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Do You Like Your Sister?

Imaginary sisters are perfect, but real sisters rarely live up to the ideal.

New Africa/Shutterstock
Source: New Africa/Shutterstock

There it was in a gift store window: a frilly pillow elegantly embroidered with the phrase, "God made us sisters; Xanax made us friends."

I laughed. As someone who has always envied those with sisters, I figured I should buy several of these for my girlfriends to give to their siblings. But before I could ring the bell allowing me to enter this fancy boutique (turns out sarcastic remarks concerning family and medication aren't cheap), an inner voice warned me, "Your friends might not find this funny. Step away from the door."

What's the fantasy of sisterhood like for those of us who have none?

Our imaginary sisters are perfect: They're supportive, charming, encouraging, and just slightly less attractive than we are. We spend a lot of time brushing each other's hair, finishing each other's sentences, and saying, "No! You're the smart one!" Imaginary sisters delight us by baking brownies, cleaning our rooms and discovering absolutely fabulous retro earrings, but insisting that we take them: "I originally bought them for myself but they look so much cuter on you!"

Together we'd watch Gone With the Wind; I would like Rhett, and she would like Ashley. We'd watch reruns of Lost; I would like Sawyer, and she'd like Jack. (But we would both hate that awful last season.) We'd laugh together, cry together, sigh together, and never disagree.

Apparently, though, not all real-life siblings live the dream. Friends offer complex and surprising replies when I ask what it's like to have a sister.

"It's like being in a potato sack race with a midget," explains friend A. "I'm in the same bag with her, neither of us chose it, and it's not exactly like we're doing each other any good. But since we're both in it for life, we just take it three steps at a time."

Friend B says: "Every major holiday ends in a crisis. We try to pull together a simple family dinner, and it ends up like the Marshall Plan. You'd think that five grown women could figure out how much ham, turkey, and variations on garlic bread everybody needs. But you forget the one sister who wants to make exotic Thai appetizers or the one who thinks that she might be gluten-free, but isn't sure. Then there's the one who's a vegan... except for pepperoni."

When I challenge her on this last statement, she looks me in the eye and says, "Do you think I could make that up?"

Friend C, the youngest, hesitates. "I love my sister but I don't like her," she says. "Does that make me a bad sibling? Is it because we know that we're in a lifelong relationship that we complain about our sister more than we'd complain about a friend? Why do I always feel like I have to judge and be judged by my sister?"

She's asking good questions. I learned through my mother's family that connections between sisters don't end simply because one of them dies. Only 47 years old when she passed away, my mother was the first of her family to go.

There had always been strife between the whole tribe of sisters in my mother's family: competition over whose kids were brightest, nicest, or most talented; whose husbands were most attentive, attractive, and accomplished; whose lives were most fulfilling, enviable, and prosperous.

My mother never won those contests. And yet I'm sure that after they lost her, my mother's sisters would have given anything to have her back. Their grief was deep and lasting because what had driven them apart was trivial and foolish.

Yet if I'm being honest, I'm not entirely sure my mother would have accepted an apology. Each sister struggled with the belief that she was irrevocably part of a choir when she should have been a soloist. There was love between them, but there was also conflict.

Conflict often eclipsed the love, adulterated the affection, and eroded the intimacy.

After all, when we say a person is "just like family," it isn't always a compliment.

Sympathy, compassion, understanding, respect, generosity, and a willingness to forgive are essential features of every important relationship, including ones between members of an immediate family.

Our imaginary sisters would always know this. Real sisters—real people—sometimes have a tough time remembering it.

So let's give Jo, from Alcott's Little Women, a book populated by perhaps the world's most well-known imaginary sisters, the final say; Jo believes that keeping a sense of humor and a sense of perspective is what can help sisters be friends: “‘Thank goodness, I can always find something funny to keep me up... [C]ome home jolly, there’s a dear.’ Jo gave her sister an encouraging pat on the shoulder as they parted for the day, each going a different way... and each trying to be cheerful."