It was dark and humid, and I was 18, driving my battered Honda Civic through the orange glow of Atlanta streetlamps while my older sister explained from the passenger seat how glorious it felt to be in love and about to be married. I hadn't planned to come out to her. Not then. But her face was all lit up as she talked. Her smile was wide and irrepressible, just like mine had been lately, and I swelled with hope. I was in love, too. Maybe we could forget our differences for a moment to frolic together in the hazy, crazy fog of love. I said, "But what if you felt all those things, everything you've just described, but you felt it for someone of the same sex?" My sister's smile fell. She turned to me, and in the ghostly halogen light of a grocery store parking lot, she said, "Is that how you feel?" I nodded. She replied, gravely, "The world has fallen, and Satan has turned you."
I don't remember much after that except that we returned to my apartment, and I retreated to the screened porch while she used my computer inside, probably to tell her fiancé that her maid of honor had just revealed herself to be a godforsaken lesbian. To her credit, she didn't revoke my wedding duties, not even after I (still in that crazy fog of love) let my girlfriend shave my head a few weeks before I was due to proceed her down the aisle.
It's been 14 years since that summer. We've lived mostly in different states, which made avoiding each other easy. Occasionally, on family trips or during holiday visits, something would be said, and one of us would blow. Ugly, angry tears would follow. Someone would storm out. When I was 25, I fell in love again. This was it. My own wedding was finally on the horizon. It was time to deal with the situation between my sister and me once and for all. I wrote what I thought was a dispassionate letter. In it, I told her she was judgmental and had a narrow worldview. I offered studies and statistics to refute all the things she thought she knew about gay people. I explained that she could either support me and stay in my life or get out. Rereading it now, I see that's it's a bit of a manifesto. It couldn't be more passionate. It's a written caterwaul.
When she read the letter, she called me and left three tearful, distraught messages on my voicemail. I felt heartsick listening to them. But I also believed I was right and had done what I had to do. In a follow-up conversation, I asked her if she'd rather that I be unhappy in a relationship with a man or happy with my partner. She chose the former. Two years later, I chose the latter and married my partner before family and friends. My sister did not attend. She sent flowers, though.
Nothing really changed as a result of that letter. Instead, my sister and I gradually resumed our awkward, eggshell-walking interactions at family functions. My partner and I started our own little family. During my pregnancy, my sister shared with me over the phone that she had struggled with how she would explain our baby to her four children without "degrading" us. I was so angry and hurt by her word choice that I barely responded. She decided that she would tell them that I was a single mother and that my partner was just a friend who would help me raise the child. From the tone of her voice, I could tell that she thought this was a perfect solution. She wouldn't have to tell her children we were abominations. Wasn't that great? But, inadvertently, she had degraded us by pretending our relationship, our love, our life, and the family that we were building together weren't just wrong; they didn't even exist.
When I gave birth, my mother, aunt, brother, and sister drove to Atlanta to meet the baby. We all went to brunch for his first outing. Halfway through our meal, my son bobbed at my shoulder, mouth wide open like a baby bird. I panicked and asked aloud if I should retreat to the car to nurse him. My sister encouraged me to nurse him right there at the table. In the tenderest moment we have ever shared, she helped adjust a blanket over my chest while my son mewled underneath, and I, awash in the strange out-of-body experience of my first time breastfeeding in public, avoided eye contact and fumbled with bra clips. That my conservative, fundamentalist-Christian sister was the one shepherding me through (what shouldn't be but is) a socially controversial act added a level of emotional vertigo that still brings tears to my eyes.
I wish I could say that that moment begot more tender moments between us, but parallel motherhood didn't bring me and my sister together the way that I'm sure our mother prayed it would. Last summer, my partner got a job 90 miles from the North Carolina town where the rest of my family resides. We moved just a few months after I gave birth to another son. Being within a two-hour drive of my mother and aunt, with whom I'm very close, has vastly improved our lives as parents of young children. Just having extra pairs of reliably loving hands nearby (relative to how far away we were before) has eased my mind on my toughest days as a stay-at-home mom. We regularly strap the kids in the car for last-minute trips to Granna's house. But our increased and unpredictable presence has been challenging, albeit quietly so, for my sister. She and her family tend to avoid gatherings where the four of us will be in attendance, or they arrive and leave quickly. Their absence has been both a relief and an ache.
As my children get older, I feel the pressure mounting to find some kind of final resolution, some way to protect them from this madness. My oldest son frequently asks when he'll see his cousins, whom he adores. I need answers for him. I need a plan for birthday parties and future holidays. I need to set some boundaries. And then, all at once, I got it. Perhaps it was a precise accumulation of nights passed soothing feverish babies, plus a handful of accidental toddler head butts to the nose, and another unsuccessful dodge of the changing-table pee fountain for good measure, and voilà! Somewhere in my head a heretofore locked door swung open, and understanding flooded in.
I need to let go.
Nearly all my life I felt inferior to my sister. Growing up, she was the pretty, skinny, blonde, straight-A, easily athletic dream daughter. I was the freckled, thick-bodied, brown-haired, weird, not-athletic parent's vexation. For a couple of glorious years in my mid-teens, my sister and I were not so opposite. I was thinner and felt more attractive (thank you, CoverGirl Guide to Makeup with Christie Brinkley VHS). I found power in my other differences and stopped seeing my sister as perfection incarnate. She was in college by then, and I was in the middle of high school. We wrote cheerful letters back and forth and sent care packages. When I was 16, we road-tripped together to see one of her favorite bands, the Indigo Girls, at an amphitheater in Virginia. I remember being entranced as I watched Amy Ray aglow under the stage lights, stomping and bawling into the microphone. Her aggressive guitar strums thrummed through my chest. She was so brazen, so tough, and so different from any woman I'd ever seen. I couldn't stop thinking, "She is so... so amazing... so cool!" What I meant, of course, was that she was so hot. My sister and I danced and screamed and laughed together. Afterward, we blasted 1200 Curfews on the car stereo, high on the concert experience and our shared affinity, as we sailed out the the parking lot and onto the highway home.
Two years later, we sat in that same car, not laughing. My sister was clearly no longer an Indigo Girls fan. (She never explained why or how she so quickly went from the kind of Christian who enjoys lesbian singer/songwriter music to the fundamental variety who condemn it, but I suspect it was her husband-to-be's influence.) With my sister's response that night, our original dynamic returned. I didn't agree with what she said, but over the next few years, it seemed the evidence was on her side. She got married and had kids while I drank and wrote tortured poetry through three hellishly unhealthy relationships. When I saw the "God Hates Fags" protesters at Atlanta Pride each year, I imagined my sister and her family among them, glowering at me. But like my teenage transformation, once I found my partner and had my first child (and dealt with my unhealthy coping mechanisms), I began to feel the power balance returning. My sister the Christian no longer had the lock on marriage and family. I was doing both differently, queerly, and loving it. I could finally see that we are once again sharing an affinity. My sister and I dearly love our respective little families, and we are both fierce mama bears determined to protect our children and bring them up safely and conscientiously yet completely differently in this chaotic time.
My little family's existence and the way the rest of our family treats it as a non-issue threaten a huge, foundational part of what my sister is trying to instill in her children, which is just like how her beliefs and palpable avoidance of us threaten a huge, foundational part of the kind of childhood I'm trying to build for my children. We're both worrying about our kids being tainted or harmed simply by their exposure to the other's values. Yet my sister and I were once kids who grew up in the same mildly religious household in the same manure-scented country town where we smashed the same berries on our faces for play makeup and endured the same wacky, revolving cast of visiting uncles and cousins and grandparents, and yes, once upon a time we even danced at the same Indigo Girls concert, but we veered off on wildly different tracks and came to be the people we are today through complex constellations of experience, personality, influence by others, and chance. That's a little terrifying to contemplate. But it's also liberating, and it's helping me release my white-knuckle grip on this whole situation.
My sister has expressed remorse for the way she reacted the night I came out to her so many moons ago. Given the chance for a do-over, I think she'd form a more compassionate response now. She still believes that any romantic relationship outside man/woman Christian marriage has dire spiritual consequences, but she also believes that even my children, byproducts of an allegedly unholy union, are part of her God's plan. I don't get how that works, nor do I understand why my sister feels so strongly about homosexuality in particular. I also don't know how I'll explain all this to my kids one day, should they ever ask. Luckily for all of us, I have many more moons to think over it before my boys start mulling such deep questions. I really want to be able to answer them honestly, without degrading her.