Sunday, June 08, 2008

my sister mary

I am the youngest of seven.

There are five girls and two boys in my family. My mother had her first six children in seven years and me - six years after her sixth child was born. There is a 13-year age separation between me, the youngest - and my sister Mary, the oldest.

That's a big age difference between siblings.

When I was a baby, my oldest sister was crazy over me.

The day I was born, my sister Mary rode her bike all the way from our home in Maynard to the hospital in Concord ... several miles ... to see me. When my mother went shopping for a new carriage when I was just a few weeks old, Mary was walking me in a particular model and people stopped her to say, "Oh, your baby is beautiful!" and my mother quickly corrected, "She isn't the mother, she's the SISTER and she's only 13!!"

Mary always looked and acted older. I suspect it's because she had a lot of responsibility as the oldest child of a large family. The expectations are always greater on the first born - and the consequences more severe. Although I have a few memories of my oldest sister when I was young, they are sparse. By the time I had any "real" memories of my childhood, Mary had already graduated from high school and was moved out of the house.

But I do remember that one year for Easter she bought what everyone thought was a male white rabbit. But then, as if by magic, a few weeks later, there were ten bunnies in the cage.

I remember driving around seated next to her in the red 1976 Ford Mustang my parent's bought for her to run "deliveries" from our family pharmacy. I remember that she would drink Tab in a big pink plastic cup and whenever she'd push in the clutch, she'd let me shift the gears on the manual transmission.

I also remember her bedroom - a space converted in our attic - that was especially cool. I remember there was an acoustic guitar up there. And a funky couch. And some neat lighting and her leather purse with flowers embossed on the side and an ivory fixture to hold it closed. And there was nail polish. There was always nail polish.

When Mary got married at 20, she bought me a diamond ring. It was a tiny chip of a stone, but it was a diamond ring, all the same. I remember being the flower girl in her wedding. I remember sobbing on the dance floor as she left for her Honeymoon. At the young age of seven, I knew that my relationship with my big sister would never be the same.


Whether a factor of her birth order - or spirit - or alignment of the moons on the day she was born, my sister Mary is tough. She has always been a force to be reckoned with and as far back as I can remember, she intimidated me.

There was the time that she broke up a fight in a local school yard when one of the neighborhood children was being relentlessly bullied by two older kids and Mary beat them both up and sent them home crying.

There was the time that she dropped me off at my father's house the year that my parent's divorced and when my (soon to be) step-mother had a confrontation with Mary, my sister grabbed her around the neck and pinned her to the wall with threats of death and other bodily harm.

And then there was the time she and I (and her two children) were driving home from a restaurant in South Carolina and I told her to go left - when she should have gone straight - and we wound up on Interstate 85 headed to Atlanta. I remember feeling absolutely panicked that OH MY GOSH I don't know where I am going and my sister is going to KILL me because her plane leaves tomorrow back to Massachusetts and we are heading to GEORGIA.

Plain and simple, I was afraid of her. But my mother who was exceptionally close to Mary, always supported my sister and told me that she had a difficult time in her life.

There was a lot I didn't understand.

When she was young she walked in on a situation with my father and then, went on to tell my mother about Daddy's girlfriend. Witnessing an act where her father betrayed not only her mother - but her entire family - is something that I'm certain has been seared in to her mind.

Her first husband was a man that she had met in pharmacy school. They divorced less than two years later, but that did not deter her ex-husband (or my father) from working as a pharmacist in my father's drug store for the next 10 years.

Mary went on to remarry. She gave birth to her first child - and had a nearly simultaneous appendectomy - when she was 23. She sadly miscarried her next child, a little boy, when she was five-months pregnant and shortly thereafter, became pregnant again. Just as she was entering her third trimester, she was driving to work one bright morning and was hit broadside by a vehicle that ran a red light when the driver was blinded by the sun. She suffered a broken neck, a fractured skull and multiple contusions all over her body.

During her fourth and final pregnancy, days before she was scheduled to deliver by repeat c-section, she slipped on her way down the icy back stairs of her Massachusetts home, and slid face first, down an entire flight of concrete steps.

Thankfully, after both severe accidents, the babies were born healthy.

Whenever I would go to Massachusetts, I would invariably spend several days or a week - at Mary's home. During these times I always sensed tension. My sister worked and she was raising her family and I felt like it was a terrible burden for her to also be looking after her 13-year junior sibling and arranging all the transportation to and from my father's home, an hour away.

Still, she gave me a lot more leniency than I could expect at my father's house. When my long-term boyfriend from high school wanted to fly up and visit me for a few days, my father refused and yet Mary graciously let him stay at her house.

When her youngest child was five, Mary and her second husband divorced.

Once I moved away to college, my relationship with Mary became even more distant. I wasn't visiting Massachusetts as often and so our interaction was far less frequent. She had her life, I had mine and they were vastly different. Although we might see each other whenever I would fly back to Massachusetts, we really didn't have very much in common. My mother and I were close - and my mother and Mary were close. It is through my mother, that I maintained any knowledge of what was happening in my sister's life.

Even though my sister was crazy over me when I was a baby, as I grew older - our relationship never matured. If anything, it dissolved. As time went on, whenever I would see her, I felt hatred. I could tell that she didn't like me and I never could figure out what I had done wrong.

Was it because she was jealous of my relationship with my mother?

Was she jealous or disapproving of my relationship with my father and his second wife?

Or did she just think that I was a selfish brat?

I honestly couldn't figure it out.

But I wasn't myself when I was around her. I felt like she was constantly judging me and I would feel anxious just knowing that we would be in mixed company. It was always stressful because I was exceptionally careful of what I would say - how I would act - what I would do.

Five years ago, in the Spring of 2003, everything came to a head. We had a falling out and we haven't spoken since. But the details of the argument are as clear to me now, as they were then.

My father had turned 70 two years prior, and my sister Beth requested that I invite my father and his wife to mom's party. Because, my stepmother had invited my mother to my father's surprise 70th birthday party and it would be polite to reciprocate the gesture.

I had reservations about inviting my father to my mother's party. The circumstances with my father's party were hugely different because my father had remarried and had someone in his life. At the time of my mother's birthday party, she had not yet begun dating Jim. Not to mention, there has always been a terrible amount of pain surrounding the divorce that my mother has had a difficult time releasing and having my father at her birthday party would only cause more hurt.

But my sister persisted. After she asked for the third time if I'd mailed the invitation to dad, I finally relented. I dropped it in the mail and figured that if dad replied that he would be attending the party - which I highly doubted - I would gently tell him that maybe it would be better for mom if he didn't come. But, I never considered that we'd even get to that point because surely dad wouldn't come to mom's birthday party.

A few days before my birthday, I received an e-mail from my sister Mary, which she copied to my sister Eileen, that expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with "my decision" to send my father an invitation. The decision, which wasn't even "my decision" and wound up being a moot point because my father did eventually decline.

But her e-mail contained some of the most hurtful words anyone has ever directed to me. It felt like I had been punched in the gut. I couldn't believe that her words were real. Maybe she was joking or I had interpreted them wrong? I read the note to Charlie and he was just as shocked as I had been.

After an hour of feeling terrible, I poured myself a big fat glass of wine and hit "REPLY."

To my sister Mary, I wrote in return everything that I wished I had the courage to pick up the phone and tell her. I told her that it wasn't even my idea to invite my father to the party. And because I was angry and hurt, I also added a lot of nastiness and ugliness that wasn't necessary. Then, I hit "SEND."

And I poured myself another big fat glass of wine and hit "REPLY" again.

And I wrote more and more and more. And the words just kept coming out of me like there was no tomorrow. Words that were applicable to the note she had written to me - and words that were applicable to things that had happened years prior - and words that had no applicability to anything at all.

How DARE she call me insensitive. How DARE she tell me that I would be better off never having children. How DARE she call me bad names in front of her hair stylist that time we were at her salon in 1992. How DARE she do anything to intentionally hurt me.

How about I judge her?

The failed marriages and the strained relationships with her children?


My mother's party came and went. Mary was there, even though she had written in her e-mail to me that she wouldn't be. Although I had flown 3,000-miles cross country and hadn't seen her in two years, we didn't speak. We didn't even look at each other.

My mother was crushed, but I was adamant that I was right. Of course I had done nothing wrong. So what if Mary had a life of hurt, why should I be subject to her poison? And equally important, why wasn't any one defending me?!

When I became a mother in 2004, we didn't speak. She didn't acknowledge my triplet pregnancy ... my children's birth ... or the six weeks they spent in the NICU. According to my mother, when someone crossed Mary, that person became "dead" to her. So I assumed that in my sister's eyes, I no longer existed. And that was fine by me.

But that first year of my children's life, something happened.

Maybe it was seeing my children and imagining just how terrible it would be if they were ever estranged from each other, if they ever did something to hurt one another. Or maybe it was my mother - pleading with me - to please write Mary a letter of forgiveness and move on.

Whatever the case, when our babies were scheduled to be Dedicated at the church where Charlie and I were married, I sent Mary an invitation. I wrote her a simple note wherein I said that I was sorry and I hoped we could put the past behind us. She never responded, nor did she attend the Dedication.

More time passed.

She broke up with her fiancé and moved to South Carolina to be closer to my mother and start a new life. I began sending her simple Christmas and birthday cards. And then last year, totally unexpected, she mailed me a beautiful blanket and hat that she had knit for Henry with a handwritten note of congratulations. My fourth child wore the hat home from the hospital that my oldest sister had made for him and when we go for walks, I drape him in the blanket she knitted.

Last year, Mary took a two-week trip to Germany with my father, a man from whom she had been estranged until his recent divorce. Just when I thought she was perhaps finding peace in her life, the relationship that she had with my mother ... the one person who had loyally stood by her side for everything that she had been through ... completely dissolved, less than a year after she had moved to South Carolina.

My mother didn't tell me at first. She was terribly upset and embarrassed to think that Mary would turn on her. Yet all of the anger that I had felt directed at me over the years - that no one could understand or would believe - was now directed at my mom. And it seemed that the fragile relationship that I had tried to foster with my sister was derailed.

It's been so long since I've spent any real energy thinking about Mary. Whenever I've thought about her, I've been drained for days. This post alone has taken me almost three days to write and I've been consumed with trying to get my thoughts out.

Although I've often wished things were different with my sister and I wished that she liked me the way that she likes my other sisters, I've come to terms with the fact that our relationship will never be a close one. Any relationship that we had before - however superficial - was destroyed by the wildfire of our emotions.

I was burned. She was burned. Mom was burned.

But I believe that even after the most severe fires, the potential exists for new growth.

My sister is is very talented. She is a gifted knitter and gardener. She has a knack for remodeling and restoring homes. She is an accomplished and respected pharmacist. She has one of the strongest work ethics I've ever seen. And now, I fully realize that she really has endured a great amount of pain in her life.

Two weeks ago, on about the same day that I displayed the prominent breast cancer ribbon link on my blog, my sister Mary was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. Ironically, I wouldn't find out about her diagnosis until several days later.

I am writing all of this out because I believe that on some level, people might relate to this story. Perhaps they have a relationship with someone that is, or has been, toxic. Perhaps they have reconciled - or moved on, never once looking back.

But it's tough to not look back when it's your sister.

Some people cover their hurts up with bandages. They internalize pain or try and pretend it doesn't exist. For me, the best way to heal is to expose a wound. And that is the real reason I have written this post.

I will reach out to Mary. I will send her a letter and tell her that I'm terribly sorry that she is facing such a significant health challenge in her life. I am sorry that we aren't closer. I am sorry that life might not be working out the way that she had planned. I am sorry that she has had so much pain - and I hope with everything I am - that she will find peace in her heart.

It won't be easy to put my emotions out there like that, but I will. And I can only hope that she will receive them well. I am so sad about the challenges that my sister will face. But I believe that this experience holds the potential to be an amazingly healing one for her.

On many levels.


  1. Jen,
    I too, am the youngest of 7, with 13 years between myself and the oldest. The relationship you have with your sister, unfortunately, is all too common amongst my siblings. It's caused me much pain and sorrow. It is as you say, as though if you cross someone, you're dead. It is so not the kind of family I would have chosen. I try to focus on my own little family now...but to think a couple of my siblings will likely never see my stinks. I always have longed for the happy, intact family. You'll be so glad that you are reaching out to your sister. Having one less regret is a wonderful thing....

  2. --just had to add this, yet another similarity you and I share: my oldest sister's name is Mary, she also had some tough luck with an early marriage, and grew increasingly bitter and distant. We did recently reconcile but I don't think there's much of a relationship there after all this time. Thanks for making me feel a little less alone!

  3. I think a lot of families have the same issues. My grandparents were never a part of our family, because of a falling out, until I was 30 years old... they died before I could really get to know them, as an adult. Shayna & I will include your sister into our nightly prayers.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Jen. I am distant with my mother, who chose the situation we are in. I've worked so hard trying to make things, at least, bearable, with no postive outcome, and nothing in return. Now with the 2 girls, I give them the love that I would have wanted from my own mother, my own flesh and blood, knowing that what I get in return is what really matters. I see the closeness of my daughters and hope that nothing can break it, as well as my relationship with them. All you can do is give it the best you can, and hope.
    May you find peace, as well as Mary, and I pray that she is well. God bless, ~Brandie

  5. What a beautifully written post. I hope that you and Mary are able to begin a new relationship, whatever that may be. Good for you to reach out to her.

  6. Jen, all I can say is WOW! WOW! I will be praying for your sister and your relationship with her. WOW! Much love - Bamagirl!!!

  7. Estrangement is heartbreaking.

    I can feel your pain oozing through my computer screen; and I am terribly sorry for what you are going through. I'm also sorry your sister is ill.
    This illness may just be what turns things around. It wasn't until my dad was diagnosed with cancer that our relationship was turned around - because he let it be. I had tried for years.
    It seems to me you are grieving. You are grieving the loss of a relationship that is so central in a woman's life; and the news of Mary's illness has made the pain fresh again.
    I will certainly pray for a good outcome - on all fronts.

  8. Thank you for writing this. Just, thank you. :)

  9. Jen,
    Your post today touched my heart. My mother, who passed away in the fall, was one of 9. There had always been tensions between the older and the younger children, and my mother was the bridge between the two groups. As her only daughter, I feel largely responsible to be the "bridge" in her place. Your post has reminded me that, no matter the effort required, the relationship of family is one worth every ounce of work.
    Thank you and God Bless!

  10. What a moving post. I know how hard this was for you to write.

    Our lives are so parallel sometimes, it just freaks me out. My father is the oldest of five and there is a twelve year difference between him and my Aunt Pammy. You know, I never wrote about WHY I am estranged from my father, but the whole thing started when his anger turned on my Aunt Pammy with a vengence.

    My Aunt Pammy, the baby, has endured a lot of jealousy and hatred from her siblings. I think they feel like she was sheltered from a lot of things that happened in my family and that she was shown favoritism and that she was "babied". They've more than taken it out on her over the years. I wonder if you are not dealing with some of those same things?

    But when my father went after her, my sister and I backed her up and now we are all "dead" to him. Which is fine with me. He hasn't spoken to my Aunt Pammy for 2 years and we don't expect he ever will again.

    So I truly hope your sister finds peace in her life and that she can let go of the hatred.

    But, Jen, please don't expect much. Please. All of her pain and hatred and anger may still come back on you. I wouldn't even be surprised if she somehow blames you for her breast cancer. Just be ready.

    I think it's an amazingly noble gesture for you to reach out to her. You a good person. Just remember that this life of hers, whether hard or easy, is HER journey to make. She was meant to learn something from this to take into the next and I don't think we always are meant to understand it.

    My heart goes out to you both.

  11. I am exhausted after reading this blog. You have some wonderful memories and some sad ones. I know this tore at your heart to write it.
    Mrs. Dunnigan told me she had read it and sends her thoughts to me.
    I Believe in Miracles. When a woman works so hard to raise a family, all she really wants is the childs happiness. You know this first hand.
    I think you did a great soul searching job.

  12. hugs to you. and to your sister. i'm facing a similar situation with someone in my life right now - someone who has hurt me and is not doing very well right now. your post clarified a few things for me.

  13. I'm the youngest of four. My oldest sister is 19 years older than me. We have a strained relationship. I don't understand why. I have tried to be closer with her, especially when we both became mothers for the first time within months of each other. I grew up being intimidated by her strong presence like you were with your sister.

    Oddly enough I am extremely close with my brother and sister who are 15 and 13 years older than me.

    Thank you for writing about this. Just because you share blood with someone doesn't mean you will be close. It's ideal but not always possible.

  14. Jen -

    Can't read this one and not write. What a courageous post. Your sis is in our prayers.


  15. I have 4 kids, 3 are older, 16, 13, 11 and then the baby is 17 months. I worry that the relationship they have now which is great, won't mature and will eventually dissolve. Is there anything you think might have made a difference for you and your sister? Any advice on how to protect and nurture that kind of relationship with so much age difference. Only the 11yo is a girl. If that matters.

  16. Just read this post today, but couldn't pass up commenting.

    My mother is the only daughter in a family of seven (she's 5th in birth order). They're all fairly close in age though; only a year or two between each sibling.

    We've been fortunate that in our family, the majority of my uncles have stayed close to my mom and grandmother (their mother, who lives in my home); with the exception of the second born who made some poor life choices (we haven't heard from him in years).

    There has been a lot of tension in different ways over the years, but for the most part we always try to stay connected as best we can, and try to support one another.

    I'm sure your family will find peace, and be able to do the same. I hope your efforts to reconcile with Mary will bring peace to the both of you, and take away some of the stress of a strained family relationship.

  17. Three things:

    1) I love your blog. You always make me laugh, nod in agreement, or cry right along with you.

    2) I love the way you quote your kids. I could totally hear their little voices asking "Den where awe we?" Too cute.

    3) I am totally the same way. TOTALLY. Hate to answer the phone. Hate to answer the door. I didn't use to be like this..I swear the children brought it out in me! I am just so over-noised with them!


  18. Dear Jenny, What a brave entry to your blog! As usual, I am an admirer from afar, but I was your childhood neighbor and good friend of both of your sisters; Mary and Janet, and my sister was equally good friends with Beth and Eileen. I just wanted to say what a wonderful job you did with this post, and you should know your internal compass is totally on the right track. You aren't you mother's daughter for nothing!It's amazing what can bring us to tears -  from reading the Oh Henry Bar recipe to hearing of a tragic health issue, I so admire your ability to frame all of these issues in such a caring, loving and humorous way My love to you and all of your family! Margaret (aka Mrs. Dunnigan's daughter)

  19. aOH Jen, tears running down my checks for you and Mary, me and my sisters.

    My sisters have been estranged for years. It breaks my fricking heart because I as the oldest cannot fix it. I thought my diagnosis of breast cancer might bring them closer. In a way it did, closer to me but not closer to each other.

    I will hold you and Mary and both of your families in my heart. God is watching over all of us and she has a very good set of eyes.

  20. It sounds like you are both reaching out which hopefully ends up being a good thing. :)

  21. You and Mary will be in my prayers. I hope and pray that your letter is received well - you are an amazing woman. And an inspiration ... even when you are locking your kids out of the house :) I hope I made you chuckle!