From Squabbling Siblings To Sisterly Support

IT was war. The line was drawn. It stretched from the window overlooking the crabapple tree, ran across the hardwood floor, and between the twin canopied beds. The line halved the room down the center.

Winnie, my older sister, had her side of the room. I had mine. Winnie had her bed. I had mine. There would be no crossing into enemy territory. Winnie was condemned to wear the same outfit forever because the clothes closet was on my side. I was condemned to starve because the door was on hers.

Looking back, I don't remember why the line was drawn. Thousands of drawn lines merge and mingle. I played with her Ken doll because Barbie needed a boyfriend. Winnie had eaten the last cherry pastry and left me with the blueberry, which I hated. I had been told to dry the dishes when it was her turn, and she knew it. And yet, she only smirked when I protested to Mom. Because she and her friends wanted our room to themselves, I wrapped myself around the bedpost until they pulled me off and dragged me out of the room.

One time, she had put the Oil of Olay in the grocery cart. I swore I had.

''Yes, I did,'' she yelled.

''No, you didn't,'' I screamed back. We were locked into a childish verbal volley that allowed neither to let the ball drop.

Someone lunged for the bottle, which lay on the counter among the broccoli, milk, and cereal. Someone blocked the lunge. Shove turned into hit and hit into slug until a force greater than ourselves, Dad, brought the fight to an abrupt halt. He sent us off to our soon-to-be-halved room. As we indignantly stomped out of the room, mirror images of one another, he wearily mumbled to Mom, ''You handle the girls, Julie. I don't understand them.''

When I was 9 and my sister 10, we moved into a new house and were given rooms of our own. There was no longer a need for lines; we now had walls. But I noticed I would often sit in my room, adjacent to hers, and listen for her movements. I often wondered what she was doing, alone in her own precious space. I often wondered if she missed me. My Barbie would sit stiffly in her town house and miss Ken.

If we had argued, we would sit in our adjoining rooms and listen for sounds of fading anger. If all was forgiven, one of us knocked on the wall. Since I had learned guilt and remorse early, I was often the one curling up my fist and gently tapping. I was afraid of not being liked, of isolation, and, ultimately, of the dark.

''Winnie,'' I would whisper through her cracked door. ''You awake?''

''No. Go away,'' she answered.

I had tiptoed down the dark and shadowy hallway, sliding my hands along the wall, just to find my way to her door.

''Winnie, I'm scared. I just saw the man who lives under my bed. Can I sleep with you?''

''No. Go away.'' Her voice was flat, unsympathetic.

''Please, Win. He's making hissing noises, too.''

''I don't care. Go away!''

I looked down the hall. Shadows of weird creatures swayed fluidly on the walls. The lamp from downstairs glowed up through the stairwell.

''I'll give you anything you want. Please.'' The room was silent. ''Win?''

''Give me a minute,'' she said. I could almost hear her thinking.

''OK,'' she said, ''I want that new watch Grandma gave you, and you have to let me wear your new shirt tomorrow.''

I was indignant. For a split second the shadows, the dark hall, and the man under my bed didn't matter. I took two steps down the hall and stopped. Something scampered under the sofa. I could feel my heart pounding. I weighed the odds. I backtracked two steps. I didn't like the watch that much anyway. I already had a watch.

''OK,'' I whispered in the crack of her door, ''I'll give you my new watch and you can wear my new shirt, too. Deal?''

I had given in too easily, and she knew her price had been too low. Before I could open the door and step into her room, she said, ''I want the pink Barbie outfit with the fur hat, too. Deal?''

Winnie was always much more adept at the barter. But deals were how my sister and I communicated. They were a verbal line we drew to keep us distinct. Because we were only a year apart in age, we demanded individuality. But as we matured and became more secure in our uniqueness, the deals became kinder and more giving, less selfish.

I helped her get dressed for her first sorority dance, and she helped me get ready for my senior prom. In college when I needed a car, she lent me hers. I filled up the tank. When I was broke and needed a place to stay during the transition between graduate school and work, she took me into her home and her family. In exchange for the free room and board, I voluntarily cleaned her house, baby-sat her four children, and cooked.

She didn't have to ask. We had a deal.

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