Sisters are like salad. They are not always what you’d choose, but they are good for you. While I am told that there’s scientific evidence proving that having sisters is good for your health there is absolutely no science behind what I have just said. This is based on 38 years of experience and love of a good analogy. And what I mean is this.
The fact that you can choose your friends but not your family is a well-worn adage. In the case of sisters, I believe that this is a good thing.
Let’s go back to the salad.
You might choose chips and, don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for them (like good pals) in your life, but the salad is what you need to provide the real juicy stuff and the balance. Salads and sisters are healthy even when they are hard to swallow. They will tell you the truth. There are no eggshells. They can be surprisingly good, as anyone who has experienced the comforting squish of a dough ball, or the squeak of halloumi or the tang of a naughty dressing can attest. They may use the list of forbidden ingredients you’ve pulled together as a blueprint for your hen do, but sometimes they know what you need more than you do. Even Butlers in the Buff have their place. And no salad is the same – even if they are concocted in the same kitchen. Swap salad for sister and kitchen for bedroom and you get my drift.
You see, despite our brother referring to us in the collective as ‘The Sisters’ – as if we were one – for most of our formative years, me and my two sisters weren’t peas in a pod. We were, and are, so different. I like writing and am sporty. Sister #2 is allergic to writing other than in bullet point form but can reupholster chairs and paint mountain scenes on nursery walls that look better than the pictures on Pinterest that inspired them. In the meantime, mass hysteria ensues whenever I attempt to make a birthday cake or to grow something green or do anything remotely crafty. Sister #3 would rather stick pins in her eyes than run a marathon and had to make up hobbies to go on her CV (where sister #2 had approximately 453 by the age of 7) but is the most amazing blend of kindness and no nonsense in a way that is totally unique in the world, not just amongst us sisters.
Sister #2 and I fought hard as kids. Doors were slammed with a ferocity that shook the foundations of our family home. Pitch forks were thrown like javelins (true story, we grew up in Cornwall). And sister #3 was 5 years younger, so whilst the competitive sparring wasn’t nearly as intense, she could be easily dismissed amongst the hormonal fog of adolescence.
But on the flip side we shared everything – clothes, beds, baths (and therefore all manner of bodily fluids!) We ganged up against our parents on curfews, skirt length, boyfriends, leg shaving, slip on shoes, belly button piercings and what constituted a swear word. We were allies and foes in the same breath. And we were a force to be reckoned with.
As we grew up, flew the nest and out from under each other’s skin, we learnt a love and respect for our differences just as kids grow to love the vegetables they once considered to be the gastronomic equivalent to a floater in the bath. And never has the power of difference been more of a strength and a comfort to me than now. Because this is the year that our world shifted on its axis. It is the year our mum died.
She had a rare degenerative neurological disease called MSA which slowly robbed her body of its autonomic functions and our mum of her identity and quality of life. It was traumatic and heart-breaking. It was honest and love-filled. Her death shattered us and bound us together closer than ever.
We each drew on our strengths through her illness and death. Sister #2 was the scientist – the one who helped to read mum’s symptoms, understood the drugs, knew what questions to ask the medical team. And what seeds we should plant in her memory.
Sister #3 was the closest thing we had to Florence Nightingale. She was mum’s most natural carer. But god forbid should a consultant try to fob us off with a vague response when she was in the room. Carer and taker of no prisoners in one.
As the eldest and the one who does the words, I was the straight talker – initiating some of the conversations I never realised we would need to have until, of course, we did. What mum considered to be an acceptable quality of life and when, for her, it was time to stop medical intervention, where she wanted to die, what songs we should play at her funeral, how on earth we should say goodbye to the person who had dedicated her life to raising us.
We are all grieving differently. We all have shared and totally unique memories of our mum – of being her daughters. But never have I respected and valued my sisters more. My brother too (and there’s a whole other article to be written on the benefits of brothers) but there was something unique and special about the way ‘The Sisters’ pulled together and still do. An unspoken realisation that we are the mums now. We can’t fill the void she left but we can soften the edges. We’ll make sure dad gets his hair cut and a cleaner. We’ll remember birthdays. We’ll be the glue at Christmas.
So are sisters good for your mental health and wellbeing?
I don’t need a scientist to tell me that this is true. We have helped to sooth each other’s broken hearts. They have given me confidence as only someone who knows all your faults and has endured you puking on their head through the slats of the top bunk and has your back anyway, can. They keep me grounded because they never let me forget my roots. Because they are my roots. You’re not only allowed to be yourself, you have no choice but to be yourself around your sisters. There’s a non-optional authenticity that comes with being around the women who have known you from the start. We’ve kept each other sane as we’ve navigated motherhood together. We’ve kept each other on the straight and narrow with brutal honesty and the closest thing that exists to the unconditional love of parents. And most of all, my sisters make me happy.
Too Enid Blyton?
Perhaps you have a trickier relationship with your sister(s). Maybe you haven’t managed to reconcile your differences. Maybe you never learnt to love salad. But, speaking (in a very unscientific way) to a few pals in the know, there is a self-awareness and strength of character that can come from that. Because the chances are, it’s one of the first (of many) messy relationships you will experience and learning to navigate and make peace with that, to be yourself in spite and because of it, are skills that will set you up for life.
So when they say that no great story starts with someone eating a salad, they are talking nonsense.
Salad, like sisters, is exactly where the best stories start and finish. Even, and especially, if they are not fairy tales (and some of the best bits are unpublishable).