The most formative relationship

I heard recently that the our most formative relationships of all are with our siblings.  Of all the mesh of relationships that define a person, from childhood to adulthood, the most vital and critical to who we are is that with our sibling(s).  Well, if that’s true I am a fortunate woman indeed.  In many ways, I think Hilary and I share a bond even more intense than usual, given how often we were in a foreign country with only each other for company.  Certainly, as I’ve noted before, she is the only person on this planet who shares the unique terroir that cultivated me into who I am.

And yet, isn’t it remarkable, that grown out of the same soil, two people can be quite different?  It seems to me that we’re converging as we age, which is a tremendous joy for me, but still, we are not very much alike.  Two of my beloved blogging friends know Hilary well in person, which, I assure you, should elevate them further in your esteem.  My sister is probably the best and keenest judge of character I’ve ever known.  Her demeanor is somewhat reserved, but don’t ever mistake that for her not paying attention.  Behind Hilary’s gorgeous greenish-brown eyes is a brain that is never at rest: she doesn’t miss a single thing.  Not with people, not with the world at large, not with books.  It was Hilary who busted me for having skimmed Middlemarch so quickly that I missed an entire (important) plotline.  She shamed me sufficiently that I went back and read it again, every single page.

Last week, one of my aforementioned blog friends, Kristen from Motherese, was tweeting about Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector.  We went back and forth and she observed something about sister-heroines of both Goodman’s book and the Austen/Eliot era.  I responded that next to my sister I’m a mental midget.  And it’s true.  I grew up in the shadow of Hilary’s formidable intellect; but somehow it wasn’t a cold shadow, or a scary one.  She has always urged me on, made me read more closely (see above, re: Middlemarch), pushed me to think harder, to articulate more carefully what I think and feel.

I humbly submit this as proof: last summer, we drove 45 minutes each way, with my father and brother-in-law, to visit a famed used bookstore on Cape Cod.  This was the entrance hall.  It was among the most enchanting afternoons of the whole summer, browsing peacefully, contentedly, next to my brilliant, wise sister.

Hilary is living in Jerusalem this year with her husband and two daughters (ages 3 and 5.5).  I read her dispatches about life abroad hungrily, drinking in her adventurous spirit, hoping that with this I can quench some of my own odd, insatiable restlessness.  Someone kind recently noted that Hilary’s family’s choice to spend their sabbatical year in Israel is further testament to our parents having raised us “bravely and well.”  Reading this brought tears to my eyes.  Now that I’m a parent, I stumble daily, and keep a little mental list of all the ways I fail Grace and Whit.  I don’t feel brave, ever, and I rarely feel as though I’m doing it well.  The more I grow into being a parent myself, the more I appreciate my own parents, and the family they created for both my sister and me.  Regularly, I share questions, disasters, and triumphs with Hilary, and having her to share this journey with is one of my great sources of both solace and support.

Naturally, I don’t have any recent pictures of Hilary and me (the one above is from Thanksgiving, 2008).  But I do have a picture of our four children, those inheritors of all that pumps through each of our bloodstreams, those non-redheaded children (how?  how?  how?) who I hope will always be dear to each other.  Those siblings who are, daily, in ways more numerous and imperceptible to note, shaping each other just as Hilary so generously and kindly shaped me.

16 thoughts on “The most formative relationship”

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your sister, and to the bonds of sisters overall. My older sister just drove over two hours yesterday so she could spend the day shopping with the girls and me – and then drove back that night. She is my very best friend, from childhood and always.

  2. I love everything about this post: the insights about our beloved HWM, the reflections on sister-heroines, the photo of that bookstore, your admissions about the lack of bravery you feel (I’m the same way, absolutely).

    And that top photo? I see you and Hils, but also Grace and HMG, no?


  3. That picture of you two with your sweaters and little suitcases is priceless.The way you look in that picture? is exactly how I would imagine you to be in person. And in that picture? Hilary doesn’t look like your intellectual superior. Just saying. I wonder if she would agree with your descriptions here? Your writing is beautiful. Simply beautiful.

  4. I completely agree that HMG is a crazy HWM doppelgänger. I don’t see it as much with Grace, but some people say that …!

  5. I would truly love to meet Hillary someday. (And someone that dwarfs your incredible intelligence, hmmm, hard to believe that, my friend.)

    I often wish I had a sister. I have a brother whom I adore, but I’ve often wished, for us both, that we had a same-gendered sibling. (This is part of the reason my close female friendships are so incredibly important to me.)


  6. In the awesome sister contest, (everything involving a sister is a contest) you BOTH win. I love this. And miss you both more because of it.

  7. I also rejoice in the ways we are growing alike and even closer as the years roll on. I have so much to learn from you and your expressive, joyful, open spirit. xo the one with her tongue sticking out
    p.s. this might be my first comment on your blog, but you know I read it first thing every morning (or now, on Jerusalem time, it’s my reward for when Margaret falls asleep for her naps).

  8. I cherish the relationship I have with my sister. Yes we are different but also going through similar things with marriage and raising children. It is a great bond.

  9. I so enjoyed this post and the lovely photos. I too grew up in the shadow of my sister, always taking comfort in her shade and popping out regularly to remind people that I was there. That dynamic indeed shaped us as adults — and its something I am only just coming to terms with. You have given me much to think about. As always.

  10. What a gift you have, this strong and amazing relationship with your sister. Sadly I cannot say the same for the one I have with my own sister, and if it is true what you say, about our relationships with our siblings being the most formative, then it seems I still have so much soul work to do.

  11. Okay, since I think I’m the one who planted that wise and brave assessment, I have to tell you, I know what you mean, and upon further review, I wonder if our parents were truly wiser or braver than we might be, or if the times have just changed.

    Example: My husband’s parents put him on a Russian ocean liner (the “Alexander Pushkin”!) and sent him off to Finland when he was 11, with one friend and a couple of au pairs who were on their way back to Helsinki. Okay, maybe they thought he was being looked after by the Finnish gals, but oh dear god, the stories he tells. Can you imagine a scenario where it makes sense for an 11 year old to be figuring out a subway system in a country where he doesn’t speak the language? Honestly, I think our parents got to just let go and hope for the best with a lot less trepidation than we have in this world, these days. I’m fairly sure that was wise and brave in 1966 would be considered grounds for social services to step in today.

    So, give yourself a break, for being not just wise and sensible in these times, but for reading your kids, individually. The one who’s adventurous will make you be adventurous alongside him or her. The one who needs you, you’ll know to be there for. And when they tack off into a whole new direction, like when they disappear on you for college…it’ll be time for that to happen, and it will all be okay.

    And know this: your kids will surely remember the walks after dinner, the taking time to see hearts and look at the sky and the clouds and the leaves. I am 100% sure that will matter more than whatever it is that you think you’re not doing well enough. I can almost guarantee that whatever you’re sweating, over a teacher or a playmate or a concern they will barely recall.

    So, yeah. Slow down, breath deep, let it all be okay. Because it is. And so are you.

  12. Sisters are the most incredible gift! I too am in awe of my sister’s wisdom and accomplishments. As a parent of two tiny girls, I really hope they as close as me and my sister as well as you and your sister.

    BTW, we decided to stay in Idaho for the time being. Thank you for your support when we were out in your neck of the woods.

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