“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” 1 Peter 4:8
When my daughter was about six years old, my mom brought out an old crate of Barbie dolls for her to play with. Not being much of a Barbie doll person, Maggie ignored the crate and played with her older brother and the Legos. I ran my hand through the crate, looking at the old, battered dolls with matted hair. Some of the dolls had legs that had been broken off and attached with definite deformities, others had grime and dirt embedded in their skins. Most of the clothes were frayed, missing a button, or stretched out. The accessories were strewn across the bottom of the crate, often with no matching glove or shoe. These dolls were the shared history of three sisters. I couldn’t recall which doll belonged to me or which dressed belonged to my sisters. I didn’t have any clear memories of us playing together, I just knew this crate represented my history, and I felt ashamed and relieved. Ashamed of my history and relieved my daughter was not interested in my castoffs.
March is Women’s History month and I think it’s important to use this month to celebrate women. I have written in the past about the community of women that have helped me and continue to shape the woman I am today. These include two aunts who I featured as my Sheroes last March and, the previous the summer, three lifelong friends. When thinking about the women who have influenced my life, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the two who have known me the longest: my sisters. They were my first friends. They have been at all my important events and are often the first people I text or call to share important news. They also share a unique history with me, our childhood. And even though we have different perspectives, we all agree it has shaped us.
What does it mean to be sisters? It’s a question I have been uncovering the answer to since I was a two-year-old crawling into my baby sister’s crib, trying to play with her. It was me playing with dolls, putting powder in their diapers as my mom did for my sister. It was me two months shy of five, going with my grandmother to drop off a paper bag of clothing for my mom while she was recovering from her c-section with my premature baby sister. It was me reading to my little sister, not because I was some sort of saint, but because I loved to read and hear the sound of my own voice. And then it’s a lot of murky memories of a childhood that was marred with abuse and trauma. I can look at pictures and vaguely remember family vacations, playing Barbies, swimming at the quarry, and riding the bus together. But how we interacted with one another feels a little unclear. I know that I was bossy and overbearing at times. At other times, I know I felt protective of my siblings. And I know much of the time I was lost in my own world trying to grapple with dark secrets. I have learned that childhood trauma often distorts your memories, robs you of your innocence and changes the natural dynamics of your familial relationships. And this rings true in my life.
To add to the challenges of our childhood, I felt like a bit of an outsider with my sisters. I didn’t share the same DNA as they did, which explained my shoe size, different bone structure and why I didn’t look like them. Yet, if you had asked me as a child to describe my family, I would always say I had two sisters and a brother. We never used words like half or step. We were just a family.
I have a few friends who have hard relationships with their sisters. For a myriad of reasons, those relationships are full of long, hurtful histories that often resulted in strained relationships or, in some cases, no relationship at all. Even in the Bible, there are examples of sisters with tough relationships including Rachel and Leah, which was based on jealousy and wounding. Then you have Mary and Martha, whose relational challenges were due to priorities and bitterness. My friends and the Biblical sisters are real examples of how hard it is to be friends within a family. It’s hard to maintain a lifelong relationship when you were forced to share a room, share your possessions, and play together. When you add in the difficulty of navigating childhood trauma together, it seems almost impossible to have healthy relationship with your sisters!
My sisters could both easily share times I have hurt their feelings. They can share times where I have made them feel less than, or times I have ignored them. The truth is that they have seen me at my worse. They have seen me when I have been judgmental, jealous, and full of bitterness. We were not the best of friends as children. We were three separate people, with different interests, temperaments, and passions.
But despite the trauma and challenges, somewhere along the way, my sisters and I became friends. I can’t pinpoint when that happened, but I can tell you it did. I see it in the string of texts we sent each other last summer to encourage one another in our journey to better health. I see it in the ways we show up for one another at important events. I see it in how we celebrate each other’s accomplishments, pray, or offer words of support to one another in a crisis. I see it when we laugh about our childhood basket of unmatched socks. I see it in the way we disagree or have conflict but are vulnerable enough to reach out the other person and make amends. I see it when all three of us showed up for my uncle’s funeral grieving the only decent father figure we had and going home knowing we will never have a real father to grieve. I see it in the fact that they both have made plans to be at my daughter’s wedding despite Covid-19 and high gas prices.
I have probably rewritten this post more than any other one I have ever written. How do you accurately portray three women who have risen above broken and bruised Barbies? How do you honor your friends who have difficult relationships with sisters while celebrating your own relationships? How do you share that these friendships borne out of sisterhood and trauma have been a journey not a destination?
Sisters by birth and friends by choice, they are amazing women. They love their families well, are passionate about their work and volunteer commitments, and have overcome some hard obstacles. And most importantly, they have invested in my life in ways that I can’t measure. I am still learning what it means to be a sister, but I want to close with a few lines of poetry from an 19th century poet that echo some of what I have learned.