Growing up, there was always the sneaking of clothes, heated bickering over bathroom time, and jockeying for the front seat. There was also the occasional push out of “my side” of bed and shove in the back for telling “my business.” But for the most part, my big sister and I were girlfriends. She let me tag along with her friends and I made them laugh by making mundane observations: a woman wearing a turtle neck and daisy dukes, an old Rasta wearing a net shirt and white jeans—white jeans! Once, it took us 20 minutes to do a 10-minute walk from the bust stop because we mimicked Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks all the way home.
My sister, a beautiful Amazonian, even beat up a neighborhood bully after he skipped me in line for the park swings. At that time, we were young and our sisterhood was unchallenged by outsiders. If we hated each, it was because we didn’t get our way with one another. Of course we knew that we didn’t have the same father, but our mom, playing the role of both parents, raised us as sisters. Half-sister is a word, a hurtful word that I learned without ever hearing it. I simply felt its cold logic one day.
“Why don’t you look like your sister?”
The guy asking this seemingly simple question was a buddy of mine and I loved him. In middle school, I started to think that my sister was better than me. He looked me up and down, his eyes passing my perfectly round face, bell pepper nose, shapely breast, and skinny legs. We were standing under a tree talking about school, usually a conversation about which teachers we liked, which we didn’t, and why. Most times we gathered under the tree and sat in folding chairs. Standing was unusual and I was nervous for that and for coming so close to revealing my true feelings. I had made him laugh many times during our after school hangouts, but when he asked about my sister I knew that friendship would be our relationship ceiling.
My initial reaction to his question was to take it personal. That reaction played out over years and years. When I presented myself fragile on the topic of being a half-sister, I got plenty stimuli to further my dejection. But for the most part, I batted away the topic, instead of waving it in. If a male friend saw my sister for a first time and I sensed his regard for our physical differences I would say, “We have different fathers.” My tone was passive aggressive like a teacher dealing with an unruly student. I didn’t want to deal with it or appear like I was avoiding it. I sort of wanted to bail both of us out of the misery of finding words to assuage the truth that some pain is unavoidable.
Eventually, my sense or nonsense of family was truly tested when a white boyfriend’s married parents told him they were horrified that my mother had never married before having either of her two children. They were horrified, he was annoyed and I was ashamed. For a brief moment, I questioned my mother’s sense of men, and because my father was inconsistently present and my sister’s father was consistently absent, my view of her choices was not favorable. Indeed, the moment was brief because favoring my mother is easy when I remember that she raised two smart girls by working two full-time jobs.
The other truth that saved me from an estranged relationship with my mother was the fact that she raised us as sisters, not half-sisters. She insisted that people treat us the same and that my sister, and I treat each other better than we treat others. In fact, when my father would take me out without my sister, my mother was furious, often compensating by taking my sister places without me. This was a badly executed way of showing love, and feelings have been hurt both ways. On various occasions, my sister has expressed to me and to my father the hurt she still feels about being left out of a trip to see Michael Jackson in concert. The concert had to be more than twenty years ago—when “Bad” was out—but my sister mentioned it two Christmases ago.
One thing that stands out as a treasure in the chest of our sisterhood, is the fact that my sister and I both absolutely love to laugh. We used to love lame vampire movies like Once Bitten (now vampire makeup and accents are well performed, e.g. “The Walking Dead”). And we still randomly recite lines from the first version of the movie Sparkle.
This summer we will co-host a wedding reception; our single-mom mother is getting married for the first time at 57. Despite the normal sisterhood trials, and perhaps the normal half-sister tribulations, having a sister is one of my best blessings.