Sisters By Choice

March 31, 1991|By PAT SHAPIRO

WHEN THE PHONE RANG SUNDAY MORN-ing, I knew it was my sister, checking in for our weekly long-distance call. We chatted for 30 minutes, or rather she did most of the talking. When I hung up, I felt irritated: Why can't she listen to me more? Then I wondered, why do I need to connect with her each week? Now that our parents are no longer alive and can't bug me to keep in touch with her, maybe I won't call her. I could just sever the tie, finally break the sibling bond that our parents thrust upon us over 40 years ago.

I remember the day Anne was born. My best friend, Nan, and Idressed in dungarees and sneakers, were hoeing the sod in our grassless back yard, pretending to be farmers, when Nan's mother ran over excitedly and gave us the news. I tossed aside my spade, squealed and leaped with joy. Little could I, as a 4-year-old, anticipate the complexity of the sibling relationship.

Our childhood, in a small Midwestern town, has become a blur of photo snapshots: At 4, I am sitting on the print sofa in front of the fireplace, my legs dangling over the edge of the seat, all smiles, holding my 6-month-old baby sister. At 4 and 8, Anne and I pose in front of our small brick house, holding hands in our matching navy-and-white polka-dot dresses. And then two years later: Trying to look sophisticated, I put my arm around Anne's shoulders and strike a model's pose as we show off our new

spring coats and hats.

Behind the forced smiles in posed snapshots, we were twtypical sisters, vying for our parents' love. As the elder and the goody-goody, I set the example: straight A's, quiet, obedient, in control. Unable or unwilling to keep up with me, Anne became "the character." She threw tantrums, screamed at Mother and cursed.

Snow White and Rose Red, our Aunt Lillian called us. "Are yoPatti's sister?" Anne's teachers would ask incredulously. "You're different." We were different, yet we never really clashed, having carved out our own unique space within the family. Part of me admired her brashness, her willingness to risk. She said what I couldn't, did what I dared not.

Yet I remained her role model and her nemesis. I was thyardstick against which she measured herself and her achievements.

I also became her substitute mother. Not that Mother wasn'there. She was, but she had little tolerance for emotions, dilemmas or ambivalence. "That's life, Bub," she would quip. "Get it done now." "Don't discuss it; it's nobody's business." So Anne turned to me. I listened, I didn't judge, I accepted her and her mood swings, her anger and her fears.

In turn, I felt revered, grown up and important. But being a LittlMother took its toll. I became the rock, solid and steady but not free to express my feelings. Everything was always "fine" with me, for how could I reveal my true self to someone who placed me on such a pedestal?

During high school, I didn't want to be bothered with my littlsister. I hated her hanging around when my friends came over, resented her stupid questions and nosiness. When I'd complain to my mother, she'd remind me, "You can pick your friends. You can't choose your family."

But at night, Anne and I became united against the 'rents, as wcalled our parents. In flannel pj's with Clearasil on our noses, we'd lie in bed, propped up on our pillows and yak. We would gab and giggle, on and on. "Enough already," Mother would yell from the living room. But we ignored her and talked on until eventually we dropped off to sleep.

In spite of our late-night tete-a-tetes, I couldn't wait to leavhome. I went away to college within the state and then moved east for graduate school. Each time my parents called or wrote, they always asked, "Have you talked to Anne? When did you last see Anne? Give her a call."

I stayed east, married a businessman, had two kids and moveto the suburbs. Meanwhile Anne, a true child of the '60s, became a vegetarian, slept on a mattress on the floor of a commune and dated a cabdriver during her college days. Except for family get-togethers, we hardly communicated. Within a few years, though, she, too, married but she moved west, also settled into suburban life, launched her career and had three kids. Then suddenly we were both back in the Midwest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder at our father's grave one stark February day 12 years ago. "Stay close to Anne," my father had urged six months before he died when he took me out to lunch to prepare me, the older, responsible one, "in case anything should happen" to him.

In the years following his death, Anne and I did stay close: Wvacationed together without our husbands or kids, made sure we reunited our families once a year and talked often by phone. Our conversations often centered on Mother. We'd analyze her health, her appearance and her energy level as well as her psyche. As she aged, our mutual concern drew us together.

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