Cecile stood up, straightened her back, and stretched her arms out wide, dramatizing how her older sister had always protected her. Then she said: "Sometimes when we talk on the phone, we run out of things to say, but we don't hang up. We put the phones down but keep the line open; just knowing the other is there is a comfort, like hugging a cat."
I knew immediately that I'd use these two images in You Were Always Mom's Favorite!, the book I was writing about sisters: the open phone line represented the ineffable connection between sisters, and the older sister's protectiveness was a reminder of the crucial role that birth order plays throughout sisters' lives.
But several months later, when I asked Cecile about her sister, she replied, "I don't know. I'm not speaking to her."
I was stunned -- and wondered how I could honestly use Cecile's example. Then I realized: a cat doesn't always want to be hugged. The emotions stirred by sisters are so visceral, they can swoop low as readily as they can soar. I would keep Cecile in my book, to capture that truth.
Among the over one hundred women I interviewed, for every paean to an older sister who was protective and devoted, I heard one described as "bossy" or "judgmental." And for every younger sister praised as a delightful "blithe spirit," one was resented for failing to do her share of work. This combination of praise and complaint are two sides of the same coin-privileges and liabilities built into birth-order positions (though they aren't the same in all families, and much of what I found is true of brothers as well).
No wonder adult youngest sisters sometimes sit back and let older ones do the work. They may hesitate for fear they'll be told they're doing things wrong -- as they often were in childhood and may continue to be when they're with older sisters. And no wonder oldest sisters as adults can come across as judgmental and bossy-growing up, they usually did know better, and many were expected to tell younger ones what to do.
Being oldest comes with privileges like staying up later, sitting in the front seat next to Mom, and starring in far more baby pictures. In her novel Harriet and Isabella, Patricia O'Brien quotes Harriet Beecher Stowe: "The first child is pure poetry. The rest are prose." Many children who are not first-born sense this. Some spend the rest of their lives trying to achieve poetry. And sometimes they succeed so spectacularly that their first-born sisters spend the rest of their lives wondering how they got reduced to prose.
There's nothing wrong with prose -- unless it's compared to the majesty of poetry. Comparison is a liability for all sisters. We all at times wish for things we don't have -- possessions, achievements, or opportunities. But we miss them more if a sibling got them. Seeing what your sister has is enough to make you want that very thing. No matter how much parents try to treat children equally, kids spot differences. "She got blue and I got pink," a woman recalls, "so I wanted blue." It had nothing to do with the inherent value of blue or pink; it was about green -- as in, The grass is always greener in your sister's yard.
There is one gift, though, that all sisters possess in equal measure- having a sister. Though spouses may divorce and lovers may split, sisters are sisters forever. She's someone with whom you can laugh and be silly like when you were kids; who still sees in you the child you were; who shares your past and your memories of it. And anything a sister says carries meaning from all the conversations you've had before. That's why a word from a sister can start you laughing-or send you into a tailspin.
I cited that insight when I wrote about Cecile. But the example didn't end that way. Before the book went to press, Cecile called to say that after more than a year, she was speaking to her sister again, and they were again hanging out together with the phone line open. The year they didn't speak had not severed the connection between them. Quite the opposite, it was because of the depth of her feelings for her sister that she could have been so hurt that she cut off communication. Yet she must have known, even when the phone line between them was temporarily disconnected, that her sister was still there. No less than the solace of keeping each other company across an open phone line, that year of silence was an eloquent testament to the sisters' enduring connection.
Deborah Tannen is professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, and author of many books, including the just-published You Were Always Mom's Favorite!, from which this essay is adapted.