Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Song My Sister Tried to Teach Me

When I remember Barb’s birth, all I see is RED. Red hair, that is. It seemed that red hair was the Holy Grail for newborns in my family, and Barb had it! On the genetic craps table, she rolled a “7”. And I hated it.

What do you do when the one thing everyone is “ooh-ing” and “ahh-ing” over is something you have no control over and can never achieve? In my case, I made it the object of derision and scorn. I teased Barb mercilessly about something she had no control over, either. If I couldn’t be celebrated for my brown hair and brown eyes, then I would make her miserable about her red hair. Even a child can understand the concept of “misery loves company”.

Slowly, as one sibling after another arrived on the scene, my resentment grew. Barb was the redhead; Jim was the only boy; Linda was born with a heart defect that required special attention and care. These were all things I just couldn’t compete with!

And if I couldn’t compete, I would just have to choose a different path. In my case, that was the “I don’t need your attention—I’m fine on my own” path. It was a self-delusion, designed to soften the blow of not feeling special, but it was quite effective. I worked hard at being strong and self-sufficient. I became someone you could give important responsibilities to, and I would handle them. That coping mechanism became a defining personality characteristic.

Looking back at the arrival of my first sibling, I am convinced that nothing changes the dynamic of a mother and daughter quite as much as another daughter. With the arrival of my sister, the special bond my mother and I shared was changed. Our estrogen-infused duet became a trio, and another layer of harmony was blended into our song.

I’m not certain of the underlying cause, but I do know that Mom, Barb, and I became a relationship triangle.  As often happens when three people are closely bonded, there are always two people, at any given time, whose ties are dominating. This might be due to age or personality type; it might occur because of shared interests and experiences—both good and bad. Sometimes, it is brought about by emotional or physical distance with one party. The two-person bond can float around that triangle, changing with time.

When we were young, Barb and I shared a bedroom and we spent many hours together. We lived in the country, so outside friends weren’t readily available. I remember saying our prayers together at night and many whispered conversations after the lights were out. But mostly I remember how hard it was for her to understand how her “bookworm” sister could constantly have her nose in a book when Barb was right there to interact with! Like most siblings, we fought as much as we did anything. Much of the time, I was perfecting my performance of “I’m fine; I don’t need anyone”. Barb was easy to tease; I wasn’t always very nice to her. And life rolled on.

I’m sure Mom hoped that, over time, the perfect friendship would develop between Barb and me. After all, she and her sister were quite close. But, friendship isn’t born out of wanting it that way. It arises from chemistry of personality and shared experiences. C.S. Lewis describes it this way in “The Four Loves”: 

“Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: "What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . ."

That can’t be manufactured or forced. When Barb and I reminisce about childhood, it always seems we had very different experiences. Our memories of the same event are colored by the perspective we viewed it through. It don’t think I’ve ever experienced a “You, too?” moment when discussing childhood and adolescence with my sister.

One thing Barb and I did share was music. You see, my sister is my perfect vocal partner—which is not unusual in siblings. The same genes and verbal instruction that made our speaking voices sound similar, worked on our singing voices. Many of my childhood singing experiences were shared with my sister. This was one area of our life that we operated in effortlessly; it was really the only thing that was easy. Music was always there to remind me that we were bound to each other, even as I moved through adolescence, perfecting my role as the self-sufficient child. Step by step, I inched away to the edge of the relationship triangle I shared with my mother and my sister.

There was one “song” that Mom and Barb knew by heart—drawing close. Their personalities bonded easily over shared interests like cooking, sewing, and other creative endeavors.  And then there was the trauma of significant health issues that Barb experienced, beginning in her teens.  Over about 10 years, Mom and Barb would spend countless hours at doctor appointments and in hospitals. They sought out every bit of information they could learn about her illness. Mom would visit for weeks, when Barb was very ill and weak, to help care for her and for my nephew Nathan. Barb needed Mom so much during the time that I was practicing my new song—letting go.

Maybe I wasn’t simply letting go—I was pushing away from Barb and Mom—and I pushed hard. I was newly married and so very young and idealistic about my relationship with Dave. I couldn’t see how either of them could possibly be of any help to me. Barb wasn’t married and Mom was still working through the pain of a failed marriage. I continued to dig deeply into my role as the independent child, believing that Dave and I had it all together—that we were fine.

I pushed away so hard that, eventually, I was not part of that triangle any longer. Barb had needs and Mom wanted to be needed. Their relationship deepened and flourished the way any relationship would that is given proper time and attention.

When the three of us spent time together, I often felt like I was on the outside looking in. It was as if they spoke a different language that I couldn’t quite figure out. They had written a mother/daughter song that I couldn’t learn to sing, because it didn’t have a third part. When I became a mother, I began to see all that they had to offer me in terms of encouragement and support. I wanted to express my deep need to be validated in my new role and my continuing need to be mothered as well, but it always came out sounding like “Look how great I’m doing!  I don’t need any help!”

But I did need help. I was still measuring myself against every other mother I met at church or at work. I never felt good enough. So many times I wondered if what I was doing as a mother and as a wife was the right thing. During the times that Mom, Barb, and I were together, I compared myself to Barb endlessly. What made things different for them? How did she get Mom to understand her feelings and needs so easily?

And that’s when I made a mistake that I wouldn’t understand for about 20 years. Comparing myself to my sister led me to vacillate between two extremes—downplaying the beauty of the song Barb and Mom shared versus trying to mimic it in my own relationship with Mom. The first choice just widened the gap between them and me; the second one left me feeling like a constant failure.

That all became crystal clear to me about 6 weeks ago, when I began writing about the songs of my soul. It’s little wonder that I couldn’t figure out how to have an honest relationship with them. If I couldn’t be honest with myself, how could I be authentic with them?

And, so I started down this path of learning who I was.  It’s been a beautiful journey, and I’ve felt a lightness in my heart that I’ve never experienced before.

I was sharing this with my sister on Thursday afternoon, after our Thanksgiving dinner—explaining the new freedom I feel within my soul and the ways that Mom and I have been able to talk openly and describing how much I love this new experience. Barb looked at me and said something that brought me up short.

“Soon you will learn how easy Mom is to talk to.”

That. Right there. That is the song Barb has been trying to teach me since we were young girls. She has been trying to teach me the song she sings with Mom. And, I’ve been trying to learn it.

We were both wrong. You can’t sing someone else's song. It’s like a bad cover of a famous song; even a good cover will never be the same as the original. Everyone who hears it instantly compares it to the original and it never measures up. And my attempt to sing Barb’s song was very, very bad.

I was never meant to sing the daughter-song that Barb sings with Mom—and continuing to try just invites more comparison. In that “contest”, I will never measure up, and it will always feel wrong.

And so, I looked at Barb and said, “No, I won’t ever learn that. Because it’s not true—it’s not easy. It’s not easy for me to talk to her, and it’s not easy for her to talk to me. And, that’s OK. Just because it’s not easy, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

Once again, the three of us are working through the ways we love each other. And finally, I’m content singing my own song.


  1. Sandi, thank you for sharing your heart with us! Once again, you have written so I feel I was right next to you while it was happening. You write such poignant and beautiful posts!

  2. Working through some of this myself. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability and perspective.