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My sister came over for dinner the other night. I sautéed the greens while she rolled Play-doh pancakes with my daughter. We talked about applying for a new job (me), where to find the most colorful donuts (her), and how miserable it is to wake up in the dog days of summer as we were beginning to dream of autumn. The ribs took an hour longer on the grill than anticipated, and heat from the stovetop fueled the rivers of sweat running down our bodies, but there is no one more natural to share an imperfect experience with than a sister.
It wasn’t always this way.
When I was sixteen, our stay-at-home mom got an evening job at a call center processing orders for slacks and backscratchers from couch potatoes across America to save money for a two week family road trip. When she followed the phone script perfectly, her supervisor presented her with a picture he had colored while monitoring the calls. I still have no idea why she would subject herself to this humiliation for the sake of traveling thousands of miles in a minivan.
My mom quit that job as soon as it was time to go west. As we drove halfway across the country, I immersed myself in books while my sister jabbered endlessly about anything. One of our first stops was the Mall of America, where I ate my first portabella burger–vegetarianism was my teenage rebellion of choice. My sister’s chosen treat was a Glamour Shots photo session, complete with props and pageant makeup. I rolled my eyes incessantly. She was only thirteen, but I was a woman.
That’s how it had been for years. Whether we were on vacation or at home watching Full House, I either ignored my sister or tickled her until she cried. But my protests to her existence were unsuccessful. We went everywhere together: piano lessons and Mount Rushmore, swim team and hotel pools, summer camp and dude ranches. I had no escape from her. Yoked by our shared heritage, she was my unwanted accomplice.
The call center road trip took us from our home in Pennsylvania’s hills to legitimate Wyoming mountains. (Maybe this was worth a brief stint with a belittling supervisor after all.) Our family set out on a guided horseback expedition up steep trails and down narrow switchbacks. At the end of the ride, we crossed a brook, and my body relaxed in the home stretch of the wide, grassy meadow. My horse relaxed as well, and began to roll over like a half-ton kitten. I shrieked and scrambled out of the saddle before it was too late, thus ending my brief enchantment with the road trip. I don’t ride horses anymore, and my sister knows why.
She also knows how old I was the last time we played with Barbies (it rhymes with shmelve, or possibly whirteen), and she knows that Santa brought my six-year-old heart its greatest desire (a dictionary). She didn’t ask to know these things, and I certainly didn’t let her in on purpose. But there is rarely another witness so present in your life–siblings are there with you at the top of the mountain on the edge of forever, and in the meadow when you might be crushed. No one sees it all, but siblings have a great view. Growing up, that insight was a threat. Being grownup, that insight became a treasure.
Our transition from growing to grown was hallmarked by a period of long distance sisterhood. Faroff colleges and low-paying jobs in even farther cities reduced our shared experiences to Christmas and a week or two each summer. I was refreshed by the freedom to reinvent myself at twenty-two, but when my friends had never eaten Superman ice cream (amongst other, more minor failings), I wanted to be known. Familiarity wasn’t inherently evil, so perhaps neither was family. In the midst of post college soul-searching, I remembered who also loved ice cream and invited my sister to San Francisco.
She flew over the states we begrudgingly toured six years prior. It was the first time we chose to spend time together. We walked eight miles of hills and golden bridge in one day, escaped Alcatraz, and danced in the living room of my Victorian flat. Somewhere between Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, my sister became Alyson. The realization that an actual person (not the tapeworm I imagined) had been with me all of those years enveloped me like the city’s daily fog.
Siblings are not a choice, but treating them as a person is. That trip was our moment, our turning point.
While the decision to recategorize my sister was crucial, a new frame of mind wasn’t enough to create the comfortable bond we now share. We were no longer enemies, but we were too out of sync to be friends. Our childhood foundation was firm, and a New Kids on the Block concert gave us a boost, but becoming friends with your sibling is like proposing to your partner. Even if things are progressing well, a significant event is required to seal the deal. So I popped the question: “Alyson, will you go on a Groupon vacation with me?” Three clicks and a credit card number, and the sistercation was booked.
We spent a few nights in Greece, dining alfresco under the looming Parthenon and exploring sites as old as God. Upon our arrival in Istanbul, we bartered poorly at the Grand Bazaar and ate street roasted chestnuts that drew every morsel of saliva from our mouths, leaving us as chalky as the coals that prepared them. We spent hours with our necks craned in the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, so as not to miss an inch of ornate ceiling. Everything went according to, or better than, plan.
On the last full day of our journey, we walked across a fisherman-lined bridge over the Golden Horn. There was a tower we just had to reach on our way to Taksim Square. Crossing the bridge was easy; winding our way up cobblestone streets to the Galata Tower was not. The hotel map was more of an artistic rendering and I was overly confident. We wandered, making decisions based on glimpses of the stone stronghold caught between houses. This moment of confusion in an otherwise flawless trip was brief in comparison, but we were lost, and I was the guide.
This time, instead of becoming angry that it was my sister who was witnessing my failure, I was grateful. Alyson’s commentary was anything but jabbering. She forgave me when I snapped at her out in hangry self-reproach. She suggested a snack. (She is an expert in snacks.) It was as good to have her strengths present as it was to have my weaknesses known.
When we found the tower, we decided not to climb it. Instead, we sat down, in silence at first, and then surrounded by echoing calls to prayer. As the adhan rang out around us, we could rest our legs because we had already reached our pinnacle. In spite of an imperfect day, we were relishing our time together, which is a long journey from the requirement of a road trip a decade and half prior.
To be friends with your sibling–to know and be known in all of your phases and persons–is a dream. A dream that may come only after years of distaste, a moment of self-actualization, and a commitment to seizing the opportunity. Make the commitment; don’t let your mother’s stint as a call center employee go to waste.
And if you’re going to put in the time, you might as well seek out a few adventures along the way.