My sister and I grew up in South Africa in a big house and vast garden where we were able to wander freely, picking the fruit from the trees and the flowers from the earth around us. We spread the warm mulberries on our cheeks as war-paint; we climbed the jacarandas and set up a pulley to carry secret messages back and forth to one another. We invented our own language; we learned to swim in the pool with little yellow water wings on our arms; we taught our didee dolls how to swim by tying string around their stomachs and pulling them through the water; we lay on the concrete on our towels and touched the tips of our tongues together and erupted in giggles. We had the same Nanny who taught us the same prayer which we said every night: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, God bless the bed that I lie on…”
Later we were sent away to boarding school. My sister was in the senior school at 12, but I was still a junior in quite a separate building. At night in the long dormitory I cried not so much for my mother, but for my sister. She would come up the hill on Saturdays, help me wash my hair, and sit out on the lawn listening to Elvis Presley played on the gramophone.
After school I left South Africa to go to Europe to study, married an American, and ended up living and writing in this country. Meanwhile, my sister stayed home, went to university in Johannesburg, and married a South African heart surgeon. We saw one another on holidays with our children, meeting in different places at different times. I have photographs of us in Athens at the Acropolis, my sister pregnant with her blue guide in hand; or in Switzerland skiing with the children. We met in Rome and wandered down the Spanish steps together and in Geneva for the last time. She was 39 years old when her husband drove off the road and killed her.
This happened more than 30 years ago, yet I still see her face as clearly as I saw it for the last time: tilted up towards me at the morgue in the bright spring sunshine. It was my face, my past, my early days, the language of my childhood, all gone in that moment with my sister, Maxine.
For surely there is no one who shares the language of childhood the way a sister or brother does. Only a sibling who has grown up in the same house with the same things around them—and with, above all, the same parents—knows exactly what each word means to you. No one else knows so intimately the events of your childhood; no one else has shared the same long boring car rides in the heat on holidays, going down to the sea; no one knows the same songs, the same prayers, the same odors, the same noises, the same voices that permeated the interiors of our childhood. Who can share the same silly jokes that made you double over at the waist with laughter as teenagers. Who can share the same criticism, the same exasperation with your parents? Who can share the extreme hate and same binding love as a sibling?
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.