The games sisters play

As the eldest of four, she had to set an example, but also got to plan the fun.

By

It's my first memory: My mother has yanked me from the back seat of the car out onto the shoulder of the highway. She clutches my wrists and glares down at me, says she's leaving me right here on the side of the road unless I promise to stop.

I stare at the cars whooshing by, at the tall sepia-colored weeds, at the little pieces of litter everywhere, and am terrified that she really will. I vow never to kick my baby sister in the face again.

As time went on, another sister came along, then another. Our three-bedroom split-level became full of girls – yes, four girls, all under the age of 8. It was a noisy, chaotic house, a place where my dad often retreated to his room for peace.

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"Play with your sisters," my mother commanded on those lazy afternoons when I claimed to be bored. "I had them for you."

Though their constant presence had long ago eliminated the novelty of such a suggestion, my mother was right. My three little sisters were convenient to have around. Kickable or not, they were my constant companions: my annoying, endearing, permanent playmates.

In our one-hour-of-TV-a-day household, we relied on our imaginations for entertainment.

It was 1996, and the US women's gymnastics team, "the Magnificent Seven," had just won Olympic gold in Atlanta. We pushed the family-room furniture to the walls, and then took turns performing improvised floor routines, calling out the moves we pretended to daringly execute, and, of course, faultlessly land. Triple flip, back tuck, twisty-jump. The coffee table worked as a balance beam; our mom's exercise bike became uneven bars; and the armchair ottoman, the vault.

Being an Olympian was fun, but inevitably we'd grow tired of the game. One of us would slip off the table, bang a knee, and cry. We'd start to argue over whose turn it was, song selection, and medal winners. The baby would wake up and need to play in the middle of our make-believe floor mat.

Sometimes I resented being the oldest. I hated the way I had to set a good example all the time – that, or take responsibility for everything my sisters did wrong. I hated how they followed me around and stole my clothes. I wanted to talk to my mom uninterrupted or eat a snack without having to share a bite with each sister.

But even back then I realized I was fortunate to have them, to never be lonely. We each have our own distinct personalities certainly, our unique talents and ambitions, but no one will ever understand me the way my sisters do. We have the same sense of humor, the same favorite games, the same memories.

We were growing up on the brink of a technological revolution. But it hadn't arrived yet. My family didn't get a computer until I was almost into double digits, and cellphones were just for businessmen in the movies. Instead of watching bands perform on YouTube, we popped my parents' CDs into the stereo and danced on disassembled couch cushions. I wanted a Discman for Christmas – iPods hadn't been invented yet.

My sisters and I don't play gymnastics anymore – we're consumed by more serious pursuits, like job applications, ACT exams, and boyfriends. My baby sister is in high school now, and she's on Facebook. Our parents had to invest in a family plan with unlimited texting years ago, because that's how we communicate with our friends, and often, each other.

I can't help but wonder if future sets of sisters can possibly have the overwhelmingly idyllic childhood we did. On slow summer days and long car rides, will they invent games out of nothing, or instead fiddle with Dad's iPad, or pop a DVD into the minivan's built-in player? Looking back, will they remember pixels or sisters?

It's my second memory: My parents sit on the front porch watching my sister and me draw misshapen shapes on the asphalt driveway with brightly colored chalk stubs. It's a warm evening, just before dusk – almost time to go in and get ready for bed. The two of us stop playing, and sit on the stoop to compare the blackened soles of our bare feet.

I don't remember much else, just that I was happy.

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