There were three sisters in my childhood home. A recipe for jealousy and internecine rivalries, you say? For countless instances of quiet or clamorous contempt? For secrecy and duplicity and festering resentments, for cleverly laid deceptions, insidious cabals, simmering contentiousness associated with the perpetual vying for attention, affection and favor from those within the home and without? Yes, undoubtedly a recipe for all those things and more. No fictitiously happy March sisters here, I’m afraid. No factually blitheful Bronte sisters penning elegant prose and verse in perfect harmony beneath a common roof. Though I tend to question that alleged harmony, and the March sisters certainly weathered days of discord.
The oldest was Magda, who received the lion’s share of attention, largely due to a personality that would seize it when she wasn’t getting it. She was outsize even as a little girl, Magda was. She was loud and demanding, cantankerous when she didn’t get her way, vain and boastful and bullying and possessing of all the unpleasant qualities you tend not to wish for, but rather to despise, in an older sister.
The youngest was Jane who, by virtue of being the baby of the family, received whatever attention was left after Magda had taken her share. Jane’s approach to getting what she wanted, what she needed, consisted of staging a pity party to which she invited others with her pouting, her sulks, the crocodile tears issuing from those big sad limpid eyes. Jane tended to lurk in hallways and behind closet doors in order to obtain intelligence she could later use to advantage. A clever tactician, was Jane.
The middle child was Yvonne, who functioned as a kind of buffer between Magda and Jane. As a witness to sins committed or not committed, as an arbitrator in domestic disputes, and as a diplomat to forge a ceasefire and precarious peace in times of war. Yvonne’s was the calm voice of reason, and as such, tended to go ignored and unheard. Her voice frequently suffered an unacknowledged death by drowning amid the boisterous boasts of Magda and the plaintive supplications of Jane. Yvonne was the child unseen, unheard, and sadly, unknown.
The three sisters at length grew up into women. One became a successful business professional who ran her own company, amassed great wealth, graced the covers of success-oriented journals, and died suddenly of a heart attack before the age of fifty. The second married young, became a loving but harried mother of four, and lived a dull and thankless life of meek subservience to her brutish and self-centered husband until he died in his sixties, leaving her penniless. The third sister traveled the world, enjoying a succession of passionate love affairs with men who treated her like a queen; she became a prolific writer and artist who wrote stories and painted pictures wherever she went, selling or trading them for enough to meet her needs; she swam in the ocean, climbed mountains, crossed deserts, and drank deeply from a cup of life that each day, depending on where she was that day and in whose company, contained a differently flavored nectar, often sweet, sometimes strong, and rarely bitter.
Can you guess which sister was which?
Looking back at childhood photographs, I can scarcely believe these three creatures were borne of a common mother, in close succession. And yet, there is no refuting the documentary evidence. Three young girls growing up in the same household, reared by the same parents, exposed to the same values and standards in the same community and yet so markedly different in adulthood. Like three hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs, one growing wings, another developing gills, and the third sprouting four legs with which to crawl upon the earth.
It made me terribly sad to learn of Magda’s death. She was such a force of nature, so strong and capable, and while I don’t feel I really knew her very well, I did have the sense she was never truly happy or at peace. Her goals and ambitions were larger than life, and her achievement of them didn’t seem to bring the degree of satisfaction she’d expected. She seemed always to be fighting tooth and nail for a level of recognition and acknowledgement that never came.
Yvonne has always been the kind of person others refer to as a saint. Which is to say she possesses the qualities of a martyr, putting everybody else’s needs above her own. But then, even as a child she was the one who was always trying to keep everyone else happy, trying to soothe hurt feelings, quell rising tempers, and resolve misunderstandings. Yvonne has lugged a heavy cross through life, and does so still, with her four children, even now as adults, adding to its weight rather than sharing a portion of their poor mother’s burden.
And I am Jane—had you guessed? I still sometimes go all big-eyed and pouty to inspire sympathy, and still observe the world around me more keenly than my sisters ever did. I like to think I don’t lurk in hallways and behind closet doors, but I do pay attention to what others are doing. Being observant and curious, and yes, perhaps even nosy, has served me well, helped me get the kind of life I want for myself. I depend on nobody and nobody depends on me. I go where I please and do what I like and have enjoyed a very happy life up to now (knock wood). I suppose I’ve been pretty lucky too, as I have always managed to get just what I want. But then, you knew all along, didn’t you? The baby of the family always gets her way.