— Marion C. Garretty
It’s weird and comforting to know that there is no other woman on this planet, not even my mother, has had a closer view of my life than my sister (that’s us on the left in 1965 visiting Prospect Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.). I know pretty much everything there is to know about her, too, including a few things I’m sure she would like me to forget (but I won’t, because sisters are like elephants — see below). We connect on the phone at least once a day, and because our mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the conversation usually revolves around medications, doctor appointments, who’s doing what and when.
Like so many other women in our generation, we have what amounts to joint custody, while trying to simultaneously let my mother live in her own home, with help. We’ve split up chores like bill paying and grocery shopping, trying hard not to argue about money, trying hard to manage it all so our mother is comfortable and we stay sane. It would be hard to cope with one daughter in college, the other in high school, and a mother who is tiptoeing into the frightening world of dementia … without my sister.
But, even in the midst of the heavy stuff we’re dealing with, there’s always a reason to laugh, usually because of a shared memory, recalling something that one or both of us said or did, some blind date story or hair disaster. After decades of working together through ups, downs, love, disappointments, successes, failures, illness, marriage, divorce, children, crazy relatives and everything else that life can throw at you, we communicate in a way that only sisters can.
There have been periods when we would walk on eggshells when speaking with each other, worried about misunderstandings or hurt feelings. And a few times we didn’t speak at all (once for a full year). Those days are long gone. Now in our 50s, we understand that time is precious, and it’s never a good idea to waste it on words and emotions that in the scheme of things are not important. Sure, we sometimes slip back into old patterns of behavior, dredging up unresolved hurts, falling into the “you said, I said” mode. But then one of us stops us in our tracks, says something hilariously funny, and we get back to where we need to be.
Charles Schulz once wrote, “Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life.” It’s true. Even your best girlfriend will be gentle when criticizing or offering an opinion. Not sisters, especially older ones. They are happy to splash cold water on your face, pointing out faults in your new boyfriend or current husband (or, more commonly, in you), feel comfortable offering parenting, fashion, hair, makeup, or money advice (usually unsolicited), turning you into that insecure 12-year-old all over again, putting you in your place at warp speed. But, just as quickly, with the right words, she’ll make you know — beyond any doubt — that she would go to the ends of the earth for you … no matter what. And you’ll smile.
After five decades of sharing my life with one (and observing my own two daughters), here are seven reasons to cherish your sister . . . even when it’s hard:
- Sister blood is thicker than water. I’ve always explained to my daughters that idioms were created and passed down from generation to generation for a reason: they are based in truth. Even if you never got along with your sister (and still don’t), there is a part of you that knows that friends can come and go, but sisters are forever.
- Sisters are a living, breathing, walking, talking perspective check. No one will bring you back down to earth, put you in your place, push you back to reality, or give advice faster than a sister, especially an older one who truly believes it’s her job to do so. A sister will also listen to you second-guess yourself and help you work your way through the angst. You may squirm, roll your eyes, slam a door, or hang up the phone, but in a quiet moment, you’ll realize that she was probably right.
- Sisters can make you more successful. Having a sister, I learned how to get along with someone who is completely different than me. This skill carried over into relationships outside my family and into my career. I learned how to express my feelings, communicate more clearly, and negotiate for what I want and need. There’s no doubt that having a sister made me learn how to have a fight, but then also figure out how to make up again (something that happens no matter how old you both get).
- Sisters are a lifeline to your younger self. You may have friends to whom you feel much closer than you do your sister, but she is a powerful connection to your younger self, especially to your childhood. It’s your sister who can tell stories to your kids about what you were like when you were little, what made you laugh or cry, and how you would scrunch up your face when you had to eat spinach. And who else can recite every line from “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” with you? Or sing every word of “Sisters” from our other favorite holiday movie, “White Christmas” (see video clip below).
- Sisters can make you happier. A major study confirmed that people with sisters are happier as children and grow up to be happier, better adjusted adults. The relationship with your sister can be the most intense, competitive, challenging and trying relationship you’ll ever have, but for so many reasons, it can be the most rewarding, too. And yes, I am a happier adult simply because she’s in my life, even when she’s being annoying.
- Sisters are like elephants. If you have a sister, be prepared to have her bring up past wrongs and incidents — even going as far back as elementary school — where she believed (and still believes) you were the guilty one. My sister still recalls quite vividly the time when we were in college, I got so mad at her I drove the car away and left her stranded for about two hours. (She deserved it.)
- Sisters need to listen as well as talk. A sister can come in handy when you need a shoulder to cry on or when you want to bounce an idea off of someone. But don’t fall into the trap, as we can with friends, of being the one who always does the talking, the sharing, the moaning and groaning. As with any important relationship or friendship, it’s got to be a two-way street, or before you know it, she’ll be running to mom to tell on you.
Author Linda Sunshine summed it up best when she wrote:
If you don’t understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.
For more tips on living your best life after 50 (or 60, or 70…) check out “The Best of Everything After 50: The Experts’ Guide to Style, Sex, Health, Money and More” and www.bestofeverythingafter50.com. Keep me posted on how you’re doing by subscribing to me on Facebook and “tweeting” me on Twitter at @BGrufferman.
Photo credits: Barbara Hannah Grufferman’s personal photo, midlifedivorcerecovery.com,