I was in the NPR studios in Washington, DC, winding down a half-hour interview for a segment that would run on Morning Edition. Since the topic was my new book, You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, the interviewer, Susan Stamberg, called my two sisters, to include them in our talk. "Hi, Nae!" I greeted Naomi when I heard her voice, and, when I heard Mimi's, "Hi, Mim!"
Stamberg began our conversation by asking, with a mischievous twinkle that I could see in her eye and my sisters could hear in her voice, "So ladies, which of you was your mother's favorite?" While I hesitated and Naomi responded thoughtfully, "Oh, that's a good first question," Mimi quipped, "Obviously me. No question." That was Mimi through and through: quick-witted and funny.
But though Mimi got the first words, those were the only words she got. Naomi followed up, suggesting it was me. I yelped in disbelief, "ME?! Are you kidding? Sometimes I think it's Mimi and sometimes Naomi but never ever me!" Naomi allowed, "It's true you gave her a hard time when you were growing up, but later when she had piles of your books all over the house..." I responded, "That was revenge because there were so many more pictures of you as a child..."
Naomi and I exchanged several turns in this vein until Stamberg cut us off. The 35-minute tape would be edited down to seven minutes, and she already had way more material than she'd be able to use.
Naomi was dismayed: "Mimi, you didn't get a chance to talk!" "No, I didn't," Mimi said. "You're always talking over me, Naomi"-still terse and quick, but this time with less humor.
As soon as I stepped outside the studio, I called Mimi-and interrupted a phone conversation she'd been having with Naomi ever since the interview ended. I joined in, and the three of us went over what had just happened.
Naomi felt guilty that she'd hogged the floor; Mimi felt slighted- "It's typical of me," she said, "hanging back so sometimes I get left out"; and I felt terrible that I'd caused my sisters discomfort.
With her single question, "Which of you was the favorite?" Stamberg had sparked an instant replay of the sister relationships that had taken us a lifetime to form-and themes that ran through the interviews I'd conducted with over one hundred women about their sisters: the oldest expected to take the lead, then resented when she does; a sister-often but not always the middle one-feeling overshadowed or left out; ideas about who got more attention, opportunities, or any of the goodies-or abuses-that families dole out.
Naomi, six years older than Mimi and eight years older than I, had been assigned a mother-like role in relation to us. "I can't handle them," she recalls our mother telling her in exasperation. "You take them!" And she often did. Naomi had been what she now calls a parentified child, so it was natural that she'd take the lead. Because our mother always depended on Naomi, it seemed obvious at times that she was Mom's favorite.
But Mimi was aligned with Mom, too. In the way that families pigeon-hole children with labels, Mimi had been called, in Yiddish, "the little balabustele"- Mother's Little Helper. That was a kind of alignment-and favoritism-too. Though Mimi, the middle sister, had been overshadowed in a way, she also stood out. She was the quickest-both verbally and physically-and the family comedienne. By making everyone laugh, she made everyone love her.
And who knows, maybe all those books I'd written were, after all, a way to change my mother's unending disapproval of me -for being a difficult child, a rebellious adolescent, and an unmarried adult for far too long. And Naomi was right: unending disapproval is itself a kind of favoritism, because it absorbs so much of a parent's attention.
Before the day ended, we had all recovered, with each other's help. Mimi and I assured Naomi that she'd had no way of knowing that the exchange would end before Mimi got to speak; they assured me that it hadn't been my fault, either; and Naomi and I pointed out that Mimi had been the first to speak--and the cleverest--so surely her words would be heard (and they were.)
My sisters and I had re-enacted our sisterness not only during the interview but also in the followup conversations that had kept the phone lines buzzing: Naomi and Mimi's right after the interview; the three of us after that; in the evening, the separate calls that I placed to them both; and the e-mails we exchanged during the day. And all those conversations reminded me why I had dedicated the book to Mimi and Naomi, "my sisters in every sense of the word."
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