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Older Sister




Excerpted from
You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives
By Deborah Tannen

Surely there is a reward for being the one who always comes through. Well, yes. One reward is that you're expected to continue coming through without fail. Leanne always helped her younger sisters when they needed it. If they had a medical problem, she found the best doctor and got them an appointment. If they needed financial help, she wrote a check. So when a sister's teenage son got into trouble, everyone expected Leanne to drop everything and go fix it. Leanne couldn't; her company was facing a crisis that absolutely required her presence. Hut her sisters knew only that she was supposed to solve their problems, and they were angry that she didn't. To Leanne it felt terribly unfair: Rather than getting thanks for all the times she came through, she got grief the one time she couldn't.

Another oldest sister, Amanda, had a similar experience. She was incredulous to learn that one of her younger brothers bore a grudge because she hadn't organized a family dinner on the Friday night preceding his wedding. When Amanda protested that he'd never asked her to, he explained that she always organized family gatherings at holidays, so she should have come through for his wedding, too. Amanda said she would have been happy to arrange a gathering had she been asked, but how could he blame her for not doing something she didn't even know he wanted?

The difference in perspectives between Amanda and her brother comes down. I think, to different definitions of the wedding occasion and expectations placed on an oldest sister. In his mind, I suspect, this was a family occasion, like holidays, when Amanda always took charge without anyone telling her to. In her mind, a wedding was a different sort of occasion; taking an organizing role would have been presumptuous. (I encountered an example where an oldest sister was resented for trying to do that.) Yet this brother's expectation wasn't entirely without logic. It is often assumed that the bride's family is responsible for the wedding, while the groom s family hosts a dinner the night before. Whether or not he thought this explicitly, it seems that her brother expected Amanda to take the role their mother might have been expected to take, more or less the way I assumed that my oldest sister should tell our cousin about her adoption rather than my mother.

Though Amanda had willingly taken responsibility for corralling the family at holidays, she thought that expecting her to plan her brother's wedding without being asked was over the top. Many of the oldest sisters I spoke to told me of times that their younger siblings' expectations outpaced their ability or willingness to serve.

To Help or Not to Help

Another way that older sisters sometimes chafe at expectations placed on them sheds light on how the hierarchy of age interacts with dynamics of connection. Women often talk about problems as a way of connecting, yet younger sisters often ask older ones for advice and help. So a sister accustomed to solving problems and giving advice may be uncomfortable when expected to just listen. Angela doesn't mind that her younger sister Linnie often calls to discuss concerns about her job: the difficult boss, the lack of responsibility commensurate with her skill, the knowledge that she is underpaid. But when Angela suggests solutions, Linnie has a reason to reject every one. Talk back to the boss? Too risky. Go over his head? Unthinkable. Ask for a raise? The company is in dire financial straits, so it won't happen. Quit? She might not find another job. Look for another job before quitting? The community is so small that her boss would surely learn of her inquiries. No solution is possible? Then accept it and stop whining! But there's no way Angela could get away with saying that. Linnie would protest, 'You're my sister, you're supposed to listen and care." Angela does care, but as an older sister she never felt she had the luxury of just listening; she was always expected to do something when Linnie needed help.

If two sisters live in the same city while their parents or other relatives live in another, the out-of-towners can only stay with one sister when they visit. The sister not chosen may feel slighted, while the sister chosen may be more aware of the extra work that comes her way. Camille and Zoe are in that position. When relatives visit, they always stay with Camille, so she gets the job of host, which includes preparing and serving meals. Perhaps relatives choose to stay with Camille because she's older or because she's more organized and predictable (which might not be unrelated to her being the oldest). In any case, she gets the extra work of hosting and cooking for visiting relatives.

One year Zoe offered to help by providing a meal for the relatives staying at Camille's house. Zoe would prepare the wonderful Creek spanakopita she had recently learned to cook. Camille accepted her offer with relief. She was grateful that there'd be one less thing for her to worn' about. On the appointed evening, Zoe arrived a comfortable hour before dinnertime. But she had with her not spanakopita but grocery bags containing the ingredients to make it. She washed the spinach, chopped the onions, opened packages of phyllo dough, and spread everything out on Camille's kitchen counter. Then she opened all the cupboards searching for a pot that was right for cooking the spinach and a pan to spread the layers in. She found what she needed but in the process removed all the neatly stacked and sorted pots and pans and returned the ones she didn't need to cabinets willy-nilly in a jumble. She did the same with the spice rack and the drawers containing cooking utensils. The spanakopita was indeed wonderful, but dinner was served at nine o'clock. Camille didn't doubt Zoe's sincerity in wanting to help, but she made a vow that the best way Zoe could help in the future would be to continue letting her older sister do all the work.

What's most unfair about all these scenarios is that the oldest sisters themselves aren't getting the kind of support and help that they're so used to giving.

Sister Knows Best

In the paper she wrote for her class at the University of Mary Washington. Gwynne Mapes also analyzed e-mail exchanges between adult sisters. Rosalie and Rachel, who were fifty and forty-five years old respectively. At one point in a longer e-mail. Rosalie invited Rachel's children to accompany her and her own children to a basketball game. She wrote. "I would love to go to the Pulley game on 2/22." and offered to "take any of your clan that could go." In a reply, Rachel turned down the invitation: "We aren't able to go to the Pulley game since it's a school night." Reading this exchange. I assumed the topic ended there. I was surprised to read Rosalie's response: "Are you sure you wouldn't consider letting the kids miss school on Friday to go to the game Thurs night? We could meet you at Pulley Friday if so and then I could drive part way. Just something to think about. ... I'll try to buy the tickets soon."

When I saw that Rosalie pressed her proposal after Rachel had rejected it I was reminded of a comment made by a woman who is one of three sisters. Trying to decide on the best way to celebrate their parents' twenty-fifth anniversary, the sisters were exchanging e-mails cc'd to all. The youngest received an e-mail that did not have a cc. It was from the middle sister and read: "Look, we'll all say what we want to do, and then we'll do what Mary wants"-Mary being the oldest. Mary had many ways of getting to do what she wanted. One was just what Rosalie had done: suggest ways to get around any objections her sisters raised. Another was a tendency to forget that a plan she favored had been rejected and keep proposing it again.

Another younger sister told me that her older sister has to get her way "not only in action" but also "you have to see her perspective on things. You have to agree that she's right about how things are." She went on. "If you say, 'Okay let's agree to disagree,' it's like 'No. but but you have to see One thing that's easy to see is how annoying this trait might be. Rut it's also easy to see that knowing more and being right can be habit-forming for an older sister, who really did know more and really was more likely to be right for all those years when they were growing up. Perhaps, too, she is continuing to exercise responsibility for ensuring peace and harmony in the family.



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