What I Know About Sisters Now That I'm In My 50s

A sister is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost. ~Marion C. Garretty

It's weird and comforting to know that there is no other woman on this planet, not even my mother, who has had a closer view of my life than my sister. I know pretty much everything there is to know about her, too, including a few things I'm sure she wishes I would forget (but I won't, because sisters are like elephants -- see below). We connect on the phone at least once a day, and because our mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, the conversation usually revolves around medications, doctor appointments, who's doing what and when. Like so many other women in our generation, we have what amounts to joint custody, while trying to simultaneously let my mother live in her own home, with help. We've split up the household chores, like bill-paying and grocery shopping, trying hard not to argue about money, trying hard to manage it all so our mother is comfortable and we stay sane. I can't imagine how I would cope with one daughter getting ready to leave for college in a few weeks, another starting high school in a month, and a mother who is tiptoeing into the frightening world of dementia . . . without my sister.

But, even in the midst of the heavy stuff we're currently dealing with, there's always a reason to laugh, even darkly, usually because of a shared memory, recalling something that one or both of us said or did, some blind date story, or hair disaster. After decades of working through, together, ups, downs, love, disappointments, success, failure, illness, marriage, divorce, children, crazy relatives and everything else that life can throw at you, we communicate in a way that only sisters can. There have been periods when we would walk on eggshells when speaking with each other, worried about misunderstandings, or hurt feelings. And a few times we didn't speak at all (once for a full year). Those days are long gone. Now in our 50s, we understand that time is precious, and it's never a good idea to waste it on words and emotions that in the scheme of things are not important. Sure, we sometimes slip back into old patterns of behavior, dredging up unresolved hurts, falling into the "you said, I said" mode. But then one of us stops us in our tracks, says something joltingly funny, and we get back to where we need to be.

Charles Schultz once wrote, "Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life." It's true. Even your best girlfriend will choose her words carefully when criticizing or offering an opinion. Not sisters, especially older ones. They are the ones who will splash cold water on your face, pointing out faults in your new boyfriend or current husband (or, more commonly, in you), feel comfortable offering parenting, fashion, hair, makeup, money advice (usually unsolicited), and can make you feel like you're an insecure twelve year old all over again, putting you in your place at warp speed. But, just as quickly, with the right words, she'll make you know -- beyond any doubt -- that she would go to the ends of the earth for you . . . no matter what. And you'll smile.

After five decades of sharing my life with one (and observing my own two daughters), here are nine things I now know about having a sister:

  • Sister blood is thicker than water: I've always explained to my daughters that idioms were created and passed down from generation to generation for a reason: They are based in truth. Even if you never got along with your sister (and still don't), there is a part of you that knows that friends can come and go, but sisters are forever.

  • Sisters are a living, breathing, walking, talking perspective check: No one will bring you back down to earth, put you in your place, push you back to reality, or give advice faster than a sister, especially an older one who truly believes it's her job to do so. A sister will also listen to you second guess yourself and help you work your way through the angst. You may squirm, roll your eyes, slam a door, or hang up the phone, but in a quiet moment, you'll realize that she was probably right.
  • Sisters can make you more successful: Having a sister, I learned how to get along with someone who is completely different than me. This skill carried over into relationships outside my family, and into my career. I learned how to express my feelings, communicate more clearly, and negotiate for what I want and need. There's no doubt that having a sister made me learn how to have a fight, but then figure out how to make up again (something that happens no matter how old you both get).
  • Sisters are a lifeline to your younger self: You may have friends to whom you feel much closer than you do your sister, but she is a powerful connection to your younger self, especially to your childhood. It's your sister who can tell stories to your kids about what you were like when you were little, what made you laugh or cry, and how you would scrunch up your face when your mother made you both eat spinach. And who else can recite every line from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" with you? Your sister will be able to tell you for the one-millionth time what your father was like (ours abandoned the family when my sister was four and I was two). She'll also be the one to correct you when you share a story. After all, she's always right.
  • Sisters will still threaten to "tell Mom": Just the other day my sister was getting increasingly annoyed with me about something having to do with how I was handling a detail connected with my mother's house renovation. It wasn't anything my mother really needed to know about. I often preface similar conversations with "don't tell Mom, but . . ." However, in this case she was most definitely planning on telling mom if I didn't come around to her way of thinking, and quickly. Some things will never change, no matter how old we get.
  • Sisters should have a theme song: Ours is the "Sisters" song from "White Christmas" which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney. We started watching it when we were kids and bring it out at least once a year. But we burst into song (and sometimes dance) whenever we feel the need for a little levity. It's also highly effective at annoying all your children at the same time. Here it is:
  • Sisters can make you happier: There are days (although the older we get the fewer there are) when I find it very hard to believe, but a major study confirmed that people with sisters in their lives are happier as children and grow up to be happier, better adjusted adults. The relationship with your sister can be the most intense, competitive, challenging, and trying you'll ever have, but for so many reasons, it can be the most rewarding, too. And yes, I am a happier adult simply because she's in my life.
    • Sisters are like elephants: If you have a sister, be prepared to have her bring up past wrongs and incidents--even going as far back as elementary school--where she believed (and still believes) you were the guilty one. My sister still recalls quite vividly the time when we were in college, I got so mad at her I drove the car away and left her stranded for about two hours. She deserved it.
  • Sisters need to listen as well as talk: A sister can come in handy when you need a shoulder to cry on, or when you want to bounce an idea off of someone. But don't fall into the trap, as we can with friends, of being the one who always does the talking, the sharing, the moaning and groaning. As with any important relationship or friendship, it's got to be a two-way street, or before you know it, she'll be running to mom to tell on you.
  • Author Linda Sunshine summed it up best when she wrote:

    If you don't understand how a woman could both love her sister dearly and want to wring her neck at the same time, then you were probably an only child.

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    Barbara Hannah Grufferman is the President of Best of Everything Media, Inc., author of "The Best of Everything After 50," a guide to positive aging, and is at work on her second book, "Fifty Rules: What Every Woman Needs to Know Before Turning 50," which will be published in late 2012. Barbara is a columnist for AARP, and Chief Pundit at FOF (FabOverFifty), one of the largest websites for women over 45. She can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.