When I was seven or eight, my sister Elizabeth — two years my junior, and shown above when we were itty bitties — caught up to me in shoe size.
“No, I WEAR A SIZE 3! I PROMISE!” I screeched at my mom as the poor salesman at Stride Rite held my foot to that odd silver shoe sizing contraption that every shoe store had, and which I now recollect and think, “My gosh, some lucky dude holds the patent to that gizmo and is living his best life” — but I digress. The salesman looked down.
“Ahem. I think, miss, you are a 2.”
“I am not!” I said, looking to my mother pleadingly.
I can’t remember the outcome of my tantrum (well, that’s not entirely true — I’m 100% sure my mom won, as she did in all such childhood disputes; I’m just unclear on the ugliness of the interaction) but what I do remember is the illogical desire to be something I was not just because I thought it was Right or Pre-Ordained by my myopic understanding of the workings of the world. How dare Lizzie catch up to me in shoe size?! I am the big sister! I get the new things, and I do everything first!
Around the same time, my brother took to teasing me about my “raven black” hair. I have never had black hair — only light brown — so the source of this needling is unclear. What is clear is that I’d somehow internalized a vision of beauty that looked a lot like Cinderella: blond, thin, and fair. In other words, my sister Elizabeth.
A few years later, when I was pudgy and brace-laden and attached to unfortunate accessories like tamagotchis and butterfly clips, and Elizabeth was a lean, golden-haired ballerina-type, a teacher at our school pulled me aside: “Wait — are you…are you Elizabeth’s sister?” she asked incredulously. I nodded, the inquiry fairly routine, as I was one of five and there was always someone who knew one of my siblings somehow. “You look nothing alike!” she puzzled, her brow knit. My heart sank.
To me, Elizabeth was the fairest of the fair, and I have long looked up to her — and for reasons well beyond the scope of her beauty. More on her to come soon (shhh — a very cool post forthcoming), but I have been thinking a lot about sibling-hood and the often blurred lines between envy and admiration that it typically encompasses, because another sister, Eleanor, recently shared something that stopped me in my tracks:
“One of my high school teachers always called me Jennifer,” Eleanor said, laughing, searching my face for a reaction. I paused.
“But you’re…eight years younger than me. And she’d gone through…two other sisters…before getting to you.”
“I know,” she shrugged.
“And she was even teaching at a different school when you met her–” I was starting to actually get annoyed at this teacher. How could this teacher not have recognized the brilliance and individuality of my sister? How dare she be confused with my milder, less impressive academic style? (For reference, Eleanor was writing eight-page exposes on the subtle gender dynamics in Brideshead Revisited by the age of 15, while I recall, with horror, a particularly “creative” essay I submitted at the same age in reaction to Interpreter of Maladies, in which I used the line, “these characters are collected, like dolls on a shelf, in front of us.” DOLLS ON A SHELF, people. My English teacher circled it and put a question mark to its right. I still color at the memory.)
“There are worse things,” she said, interrupting my silent furor.
There are worse things. How gracious. How impossibly sophisticated. How wise. How flattering. Even the turn of phrase —there are worse things — stands a testament the intellectual elegance of this sister of mine.
Oh my, oh my. How often my sisters have taught me things — how often they have put things in perspective for me, reigned me in, cut me down to size, built me up. With her one casual utterance, a string of discoveries tumbled out. (Almost…like dolls on shelf? Nope, still doesn’t work.)
How impossibly self-involved was I as a child, angry that my sister was different than I was, outraged that I didn’t have her blond hair and fair skin and large(r) feet, furious when strangers told us that we looked nothing alike — the presumption being that SHE SHOULD LOOK LIKE ME!!!! Or, I should have looked like her first, and she should have looked like me next — or something akin to that bent logic. Meanwhile, my three little sisters trailed uncomplainingly in my shadow for years, never called the right name, always wearing hand-me-downs, and, I’m fairly confident, unwittingly beholden to the same high academic standards to which I held myself. (The “dolls on shelves” phrasing notwithstanding, I was an excellent student and consistently first in my class.) And yet, I’ve never heard one of them complain about it. My sister laughed it off, decorously — There are worse things.
Yes, my Eleanor. There are. If life has taught me anything, it is that one of the very best things in life is family, and being lumped in with my siblings is, in fact, an act of generosity. How I wish I had my brother’s sense of humor, his earnestness, his unwavering grasp on what matters in life. How I admire my sister Elizabeth’s big heart, her moral backbone, her fierce loyalty–and her occasionally wicked sense of humor that she always pulls out at just the right time. How I aspire to my sister Christina’s hilarious wit, her bravery, her trueness-to-her-self, her ride-or-die dedication to the ones she loves. How I look up to my sister Eleanor’s tender-heartedness to her loved ones, her deep and abiding thoughtfulness, her dazzling intelligence, her eloquence.
Y’all, my parents raised some really good kids, and, yes, there are worse things than to be likened to one of these beautiful souls.
Things that Remind Me of My Siblings.
Sometimes I play a game where I daydream about splurging on each of my siblings, no price limit involved. Here’s what’s up:
For my funny-tender-hearted-whip-smart brother:
+A bamboo fly rod. Like my Dad, he’s a fisherman, and bamboo rods are A BIG DEAL.
+A J.W. Hulme briefcase. These are nuts — so classy, so traditional, so manly.
+A vintage Patek Phillippe. MONEY. My Dad has one of these, and he inherited it from my grandfather, and I’ve just always thought these are the coolest of the cool.
+A striped sweatshirt — because he is usually game to try things that are a little outside the box.
+Navy Tretorns, because he’s a dad.
+A pair of Persols — what Steve McQueen wore.
For my beautiful-inside-and-out-big-hearted-blond-babe-and-mother-to-two-boys sister E.:
+High-end skincare, because she’s loathe to over-spend on herself and she deserves these luxuries.
+A sweet off-the-shoulder statement blouse because bows, stripes, and smocking are all up her alley, and she loves nothing more than a date night with her husband as an excuse to get dolled up.
+This ultra-elegant LWD, because even though it’s very much NOT her style, she would SLAY in it with her petite little frame and stunning blond hair and twig-like legs.
+These gingham, bow-accented heels, because they ARE very much her style.
+A certificate for a two-night stay at The Homestead for her and her husband so she can spend time reading, relaxing at the spa, and recharging her batteries.
+An oversized Chanel tote, for schlepping around all baby gear in style.
For my bold-hilarious-well-read-true-blue-loyal sister C.:
+This “oui” ring — which I gave her maybe a decade ago, and she lost, and she needs again.
+An IRO biker jacket, because she’s the kind of person who wears cool things like this.
+The entire Drunk Elephant skincare line, because it’s her favorite. True story: Mr. Magpie bought her some Drunk Elephant for Christmas and I’ve never seen her more excited. “OH MY GOD!” she shrieked, with glee.
+A pair of Celine v-necks, because they’ve been on her lust list for awhile.
+A chic pair of running leggings, because homegirl can RUN.
+A ladylike, printed dress from a lesser-known designer, because that’s how she rolls.
+Anything with an Alexander Wang skull on it.
For my smart-deeply-empathetic-handicraft-loving sister E.:
+A stunning floral midi skirt — her favorite skirt length.
+A pair of pretty Chanel flats. She’s queen of the chic flat, but she deserves a splurge.
+A sleek, work-appropriate tote big enough for carrying her laptop to and from work.
+The entire Tata Harper line, because she’s as obsessed with cosmetics as I am, and loves up and coming brands.
+A pair of Golden Goose sneakers, because they’re so not her style but would look so hip on her.
+A pair of these delicate earrings, which are as unique and understated as she is.
P.P.S. What’s good.