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The Bond That Can't Be Broken

Why this family tie is everything.

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A picture of two sisters next to each other.
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My sisters and I opened a bottle of wine and took silly pictures at our airport hotel, relieved to be indoors out of a stormy night and ready for early flights the following morning. We’d done well to visit our parents in the Midwest, but it was now time for the four of us to get home to husbands and teenagers.

Close in age, we grew up sharing rooms, curling irons, boyfriend woes and so much more. Now, kicked back and in for the night, we took off our makeup and clinked glasses. I’d really looked forward to this final night with just the four of us after catering to our parents’ schedule. It felt so good to toast the sisterhood. But the fun was just beginning when the mood plummeted, as Lizzie started to unload a barrage of buried childhood hurts against Ruby across the room. The rest of us weren’t ready for this and sat shocked as she spoke, passionately pouring out a long-overdue, confession-laced accusation.

While she laid into Ruby, Marie and I listened in disbelief because, though we lived in the same house, the tensions she described were foreign. Lizzie-Ruby clashes happened, for sure, as two sisters couldn’t be more different. And as the sister just above Lizzie, Ruby’s flashy presence guaranteed constant comparisons. But this explosion took things to a new level. In high school, Lizzie reached a breaking point in her strained relationship with Ruby and would enter her bedroom in stealth, nab prized pieces of clothing to “borrow,” returning them to their proper drawers, neatly folded to complete the deception. Could she get away with it? It was a passive-aggressive game she played and felt triumphant every time she outsmarted Ruby.

“Also. I read your journals,” Lizzie said. The room simmered but she continued, relentlessly defending her actions, explaining that all she’d wanted was  to understand and  be understood by her enigmatic sister. “I wanted you to notice me.” Lizzie finished with a whisper. Ruby was pale, but didn’t flinch.

It was going to be a long night and how I wished for more wine and snacks. Gathering herself, Ruby broke the silence. “I didn’t realize! We were just teens, trying to grow up. Lizzie, I’m sorry! It was so long ago … please forgive me.”

Had I ever been so kind? Could I? In that moment, Ruby was never bigger or more generous-hearted, wonderfully reaching out to her wounded sister, emboldened by suffering. Her sensitive understanding covered years of hidden pain. I thought how lucky I’d be to encounter such magnanimity at my next heartfelt outburst. It was never clearer that childhood happens to all siblings uniquely. Some experiences suppressed for decades, resurface with more negative energy for the fact they’ve lain dormant for so long, festering. The childhood Lizzie unpacked was not familiar to Ruby, and certainly not to Marie and me watching from the sidelines.

Childhood is bewitching, after all. Children raised in the same home have their personal stories to tell, each possessing truth and power. As a parent, I think about this a lot. What parts of their stories will my two teens be working through decades from now?

I admired the courage it took for Lizzie to tell her vulnerable story, unfiltered, emotionally charged. Heart wide open, she felt herself in safe company, a testimony to the sisterhood. At the same time, I esteemed Ruby, who took it on the chin. Her character at that moment was tested, and charitably, she discerned what lay behind the deluge of words and was able to show compassion. Thankfully, she chose her words well and navigated a potentially explosive moment.

This wasn’t the evening anyone thought it would be, but the rich depth of our relationships as sisters on display that night left me proud. As adult siblings — and wives and mothers — we somehow manage to remain close, though being spread out across the country means we rarely see each other.

In the morning, we’d say our goodbyes and roll suitcases to our respective departure gates. But this moment slowed me down, a reminder that as adult siblings, it’s a great mercy to be known and loved by those there from the beginning.

Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The Week and Austin American-Statesman. Find her on Twitter, @streeterkathryn.