Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Me and my sister

After I wrote my post about my sister going back to college Deb commented:

That is really wonderful.I'd be interested in if it has been as issue for you and if so, how you navigate the differences between your education levels in the family. I think a lot of us in academia navigate these issues in one way or another and I find it tricky, myself.
It is not something that I have had to think about a lot, and I guess that is because I am second-generation, or maybe it is because my sister and I have so much else to navigate.

Both of my parents and were the first ones in their families to have any schooling after high school. My mother was actually the only one. My father's much younger baby brother eventually went to college. Of course my father is a college professor, and that probably makes a big difference. My sister is not the least bit intimidated by the fact that I am. Or at least I don't think she is. The other day she seemed very pleased that her sister was an experienced academic advisor who know about mysterious things like how to order transcripts.

For as far back as I can remember I was identified as the good kid, the smart kid. I was bookish, and shy. She was the pretty one, the outgoing one. She was the athletic one that made friends easily, was a picky eater, got into trouble, and didn't do well in school. My father in particular compared us. Neither of us felt like we were good enough.

I was always the big sister though. I don't remember a time when I wasn't taking care of her.

If you were to talk to each of us about our mother you would think we just didn't have the same mom, and in some ways we didn't. She and Mom didn't get along well. Sis wanted attention, and she would act out. Mom felt manipulated and angry and withdrew.

Here's my most often shared example. My sister one day stubbed her toe on the piano. She was probably about 12. She fell to the floor, held her toe and rolled back and forth screaming that it hurt. My mother stood over her and told her it did not hurt that bad, stop screaming and get up. About a week later I fell down the porch stairs and had the wind knocked out of me. Mom heard the racket, saw me at the bottom of the stairs and came running out. I could not hardly make a sound and she helped me into the house. As I caught my breath I said, "I'm okay. I'm okay." Mom said she just wanted to make sure and started running her hands over my head. My sister started yelling, "She said she's okay! She said she's okay!" Sis started yelling and crying that Mom didn't care about her. Mom turned and yelled back saying that I hardly ever complained and that was why she believed me, and falling down the stairs was more serious than stubbing your toe. I don't remember how long they fought. It wasn't very long but I remember sitting there, still finding it hard to breath and realizing that I had quite a few bruises and scrapes and thinking, "Don't mind me. I'll be able to breath any minute now."

Mom really did try not to compare us. Certainly I never felt that she thought I should be more like Sis. And Sis said told me once that she never thought that Mom wanted her to be more like me -- well not in fundamental ways. Mom was proud of the things that Sis could do. They just had this extreme relationship. They were either getting along perfectly, or they were fighting.

As adults we also ended up in very different places. She is a fundamentalist Christian, but one with a really funny snarky attitude. She enjoys being with me because she doesn't have to be so nice all the time. For years though, things were a bit tense between us. I was teaching feminism and she never wore pants because she thinks Deuteronomy 22:5 says she has to, even thought the passage even talk about pants. She married someone who I think is a sexist, pompous, a$$ and I married someone who was a stay at home dad for three years.

Once I started fostering gay kids things got tense. When we finally had a chance to talk about it, we realized that we had both been assuming that the other disapproved of us. We both know what her church thinks about homosexuality. I couldn't be close friends with anyone else who went to her church. She probably wouldn't be friends with anyone else who was a feminist, gay rights activists, but the fact that we are sisters makes it possible for us to put those things in the background.

Of course I not-so-secretly believe that this fundamentalism thing is just a phase (I know, 18 years and counting is a long "phase") and she probably believes that G-d is just waiting for me to repent and will forgive me for my sinful ways. Fortunately both of us are committed to the position that it is not our job to convince the other of the truth.

So you see, that I am an academic and she is a 40-something going back to college for an associate's degree is the least of our issues.

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