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

ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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