Good Housekeeping (UK)
‘OUR SISTERLY BOND IS UNBREAKABLE’
Catherine Carr celebrates sibling relationships in her Relatively podcast and, here, she writes about building an unbreakable bond with her two sisters, 30 years after a family split
Catherine Carr repaired the relationship with her siblings after a painful family split
Christmas 1984: I got a tape recorder, a copy of the Band Aid single on a cassette and my own room. My dad chopped my older sister’s room in half to create mine and, to get me back, she’d trick me into tidying her things by singing A Spoonful Of Sugar from Mary Poppins. I would ‘magically’ make her mess disappear – and I loved it. Sure, Bex and I often bickered and there was a competitive undertow, but we were close, both in temperament and age, with just 22 months between us. We happily spent weekends making elaborate Sindy doll houses or playing out on the street.
Also in 1984, our little sister, CJ, was born. Having a big age gap – six years between me and the new arrival – meant my older sister and I were theoretically old enough to help with the baby, but I don’t remember doing anything. I do remember how the gap between ‘The Girls’ (as us older ones were called) and my little sister became a source of sibling disharmony, however, especially once she was walking. I have uncomfortable memories of dragging her out of my room when her toddler curiosity interfered with my games.
Our upbringing was pretty unconventional and blew apart any sense of ‘normal’ family dynamics. With Dad often travelling for work, our mum bore the brunt of it. Juggling nap times with the hectic schedules of two older children can’t have been much fun, even without the arguments. It should be said, though, that I have some very precious memories, too. The best are of when we
No one makes me laugh like my sisters do, or tells me to ‘get a grip’ like them
tried to make magic happen for my little sister: a fairy called Florence, who lived in a shoe box and left tiny notes for her in the morning… and some magic seeds that grew a ‘lollipop tree’ in the garden on the morning of her sixth birthday.
Shortly after the last lollipop was harvested, however, our family fell apart when my parents separated. My mum left to live with a new partner, taking just my little sister with her. We were 13, 11 and six. At the time, we lived in Holland because of my dad’s job and went to a British school, where divorce was rare and we felt very alone. Visiting Mum meant a different bus home from school and, for a while, there was nowhere to sleep over. All of a sudden, my little sister lost her dad and ‘The Girls’.
One school year later or thereabouts, my older sister, our dad and I moved back to the UK for his job and the reality of the divorce hit hard: new schools, a new house and a new country.
There are some funny memories – us two girls cycling to the petrol station to buy Cadbury’s chocolate or salt and vinegar crisps, neither of which you could buy in Holland then, and which we craved constantly – but it was otherwise a pretty intense and unhappy time. Even now, we struggle to make any sense of it. Although we depended on each other like crazy, we were nursing too much personal upset to really help the other.
For the next eight or so years, visiting Mum meant flights to Holland in the holidays, sometimes with my older sister, and sometimes, when the pull of teenage social life became too strong, alone. In Holland, we had new Dutch stepsisters, while in the UK, a stepmum, stepbrother and stepsister. But the process of blending our families was, at times, rocky and fraught. With seven children spread across four houses and two countries, there were suddenly so many different ways our families could form and re-form.
In memories plucked from any family stories, no one person can possibly have an objective take on what actually happened. In our case, it’s sometimes
a struggle to remember something as basic as which children came on which summer holiday. Years later, as adults, my sisters and I started to slowly tell each other about these years – from our own points of view. It’s a strange experience to hear one of your childhood memories re-told by a sister who (naturally) casts herself as the main character. It can make the pictures in your mind warp and the feelings so tightly woven around them unravel. I have felt dizzy with the realisation that these parallel histories exist. We find ourselves saying to each other, ‘I had no idea… I’m so sorry, I never knew.’
It wasn’t until I was 21 that my mum moved back to the UK. CJ was in the sixth form by then. I understood some of what she was going through and we bonded. But ours was still a fledgling relationship, not easy or familiar. Two years later, I married my university boyfriend. A few months after that, Bex also walked down the aisle. The start of her married life took her to New Zealand and that brief period of living on the same soil as both my sisters ended.
Happily, shortly after my first child was born, CJ moved near to me in Cambridge. For many years, I could see her whenever I wanted and this turbocharged our relationship. When my second baby arrived, she was the one to hold him. She was the one that my eldest took his first steps for and she was on hand for nursery pick-ups when I was stuck working in London. We spent Christmases together and the boys still miss their Aunty Disco (loud music in her falling-apart Honda).
Fast forward to 2020: everyone was living in the same time zone and Mum’s 70th loomed. Covid-19 put the kibosh on a party, but we were determined to make it as special as possible. Beautifully, this shared wish to celebrate our lovely mum was a catalyst in our sister-relationships. A Whatsapp group was set up (profile picture of the Queen to represent Mum) and many elaborate plans involving her daughters, stepdaughters and eight grandchildren made. But while I had lived close to and bonded with both sisters, until very recently they have never had the chance to do that with each other. When life was difficult for either of them, it was rare for them to talk directly. It was no one’s fault, but it was a sadness and (selfishly) it felt like a bit of a strain.
We all know that 2020 was unbelievably ropey in many ways. Yet one of the gifts that came out of it, for me, is this easy, fun, honest, supportive relationship that my sisters and I now all share. For years, geography conspired to make being a unit difficult. We all had a different experience of childhood. But it is also true, and much more important, that we have always loved each other. No one makes me laugh like my sisters do, no one ‘gets me’, encourages me or tells me to ‘get a grip’ like they do.
A NEW FOCUS
I have been struck by the fact that, although we inhabit different worlds – my little sister works in the prison service, the other is married to a vicar, and I work in radio – we are, nevertheless, so similar. We share a ridiculous sense of humour, a weakness for oversharing and a very sweet tooth. But deeper than that, something in our genes is strong and it has made our sisterly bond unbreakable.
I am sure many people have seen their sibling relationships change over the years. These bonds evolve and adapt. In ‘normal times’, they change when you move, marry or make your sister an aunt, or when you find yourselves negotiating caring responsibilities or grieving. But in this extraordinary pandemic, a new, sharper focus has been placed on family. Some people have had to move back home or protect vulnerable parents. It’s certainly made me think a lot about our experiences of growing up and the process of getting to know my sisters as adults. I feel closer to them now than ever before – and when my turn for a lockdown birthday rolled around this January, it was them I chose to pop the Prosecco with over Zoom.
Last autumn, inspired by my sisters, I launched a podcast called Relatively. Your sibling relationships exist before other friendships or romances, and usually outlive any relationships with your parents. And they are so formative.
On the radio one day, I heard someone say, ‘You can’t ever really leave your childhood, and your childhood won’t ever really leave you.’ With my own two kids, two sisters (plus three stepsisters and a stepbrother) and days spent interviewing siblings, I can’t help but agree.
relativelypodcast.com; also available on itunes, Spotify and all other platforms
It’s strange to hear a childhood memory re-told by a sister