my daughters but as sisters to one another, bound by ties that now may seem to constrict and strangle, but that one day may be lifelines keeping them afloat.

*

We were like oil and water, my younger sister and I.

She was the middle child, serious and brainy, a plodder with the perseverance to master any task she took on. I was the eldest, funny and flighty, a quick study, but apt to quit when the going got tough.

We were born less than two years apart and moved through childhood in lock step. Piano lessons, dance classes, summer camp, Bible school . . . if you found one of us, you'd find the other.

I taught her to play jacks, and soon she could beat me. I showed her how to do a cartwheel, and she practiced until she could flip circles around me. I brought her with me to church choir practice; she snagged the solos I could never sing.

Still, she was my little sister. She idolized me, I tolerated her. We grew older, our lives spiraling off in different directions. But the essence of our camaraderie remained.

My children see our relationship in its adult version: two grown-up women who look nothing alike, share few interests and have little in common except a shared history and the same set of siblings--and who find that's enough to warrant hourlong phone conversations each week and annual cross-country trips to keep up with each other.

"Do you like Aunt Nini," my middle one asks. I've just finished talking with my sister, making plans for her summer visit. My daughter has just finished a timeout stint in her room, punishment for pulling her sister's hair.

"Like Aunt Nini? I love her," I tell my daughter, a lecture taking shape in my mind. "She's my sister, and that means . . . ."

But that's not what my daughter wants to know. "Do you like her," she interrupts. "Like you like your friends."

I pause to think. "Yes, I do . . . most of the time. And even when I don't . . . well, she's still my sister."

My daughter glares at her sister from across the room.

*

We are still oil and water, Aunt Nini and I. I am earthbound--saddled with kids, bills, a demanding career--while never-married Nini flies free, dabbling with careers, hobbies, lifestyles. She embraces ideas that seem weird to me. I make accommodations to life that to her seem like surrender. Still, we can count on each other for honest advice, unbridled encouragement and moral support when the chips are down.

If she were not my sister, would she be my friend? Probably not. But the question is moot. Because we are sisters, bound together by familial ties strong enough to transcend the differences of our hearts and minds.

I count on those ties to sustain me through a future of uncertainty. It is only my sister, after all, who knows my lifetime of joys and pains as intimately as I know them myself and who understands not only who I am, but who I've been and how I got this way.

*

There's an intensity among sisters that can be overpowering, as children and as adults. One moment, they're best friends, allies against the rest of the world. The next, they're enemies, locked in combat, bent on vengeance.

I remember it from my own childhood, and it surfaces even now when I detect any whiff of disapproval from my sister for the choices I've made. And I see it in my daughters as they swing between extremes, laughing one moment at a private joke, torturing one another with cruel insults the next.

"You've got to stop this," I warn them, stepping into the center of their feud. "One day, your sisters will be all you've got. When you're grown up, I'll be dead, you know. And you'll have to take care of each other then . . . ." Harsh words, I know, but they fail to have the desired effect. As I open my mouth to finish the speech, I hear a hissing from the daughter behind me. "Then" she whispers at her sister, poking her in the side, "I'll really get you."

*

Talk to them, I tell my sister when she finally arrives. Help them see how wonderful having a sister can be, how important it is that they get along.

She smiles at my stories of their fights, my complaint that they cannot seem to keep the peace.

"You want me to tell them about when we were kids, right?" she asks. I nod.

"So, you want me to tell them we never fought, we never hated each other?" She fixes me with a stare I recognize from childhood, the look that always telegraphed her clumsy attempts at a joke.

"So," she says. "I guess you want me to lie."

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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