My sisters and I play a game when we are in a car together. We all have families of our own, so we are hardly ever in the same state let alone the same car. But, on that now rare occasion that we are, we have this game. It doesn’t have an official name, but I like to call it Bad Harmony. The last time we played was four years ago, on a particularly long car ride from Chicago O’Hare Airport to my apartment.
To get to my apartment in Hyde Park on the South Side, we had to drive from “barely Chicago” in the deep northwest corner where O’Hare is and pass through the heart of the city. At 2:00 a.m., that 25-mile drive is a breeze. From 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., it is a goddamn endurance trial. This drive home from the airport was at 4:00 p.m., on a Friday, in June.
We were going to be in the car for a while.
So, we pulled up Crosby, Stills & Nash’s Suite: Judy Blue Eyes on my iPhone, plugged it into the car, rolled down all of the windows, and pressed play.
And then, we sang.
But not just sang.
We sang out of key—loudly, wholeheartedly, completely, and purposefully out of key.
Rolling Stone will tell you Crosby, Stills & Nash are known for their intricate and “glittering harmonies.” In the car, we listened to those glittering harmonies—harmonies we had been singing along with since we were kids, riding in the backseat of our parents’ station wagon—and then we consciously ignored them.
Unless you are driving down a deserted road, the chance of onlookers is inevitable when you play a game like this. We were sitting in an ostensible parking lot. So we were surrounded. And even if someone hadn’t been able to hear us howling from the car, they saw us. Because weren’t just singing; we were performing.
When I’m alone in a car, I love to sing. But I also embarrass easily and lose my nerve when I catch the eye of another driver waiting for the light to turn. In that car with my sisters, singing horribly, my courage was impenetrable. We smiled and kept right on singing when people stared.
We also laughed. We tried not to—because it’s hard to sing when you’re laughing—but no one lasted long. We laughed so hard that tears ran down our cheeks, cheeks that were beginning to ache.
I have come to realize that when we play this game—singing the same lyrics to the same song in purposefully different keys—we are all trying to do the exact same thing completely differently. It took me longer to realize that we’ve been doing that our whole lives, beyond our little game.
When I was a kid, I thought it was just my sisters that were.
I saw myself as set apart from them. And they—my big sisters—were a paradox: sisters simultaneously exactly alike and completely different.
You see, I am the youngest. There is this really great book by Jeffrey Kluger called The Sibling Effect, and in it, he discusses how age order affects who you are and the person you become. In the book, Kluger calls people like me “last-borns,” which I prefer to the malaprop my father once tipsily called me at a family dinner. Thanks to dear old dad, I will forever be known as the “bottom of the totem pile” in my family.
But, despite—or maybe because of—that place in the pile, what we last-borns lack in strength and size, we seek to gain through wit and intuition. We are more likely to “live the life of an artist or a comedian, an adventurer or entrepreneur.” We jump out of airplanes and get tattoos, both of which I have done.
And, we have the luxury of going last in life.
My sisters were and are, unbeknownst to them, my prototypes. I have carved my life out of both of theirs. I have watched them and planned for myself. They blazed trails that I could then choose to follow, or not. Some paths of theirs I took because we are so inherently akin that it was natural to follow suit. Some paths I avoided just to be different, like many last-borns do.
I have been and will always be the last-born in our brood. But my sisters are different—well, different and the same. And this is where I like to think the paradox starts. They each straddle two roles in our family, making them neither and both at the same time.
My eldest sister, Nenny, with her raven hair, is also my half-sister technically speaking, though I would never think to introduce her that way. Her mother and our father were married for three years, a decade before I was born. When they divorced, her mother held primary custody and Nenny grew up in a funny old house in Bernal Heights, at the top of a big hill in San Francisco. She came over every other weekend and holiday, but she was an only child in her day-to-day life. And, with her age and distance, she felt more like a young aunt or cousin than a sibling to me when I was little.
My middle sister Kitty, as my son puts it, is my blonde clone. Her hair, once ginger, has mellowed to a shining flaxen. She is taller, thinner, and fairer than me, but our voices and features are like variations on a theme, that theme being our mother. She was technically the middle child, but with Nenny in San Francisco, Kitty was acting-eldest of our household: the “functional first-born.”
But that’s just the beginning.
Each of my sisters strongly takes after their mothers, in both appearance and demeanor. Nenny has her mother’s short stature and small frame. Kitty has her mother’s high cheekbones and light hair. Nenny inherited her mother’s almost contradictory blend of free-spiritedness and perfectionism. Kitty inherited her mother’s outspoken conviction and unending drive. Each inherited a certain amount of stubbornness from our father, but I confess I have inherited that as well.
Here’s where it gets weird.
Both wore big, goofy glasses when they were little. Both took French and Drama in high school. Both have been elementary school teachers. They even got master’s degrees in the same year, when they lived blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, NY, on two streets that sounded the same: Clinton and Clifton. Both got pregnant with daughters within six months of each other. Both of my little blonde nieces have old Celtic names: one English, one Irish.
Not weird enough? How about some cosmic weird.
Nenny is a Gemini and Kitty is a Sagittarius, which are Sister Signs. Sister Signs are astrological opposites: two sides of the same coin. That’s because Gemini and Sagittarius sit directly across from each other in the sky. And, my sisters’ birthdates are 1 day away from being exactly 6 months apart, making them almost complete opposites.
And then there is me.
Over the course of my life, I have felt generally detached from my siblings. They were my sisters, yes, but not really my friends. Nenny was eleven when I was born, and a decade is a big difference when you’re little. You can’t really talk to a five-year-old about that guy in your Chemistry class that you think is cute. Kitty had just turned three when I was born, but once I was up and walking around, we spent the majority of the time fighting. I doubt that it was very different from any other sibling relationship. I mean, I’ve heard those urban legends of siblings that just get along, but that seems fantastical to me. Most siblings fight.
And by that, I mean that most siblings verbally and physically beat the living crap out of each other. And we were no different. I did my fair share of provocation and general douchebaggery. And when she wanted to, Kitty knew just which words to use to hurt me the most. Most of the time, she was kidding. But there reached a point where I took her jokes as jabs. So we didn’t talk a lot.
With both of my sisters, distance and communication stopped us from having real friendships. For Nenny and I, there were just too many years and too many miles in between. For Kitty and I, the difference of three years felt like thirty, and there probably weren’t enough miles between us.
But we were still sisters, so there was still hope.
Things changed when I grew up. They grew up, too. But I grew up, which altered the standing paradigm.
For one, I didn’t feel like a baby anymore. I voted. I had a job. I could drink. I could drive a car. I knew not to do those two last things simultaneously or consecutively.
More than that, I experienced that great boon of aging and great source for growth: introspection. Aristotle hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” It’s the ideal cycle of maturation. You grow and think, and grow and think, and somehow you end up—if you’ve done it right—a well-rounded, grounded adult.
And I did. I became a grown-ass person.
And as a grown-ass person, I looked at the relationships I had with my sisters and decided they weren’t good enough. I wanted to be their friend. So there needed to be a shift. The paradigm would shift completely, I decided. I would force it.
The first step was asking myself why it was so hard for us. It occurred to me that it might be hard for everyone. So, I thought: try harder.
I learned to take everything Kitty said with a grain of salt. Once I realized that her jokes were jokes and not jabs, it was so much easier to talk to her. I called and chatted with her. I listened better. I paid more attention. I did things that friends do. We also definitely benefited from living a couple hundred miles away from each other. But, mostly we did friend things, from a distance, on the phone. And then, not-so-magically, when we were actually face-to-face, it was still great.
And for Nenny and I, ten years wasn’t that wide a distance to cross with me in my twenties and she in her thirties. But we had still grown up in different houses and different cities, and there were things that we had missed out on. So I fixed that, too. I moved to Portland after graduate school, and she and I lived in the same city for the first time in our whole lives. For a while, we even lived in the same house. And we were able to experience all of those sibling things you share when you also share a roof, like fighting.
But most of all, I let go of this notion I had of being “the baby.” Like many last-borns, I had spent so much of my time and energy trying to stand out that I hadn’t been paying enough attention to anyone else. And, when you are in a family of incredibly intelligent people, trying to stand out is also very exhausting. I spent as much time as I could trying to find out as much as I could, just to tell everyone how much I knew. I had been an emotionally exhausted know-it-all and bad listener. No wonder my sisters hadn’t been my friends when we were kids. I must have been so annoying.
But—thankfully—it didn’t have to be that way anymore! I let go of a battle that didn’t exist. I didn’t need to shine. I didn’t need to exhaust myself. I just needed to be me. I had been so wrong about me, and about them, too.
I was wrong about us.
I had segregated my sisters from myself. Always two camps—they were big and I was small, and always me alone. But I wasn’t all alone just because I came last. It was never me and them.
It was always us.
In a not uncommon moment of great sagacity, my mother told me recently, “If your sisters are two sides of the same coin, then you are the coin.” And she didn’t even know all that stuff about their astrological signs. I think she may have been right. They may be a paradox, but I am the bridge between them. I am the resolution.
Because I am the child that looks like the equal blending of her parents. Mother’s eyes, father’s eyebrows, mother’s nose, father’s mouth, mother’s voice, father’s laugh.
My hair is neither raven nor flaxen. It is brown. In the light, you might see a little auburn shine, and in the winter it darkens ever so slightly, but it is brown.
I am also an Aquarian, which situates me all but dead center between the signs of my sisters. It should come as no surprise, then, that Aquarians get along best with Geminis and Sagittarians.
So instead of last, I am the midpoint. And when I stand between my sisters, two women who look wholly unrelated relate.
So it was never them and me. It was always us. And just as I bind them, so they have bound me. They had a bearing on the colleges I chose and didn’t choose, the books I read and reread, the movies I watched.
My constitution is built on their originals and reflects them in return.
So, now on those rare moments we have together in cars, we sing one song together loudly. We are doing the exact same thing differently and it is harmoniously discordant. Together, we sing with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash about love: something that is complicated, and weird. I love you, but I don’t. I love you, but I don’t like you. I love you, but I hate you.
Love is a paradox.
You can be doing both and neither at the same time.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash put it best:
I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are.
You make it hard.