ON: THE AGONY AND ELATION OF HAVING SISTERS
ABIGAIL BERGSTROM’S sisters are her strongest allies and most brutal critics, and know her better than she knows herself. But sometimes, she says, she has to step away from the sorority
There’s no relationship quite like it. One writer explores the twisted nuances of sisterhood
It was dark, and as she grasped my hand tightly through the car window, the fear in her eyes burned into me.
‘It’s going to be OK,’ I said. She nodded slowly, her eyes stretched wide from the adrenaline. I thought she might cry, so I broke eye contact and smiled at my brother-in-law, who was sat in the driving seat.
‘Right, let’s go, then!’ My mum breezed past me, getting in to the back seat. I breathed in her scent in an attempt to take in the calmness of her maternal energy.
I looked back at my sister, who was still staring at me – asking me a question, pleading with me for an answer I didn’t have.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you,’ she whispered back. I peeled my sweaty hand out of hers and the Land Rover sped off, racing into the uncertainty and darkness of what was once our safe and quaint village street.
It’s now six years later, and I take immense pleasure in watching my healthy niece, who was born that night, play with her little sister, forming a secret bond that belongs to them and them only. But I remember that moment as if it were yesterday, because for what had felt like the first time in my life, my eldest sister Amy – a woman who had imprinted her strength on me and hand-carved my understanding of the world – was more afraid of something than I was. She was the vulnerable one, and I was the person she was looking to for help. As the youngest of three (there are three years between each of us), my instinct had been to turn to our middle sister, Nicola. I wouldn’t have needed to utter the words: ‘What do we do?’ She would have known. She would have taken over, and all responsibility for reassurance and combating fear would have been hers. But Nicola had been away and there was no one but me.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night; I was transfixed by the new reality I’d woken up to. Like the day you realise your parents aren’t superheroes or magic, they’re just regular people doing their best and you’re a selfish twat. It suddenly hit me, and it felt like the time Amy winded me for eating all the sweets from her Goofy Pez dispenser. Not only was she not invincible, but the world would inevitably throw at us some terrible and inconceivably painful situations – and Nicola wasn’t always going to be there to stand in and fix them for us.
A sister is a mirror. She will reflect your abilities and inadequacies in equal measure, and she will make you face the most unlikeable parts of yourself. She can destroy you with a single sentence and unearth your very deepest insecurities with nothing more than a word. She knows you – perhaps better than you know you. And while this ensures an inimitable connection, it can also inflict great pain.
Your sister will brutally date your school crush and teenage obsession, and then have a fist fight with the girls who are mercilessly bullying you. Your sister will spitefully mock your ugliest feature in front of your friends, but she’ll make you laugh for the first time in weeks when your dad is seriously ill in hospital. Your sister will teach you your worth and talk you through asking for that pay rise, but she’ll pull the rug from under your ego when you get carried away. You will know your sister so intently, you’ll communicate through raised eyebrows and side glances. You will loathe your sister so vehemently that you’ll wish you’d had a brother.
As a child, I repeatedly asked Amy and Nicola to tell me the story of the day I was born. They’d returned from a sleepover one morning to find a baby they assumed belonged to the neighbours, only to be told she was theirs and they could keep her. On meeting me, they immediately went upstairs to collect all their soft toys and worldly belongings. When my mother looked down to see how I was getting on, she found a chubby face floating in a sea of teddy bears and pastel-coloured, stuffed limbs. They were there from the moment they’d met me, offering up all they had, sacrificing everything they loved, telling me all that was theirs was mine now, too.
I often think of me and my siblings as being like The Graeae, the three sisters in Greek mythology who collectively share one eye and one tooth, which they pass to a sister when needed. We shared a womb, a complex childhood and were reared with the same hilarity and insanity by our parents. From that emerged a uniquely shared perspective; like The Graeae, we have a shared lens that only we have the ability to look through. Like their tooth, we have a shared grit to our characters that feeds our collective discernment.
Although this may sound poetic, there is a danger in it. I recently read Nadja Spiegelman’s three-generational memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This. It grapples with the way the older women in our lives – be they sisters, mothers or grandmothers – offer up their memories and understanding of reality, and we then absorb them unquestionably as our own. It’s difficult to differentiate your own characteristics and beliefs if you’re chewing through the fat with a shared tooth. And it is, of course, impossible to decipher your own perspective when you’re looking at the world through someone else’s eye.
A large part of my identity is built from the memory bank and reality that my sisters constructed for me, but it is important to break free from the webs of certainty the women in your life have spun – sometimes for your protection – in order to create your own sense of self. That night, when Amy went into labour, I realised my sisters’ strength and perspective were not impenetrable or infallible, and that forced me to muster up my own. To know my sisters have got me is my quotidian safety blanket, but to pull away from the women whose strength you most admire is essential in determining your own. Most importantly, it gives you the ability to know – without any fear or hesitation – that I’ve got you, too.