Essay: Losing My Mother Helped Me Find My Sister
Growing up, I never understood my middle sister. Kind, reserved, and shy, she was the peacemaker in our family, smoothing over slights, running to my mother for comfort from the world. She was the proverbial good girl, taking care of our youngest sister, settling sibling fights, picking up the slack when my mother needed help around the house. Even when we were all playing checkers or Monopoly, she would sometimes let one of us win. Throwing a game is not something that would have ever occurred to me.
I, as you might have guessed by now, was not a good girl. I fought my mother’s strictures, staying out beyond curfew, smoking weed, protesting the Vietnam War. I wanted to be wild and unpredictable; I wanted a life different from my mother’s life. She had stayed home to raise four children and never had a career of her own. Always disappointed that my father didn’t make more money, she made it clear that she hated living “hand to mouth,” as she put it, never hiding her deep sense of bitterness over what she perceived as her lost chances. That translated into constant moodiness on her part, our household filled with yelling and discord that colored our childhoods, and made me want to fight back every chance I got.
How did I feel about my sister? To be honest, I thought she was soft, too quick to give in to our mother. I also felt guilty that I wasn’t a better daughter. Yet, at the same time, I wanted to be who I was—independent, strong-minded. I wanted my sister to be more like me: to stand up for herself, to be more ambitious. To tell my mother that she couldn’t always be at her beck and call.
As we got older and both of us married, my sister and I were friendly, but hardly close. A few times a month, we’d trade phone calls about our growing boys; we talked superficially about our jobs, she as a schoolteacher, me as a writer. We didn’t talk much about our mother, who, after my father died, increasingly relied on my sister for help, while I toggled reluctantly behind.
It’s not that I was unwilling to pitch in. Unlike our third and fourth siblings, my sister and I lived nearby, so I drove my mother to the occasional doctor’s appointment and visited fairly regularly. But those visits were marked by a litany of pointed inquiries from her: Why did you waste yourself on writing? Why didn’t you go to law school? Why did you divorce your first husband? The resulting interchanges left both of us exhausted and annoyed.
It was my sister who spent nights in the emergency room with my mother at 2, 3, and 4 a.m. These vigils happened several times a week; my mother was a well-known hypochondriac. My sister didn’t seem to mind, carving out her Saturday and Sunday afternoons to keep my mother company, and filling in without complaint when my mother inevitably fired the helpers we hired for her.
I felt apart, the one sibling unlike the others, unwilling to ignore the side of my mother that I had fought to escape.
I felt guilty for not wanting to do more, but I told myself that my sister seemed to need to take the lead, that she must get something out of it. She did seem to have a greater intimacy with my mother, and I couldn’t help feeling that my mother preferred my sister to me. Out at a family brunch one morning, my mother had said as much: “I love all my children, but I love Shelley best,” she declared. My youngest sister and I headed at once for the bar, stung. But what could we say? Neither of us was ready to pay the price for such praise.
And then, my mother died. She was 93, and she went quickly, on a Tuesday in August, the only day of the summer that my sister was not in town. She had gone to drop her youngest off at college and left me in charge, a first. When I got the news that my mother had had a heart attack, I jumped into my car and did the 45-minute drive at twice my normal speed, but I arrived too late. I stared at my mother, pale and lifeless, feeling angry and miserable at once. Then I called my sister.
“Oh, no!” she said, and burst into tears. “It’s because I left.”
“No,” I told her. I envied her the clarity of her emotions. “It isn’t that.”
At the funeral, I listened to others give eulogies, talking about my mother’s intelligence, her love of reading, her fondness for her grandchildren. All of which was true enough, but it didn’t touch the mother I had known: angry, argumentative, not exactly nurturing. I listened as my sisters and brother delivered sentimental eulogies, but I said nothing. I didn’t know what to say, for one thing, and didn’t trust myself as to what might come out if I opened my mouth.
Afterward, while sitting shiva at my sister’s house, I felt apart, the one sibling unlike the others, unwilling to ignore the side of my mother that I had fought to escape. When we gathered in the kitchen to toast her memory, I gulped down my glass, wondering if we would ever be able to confront the full truth of her legacy.
About two months later, my sister and I went for lunch for the first time since my mother died. We had our usual conversations—chatting about our boys. Impatience swamped me: I wanted to thank her for caring for our mother. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was that I hadn’t measured up. I wanted to ask her if she hated me. I wanted to know that I hadn’t been totally wrong.
“Let’s go for coffee,” I said, after lunch, unwilling to leave things between us. We were both very sad. As the two of us settled down with our lattes, my sister said, “I miss Mom.” Then, “She could be a real piece of work.”
I looked up. Her statement stunned me. This was the first time I had heard her criticize our mother. I didn’t know whether to ignore her words or take a chance. I drew a deep breath. “She could,” I agreed.
“She wasn’t always fair to you,” my sister returned. “I can see that now.”
“I wanted to do more,” I said, “It was just…”
My sister lifted her head. “I know,” she said. “It was never enough.”
And then, she started to talk. About how my mother had made things harder than they needed to be. About our childhood, and how our mother had tried to control us, demanding that we stay home to be with her. She brought up my mother’s unpredictable moods—how we never knew what we were coming home to, a mother seized by anger and frustration or a calm mother wanting to know about our day. It was the first time we talked frankly instead of tiptoeing around the bad memories. We agreed that both of us had decided to raise our children differently, without a sense of daily catastrophe.
Our mother’s death freed us to talk about what we had shared, the good and the bad.
“Ilene,” she said finally. “You were right to stand up to her.”
I didn’t want to be right or wrong. Both our parents were gone: we had done the best we could in our separate ways.
But later that night, I said to my husband, “Something has changed.”
I was right about that. Over the next years, my sister and I began to support one another. Rather than talking only about our kids, we talked about other things—our childhood, our hopes, all with an ever-increasing honesty.
Part of what we give to one another is validity. For the longest time, I think I believed that my mother’s harsh words and moods were in my imagination, since no one else acknowledged them. Her death freed us to talk about what we had shared, the good and the bad.
My sister will always be kinder and more patient than I am. But I’ve learned that when pushed, she’s plenty willing to stand up for what she believes. We laugh over silly jokes and bond over politics: Last year we went together to the Women’s March and the year before that, we volunteered for Hillary.
I don’t know if all this would have happened if my mother were still alive. But I do know that her passing made some space so that we could view each other in a new way; her death allowed us to reset our roles. I no longer had to be the black sheep; she no longer had to be the good girl. With my mother’s death, we could just be.
Ilene Raymond Rush has published essays, articles, and fiction in a wide variety of national publications. Her short fiction has been awarded an O.Henry Prize and she is currently at work on a novel.