adult sibilings

My younger sister Lea flew up from Florida to stay with us for a few days. Before that, my dear friend Shannan and her family flew from Austin, Texas for a quick visit. We’ve been busy, busting through Manhattan, breezing through stores, spending $42 for 1 HOUR parking near Barney’s New York (kills me). Devouring too much food at some of our favorite restaurants (From the Chilean Sea Bass at Tao to the Rib Eye for 2 x 2, complete with bone marrow from Hendrick’s Tavern). Lucas took one look at the marrow and declared it, “Dino Butter.” Best marketing campaign ever. Lea later commented on Facebook, “FYI, I was the one to name it.”

Hendrick's Tavern, Roslyn, NY

And there it is, that poke stab withdraw hug joke, not a joke, thing that happens with my sister, though I suspect it happens with most siblings. We revert and regress, sure, but it’s more than that. More than ego, I think a subtext of competition exists between grown siblings, even when it’s clear to all that their lives are so different and can’t possibly warrant comparison. Claiming things, calling out for what’s ours. When she’s around, I worry that my food will be eaten and my favorite products used too liberally. I want to hoard. Because that’s what we did when we were younger, we ate the best parts and mocked the other for not being as quick or as savvy. We also subject our siblings to moments we’d never ask a friend to endure.

List in hand, I dragged Lea to Barney’s to smell perfumes I could smell only there, because the brands aren’t carried elsewhere. Upon request, Lea had brought me her old bottle of Eau d’Hadrien by Annick Goutal (a lemony grapefruit scent that stays close to the skin with the longevity of a rainbow, way too fleeting). As a massage therapist and licensed acupuncturist, she doesn’t often wear perfume. That particular fragrance she hasn’t worn since college, so she was happy to put it into my obsessed hands. I’d sprayed the Eau d’Hadrien first thing in the morning, but by the time we were inside Barney’s, neither of us could smell even the slightest trace of it (in fact, we could smell metal from one of my jeweled chunky bracelets).

I fell in love with another scent from Les Parfums de Rosine. I already own Roseberry, and I hadn’t planned on snagging another of their rose scents, but I couldn’t help myself. Nor could Lea, chanting, “Get it. You have to get it. Then, give me some.”

She meant it. Later in the week, when I was returning the shoes I’d bought for Phil—the ones he liked, except for the way the horse-bit jingled when he walked—she asked me to stop at Sephora for an empty perfume atomizer. Once I remembered to buy it, and went on to fill it with my perfume, she cried, “You really do love me.” And she actually cried.

“Of course, I love you. Now pull your shit together, woman.”

Lea’s days in New York are limited; she has an agenda. She wanted to shop for clothes and shoes, and she wanted me to help her, there to veto and to convince, to be the one to tell her it might look wretched on the hanger but to go on and try it anyway. And to me, that is WORK. Fun work, if I’m in the right mood and there is a very clear end in sight, but overall, it’s not pleasant, especially when you’re not in the next stall trying on your own pile of possibilities.

She decides she wants to hit up Macy’s and Forever 21. A few other places maybe. I say that I only have two things to do. 1) Go to Barney’s to smell perfumes and 2) Have a 5:30 Meeting at the Ace Hotel – we can have dinner afterward. We decide we’ll knock out Barney’s, and besides, she can get “high fashion” ideas and inspiration there, then put together “look for less” versions later. What we hadn’t accounted for was parking, just how much I’d end up spending for an hour, and then the EMPTY light on my gas tank, in the middle of Manhattan.

Eek. This is my fault 100%. I’m so go-with-the-flow, it will all turn out okay, no reason to stress over a good plan. This ends up costing more and inconveniencing people. I could work on beefing up this plan-ahead skill. An hour or so later, we have a full tank and have found a cheaper parking lot (thanks to the Parking App I have her download as we drive and charge our phones), with two hours before my meeting. We spend that time shopping for her, standing on fitting room lines (six at a time nonsense, Forever 21 is called such because the whole process takes forever), and we’re exhausted. She buys nothing. It’s not that she’s being awful or indecisive; nothing works. It’s time for my meeting. She hikes across the street to Macy’s, and we agree to meet up later.

Here’s where I go a little evil. I have a lovely meeting with a young writer who’s eager to write a book proposal. I tell her everything I know, walk her through it, believing in helping where I can. I text Dulce, always keen to see her, and she meets me for a drink. I check in with Lea, who’s doing terribly; nothing is working. I tell her to scrap it all and come to the hotel lobby. She arrives in a sweat, starving. There’s no proper dinner menu. I bring up the idea of the neighboring restaurant, John Dory’s Oyster Bar, and Dulce actually claps. She was going to bring up the same idea. “But is there real food there, or is it just an oyster bar?” Lea asks.

Lucas and Lea

Dulce and I exchange glances, then both nod. Of course. All restaurants have real food, I mean, how could an oyster bar on the corner of Broadway not have a full menu, at least offering up some bar food, like a burger or something?

“I’m so fcuked,” I mouth to Dulce as I hide behind the menu once we’re seated at our table. I am laughing in that nervous way, where I’m uncomfortable and know I’ve done something wrong. We were lucky to get the table at this hour (people had decided to keep their seats at the bar, so we got their table when it came free), and where else could we pick up and eat right away? Lea hates seafood. Though at that moment, she hated me more. She wants me to herself, for her to be enough, she wants to know why I’ve called my friend, why SHE isn’t enough company for me, and why in fishy fooks sake I’d ever vex her with an oyster bar. She hasn’t said as much, but I know her as if she’s my own sister. Ahem.

Lea wouldn’t make a fuss in front of Dulce, but I know she wants to fillet me. Her options: Anchovy with a soft boiled egg, smoked trout or smelts, stuffed squid. Lea agrees to a lobster roll, which will mostly taste of mayo and butter, served with fries.

“I owe you,” I say once our order is in. “I totally know. I’m sorry! I really thought they’d have more options.”

“I’m going to kill you,” she says. Dulce can’t put the drink order in fast enough.

On our ride home, we stop at Gray’s Papaya, where we take 6 hotdogs to go. We each eat two and save two for Phil, or for breakfast.

Gray's Papaya Hotdogs

I will go down in history as the selfish sister, who dragged her sister to Barney’s to smell perfume (“How can anyone feel DRAGGED to Barney’s?” Dulce asked Lea. “Because you can go with Stephanie!”) when all she wanted was help with clothes, and who dragged her to an oyster bar, despite the fact that she hates seafood… all because my friend and I love oysters, and it was most convenient (and she said she was STARVED, it seemed fastest!), and I was too lazy to plan something else. I have no intention of re-writing that history, only improving upon it. Gestures go a long way with siblings. I’d hoped the gesture of Gray’s Papaya might make slight amends, maybe it did.

Lea wears the story lightly and can smile at the telling of it. When we went for a family steak dinner the other night, and the group was deciding on the sides for the table, people looked to me, and I responded, “I want whatever Lea wants.” Then to her, “I owe you!”

“Yeah, ya do.” She said. And then love tears streamed her face again. Siblings take gestures, tolerance, the admission of wrongs, the dropping of egos, and a wee barrel of wine.

The thing too with siblings is we so often play our beloved parts, the roles we took up that served us when we were younger. What I hadn’t mentioned, not once in this story or in the living of it, is how Lea completely backed out of my Passover dinner. I’d originally planned to host for the first night, but I realized Lea’s flight would be arriving that night, and I wanted her to feel included, so I called my cousin and asked if she could instead do Tuesday night. As Tuesday night approached, I heard from my father’s wife that Lea might be having Passover with them, with her side of the family, because when else would she see them? I told Lea I’d just wished she were the one to tell me that she wasn’t coming to my house for Passover. I felt disappointed and bitched to Phil, pissy that she chose not to come, but I tried not to take it personally. I understood that she wouldn’t have another chance to see my father’s wife’s family. I dropped it. It only strikes me now, in the telling of how Lea was unable to drop my “Oy”ster moment, that I never would have thought to keep bringing it up, trying to guilt her… I think because it’s never been my role.

That’s been our dynamic since we graduated from our childhoods. She’ll complain about what a mean, bossy older sister I was, and I’ll apologize. She’ll expect me to nurture her and take care of her and pet her head, and if I don’t, she’ll tell me I don’t love her as much as she loves me. I try making it up to her, and it’s often never enough, because she likes to play that role of the wounded and wronged. She’s the young mollusk, and I’m the rough irregular shell. I wonder if we intentionally tried to play each other’s role, if we’d produce bigger pearls of hope for the sisterhood.

Meanwhile, once she left for the airport, the house felt empty, and I cried, wishing she could’ve stayed on for another week. And she texted to say that she missed me.

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  1. My fiance is always surprised at how hard my twin brother and I can fight at the holiday table and then move on from it like nothing happened. The first Christmas we spent together we had a big argument about the Pope (because, obviously) and the rest of the night, my man was constantly “Are you guys going to make up?” “Make up about what?” “That ARGUMENT!!” “Oh….that?” It’s just how we are, and none worse for the wear. Now that he’s moved to NYC 30 blocks north of me, we see each other more often than just on major holidays, and the “fighting” has dwindled almost entirely – it would be too exhausting now that we see each other once a week. The great thing about siblings is, really, how much you can get away with within the bonds of siblinghood. Plenty of room to flex and fight and, at the end of the day, you’re still family.

  2. This post reminds me of some of your writing from a few years ago – very honest.

    I also think that the situation described pretty much everybody can relate to in one way or another. We’ve all been in the situation where a day just goes wrong and it starts to feel like you can’t do anything to get it back on track.

    As for siblings, I agree completely with what you said. It is hard to break out of those roles.

  3. I can definitely relate to this. Sibling relations don’t necessarily get easier as we get older. I’ve found things to be much harder with my adult sibling now that he’s moved to my city, harder than it ever was as kids. As adults we have so much baggage, so many stored hurts and fears about being judged. We have a record with each other, whereas as kids we were more just reacting to things in the moment. Now every interaction comes with a hundred footnotes of interactions in the past.

    Good writing!

  4. I realize all siblings argue, fight, etc and I should know as I have three myself… However, I came away with a negative impression of you after reading this post. You strike me as a somewhat mean girl/ bully type.

    1. Author

      This is going to sound like a really strange reply to your comment, but my immediate instinct response to this is, “I wish!” I am always the pushover, the one to go-along-to-get-along, avoid conflict if at all possible. Perhaps it’s the bossy older sister role I’m so used to playing in my isolated sibling dynamic that’s coming through. What an interesting comment, though. Is there something specific that gave you that vibe?

    2. None of us know her per se, but if you’ve read her blog long enough I think it comes across ‘mean girl’ and ‘bully’ is definitely the *last* thing to describe SK. I would say concerned for how people see her (wanting to make a good impression, not alienate people with bullish behavior) is an impression I get from her writing. If this is one of your first posts read, then yeah, maybe she seems like the bratty/bully sister making her little sis do things she did not want to do:)

      I remember reading some post when SK moved to Boca. And from what I have heard about life there well, that really is the place to let your inner bitch run free. Some women at a crowded coffeeshop were refusing to move when SK needed to sit or something. Instead of letting it rip on the women New Yorker style (STILL wish you did, lol) she just took the less confrontational road. It’s interesting to see how different our perceptions are of people if we ‘read’ about what they think/share over a period of time as opposed to what the first impression might be.

  5. Stephanie, I have read you for years. I don’t think you are a mean girl/bully, but the way you came across in the oyster bar.. I don’t know. I have a very passive aggressive sister who tends to be quite selfish and very ME ME ME.

    It totally hit a nerve when you said you laughed nervously knowing you had done something that was going to upset your sister. I could totally picture this particular sister of mine doing the same thing to me.. The calling up a friend when it’s supposed to be OUR alone time.. and then instead of enjoying dinner together and having some private sister talk, having to be the third wheel at a place I don’t even want to be at while she entertains her friend, someone she could easily see once I’m gone. The making up for it later is another tatic she likes to use.. Hurts you and then tries to make up for it later with something she knows you’ll like…. Why not just do that together to begin with?

    Maybe your sister feels something similiar to what my other sister and I feel? Like we aren’t valued in the same way her friends are? Her friends have always been made to feel important whereas we aren’t.. Our opinions never matter as much, our time isn’t as valuable, we don’t get the considerate, thoughtful and giving side of her, etc. that her friends seem to enjoy.

    Anyway, I apologize if I came across as insulting. You have such an honest blog.. I hope it’s ok for me to be honest too even if my feelings aren’t shared by anyone else.

    1. Author

      Splitting hairs here, but I see selfish as purposeful (like not sharing), whereas in my case, it’s more that I can be self-centered, and self-absorbed, completely oblivious, not thinking so much as acting on my immediate feelings, the way a child might. It’s not one of my greatest qualities; I do get absorbed and lost and sometimes have to remind myself that other people are around to be considered. I do strive to work on this, mostly by being more mindful when it’s happening (not easy to do, since that’s the whole problem, NOT being mindful).

      But I can say this, these self-serving behaviors are never calculating or “passive aggressive” or mean-spirited. I’m also betting that the sister of whom you speak is an older sister. As a general rule, I believe that most, if not all, older sisters are less “needy” and have fewer “issues” with their siblings. For example, I know some younger sisters, and all of their therapists know their older sister’s name, story, etc. because a younger sister ALMOST ALWAYS ends up complaining about the attention they’re not getting from their older sister. Whereas if the older sister is in therapy, the younger sister is barely mentioned, if at all.

      Also, I find it so interesting, the PERSPECTIVE of a given action. If, for example, my sister invited her friends to join us, a single friend or a few, I would NEVER take it personally! Ever! That goes for any of my friends. I see it as an enriching experience, the more the merrier, literally. Yes, yes, there’s a time for one-on-one moments (of which we always have plenty), but to me, when someone invites others to join, it’s never about ME… it’s not personal, it’s actually a way that I get to see MORE of my sister, get to see her interact with her friends, the people she chooses to include in her life… giving me more of a glimpse of her, more of a full-bodied taste of who she is. So to me, it’s fascinating that one of us would more often than not take it as a slight, while the other of us would always welcome it.

  6. I actually loved this post. I’m the older sister as well, and our sisterly dynamic is quite similar. At the core, she’s my best friend, but that doesn’t mean we don’t play some of the same roles we’ve owned since childhood.
    And like you, I would have never taken it personally if my sister invited a friend along. It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind that she was acting selfishly or taking over “our” time. In fact, when I find myself in a situation surrounded by her friends it makes me feel like she values me as someone in her close circle. Someone she chooses to spend her time with, not just a visit based on family obligation.
    I could see how some people might read this and take it all too seriously, but to me it’s just a collection of small moments that help us envision a true, imperfect relationship between sisters who love each other.

  7. I’m actually the oldest sister.. and no, I don’t have a problem with friends being around either. My issue wasn’t with that at all.

    I wasn’t trying to compare my sister to Stephanie.. I don’t find them to be alike at all. I said that the way Stephanie behaved at the oyster bar reminded me of my sister. That’s it.

    I don’t mean to drag out a post that (I agree) probably wasn’t meant to be taken so seriously.. All in all, I think you and Lea probably have a much better relationship than my sister and I will ever have.I think the difference with us is that it’s just who she is, rather than a role we’re playing..

    Love that you’re posting more.. I’ve missed your posts.

  8. I’m a big sister too. Over the course of the last year, with all of the village elders trying out for the death pageant and only one succeeding, I relied more on her than I ever had before. I thought she would come in and have all this drama be all about her. But she didn’t. I thought she would arrive and fret and criticize until I wanted to kill her. But I didn’t.

    Instead, she came in for the surgeries and disasters and funeral all calm and grown up. She proved she is one of the capable, amazing women of our family.

    I didn’t cry for joy or sadness when she arrived or left…I was just glad I didn’t have to explain the ickiness of dealing with the extended family. I didn’t have to lay out the basis for loathing some of my cousins or justify my intolerance of bullshit. She gets it. We are more equal now than ever before.

    But I’m still glad she lives 2000 miles away.

  9. My earlier comment has never appeared. I would feel the same as Lea. No matter. I am the oldest of three sisters and I value my time with them. If I’d planned an afternoon/evening with Tess, the youngest, and she just invited someone else along in the course of the afternoon, and then made dinner decisions with her, the friend, (which she has done), sorry, but yes, I do take it personally. It IS our time, our arranged together time. Crap with this “it’s not personal, it’s actually a way that I get to see MORE of my sister, get to see her interact with her friends, the people she chooses to include in her life… giving me more of a glimpse of her, more of a full-bodied taste of who she is.” Just crap, sorry and all that.

  10. My oldest sister would’ve taken me to a restaurant I didn’t like and invited a friend too. My middle sister and I took a cruise several years ago and were going to spend the night in Miami, where our oldest sister lives, upon return, before heading back to Colorado and Ohio. Our sister took us to dinner, then went out partying the ONE NIGHT we were together.

    My middle sister and I basically hated each other growing up. Now I’ve got degenerative, progressive illnesses and there’s no one closer to me than she is. She has spent a decade giving up vacations with her husband to far better places than NE Ohio to come home and often do nothing with me. She’s been with me in the hospital, at the Mayo clinic, and throwing up 8 hours straight. I gave up relationships to be under the care of my parents because I don’t want anyone besides family to have to take care of me and see me in the situations my parents and middle sister have.

    My oldest sister was in a mountain bike wreck on vacation in Vegas 4 years ago, broke her back, collapsed her lungs, my mom and I flew out to be with her. I ended up with sepsis, needing to have my heart shocked twice to attempt to slow a 180 pulse, finally sharing a hospital room with her, she treated me like I was there for her entertainment and not quite ill myself. I have so little need in my life for selfishness, when you’re put in the position to always rely on others, you learn what a nasty trait that is.

    You don’t have to play the same roles you did as kids, you can CHOOSE to change, though I know my oldest sister never will. I know as the years pass it’s harder and harder for my friends to see me flounder, my middle sister works with what I CAN do, and has given me memories to cherish.

  11. It did seem mean. But sometimes people are mean. I am sure the roles reverse at times…..

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