A Tale of Two Sisters

Last August, when I received a phone call from a Houston number I didn't recognize, I felt a burning pit in my stomach. My heart stopped. I held my breath. I always knew that if this day came, there would be very bad news. And I was right. 

"It's me," the voice said dryly. "So... Mom might've died in a car accident."

It was my sister, and I didn't recognize her number because we hadn't spoken to each other in over a decade. Admittedly, there are times I forget she's my sister at all. Judging from what she said–and, more importantly, how she said it–I knew that she hadn't softened one bit over the years. 

"I'm not here to console you," she said, flatly, "You can go to your friends for that. I'm only making a courtesy call."

My blood shot up to a rolling boil. Instinctively, I wanted to retaliate verbally. But I couldn't. Her ongoing silent treatment had effectively numbed me. When we hung up, instead of throwing my phone against the wall and breaking every window in sight, I slumped down on the floor feeling completely incapacitated. Worst of all, her manner of delivery triggered an eruption of anger that overshadowed any grief I could feel for my mom. 

To give you context, we couldn't be more different from each other. She's fair-skinned while I'm olive-skinned. She inherited our mom's sharp facial features while I took on our dad's rounded ones. She hated any sort of sport or outdoor activity; I used to go for daily runs in the neighborhood. She excelled in school; I skirted by. She slept on her back, with her hands clasped on her stomach; I slept on my side, hugging a pillow. She was never afraid to stand her ground while I was a pushover. We're also opposite of each other in the astrological sense–she's an Aries; I'm a Libra. (Even our zodiac signs are positioned exactly 180 degrees apart, for goodness sakes!)

My memory of the incident that launched her silent treatment is hazy and vague. I was visiting from New York, so it must've been around the Christmas holidays. What year, who knows. I might or might not have been in college at the time–I can't really say. I do remember that she agreed to pick me up from the airport.

Now that she had her own place, I felt like we'd finally become grown-ups. Her more than me, clearly. I think I was sharing an apartment with a few friends in the West Village then. If she's the early bloomer out of the two, consider me the late one. To this day, I've still never lived completely on my own. But, then again, she's always been ahead of me ever since we were kids. She even learned how to tie her shoelaces before I did, which made me feel so hopeless I thought I'd have to wear Velcro shoes for the rest of my life!

But, back to that day...

I lugged my suitcase through her kitchen and into her bedroom. The kitchen, I remember clearly, was a little bit of a mess. "I didn't have a chance to clean yet," she explained matter-of-factly. She'd recently bought a fondue set and had hosted a dinner party the night before. There were breadcrumbs all over a wooden cutting board, wine glasses clustered together on the counter, and a mess of plates in the sink. She informed me that she was getting into wine now and had a book about wines to prove it. (Years before, she had vowed never to drink alcohol.) She's becoming so sophisticated! I thought. I also remember thinking that I wanted to clean up her kitchen for her after she left for work the next morning.

When we got to her bedroom, she slid open the mirrored doors to her closet and proudly showed off her wardrobe. She was a clotheshorse and loved shopping. It was probably dangerous that she lived so close to the Galleria. She had a very snappy sense of style and wasn't afraid to pay retail for it. Mine was either boring or all over the place. I remember looking forward to the night during my visit where we'd get dolled up for a nice dinner on the town. I was most likely going to try to borrow something from her. But, first things first, we had to go visit our mom.

She told me about her relationship as she drove on the freeway. I had missed this sort of girly catch-up with her since she so rarely allowed such intimacy. But then I unwittingly made some kind of disapproving remark about it and questioned his intentions. I had crossed some invisible line in the sand and that was the end of it. She never wanted to speak to me ever again and she meant it this time, she yelled. Next thing I knew, she announced that we were going straight back for my suitcase because she didn't want me staying with her anymore.

"You can stay at Mommy's house," she declared, cuttingly.

And that's exactly what happened. She didn't say another word to me the entire way. After I pulled my bags out of the trunk and shut the door, her car screeched off into the night.

Surely, she couldn't be serious. We'd gotten into crazy blowouts before but always managed to repair things after cooling off. I tried calling her later that night to apologize but it rang and rang until I got her voicemail. I tried again and again to no avail.

When I got back to New York, my emails went unanswered. A couple of years later, I tried a new tactic of just sending her a very short quip with no emotional content. "I went to Barcelona and tried anchoas for the first time," I wrote, attempting to reel her in through her love for Spain. To my surprise, she took the bait and wrote back. She said she had a thing against eating small fish. But the stick was firmly planted in the mud. She ended her email with: "I hope you've changed by now." Nothing got past her.

For years, I carried around an immense sense of guilt–just an overall terrible feeling about myself. I became even more cautious, self-conscious and accommodating, as to not drive people away with my very existence. "Maybe you should try harder," everyone urged me, further reinforcing that this devastating divide was entirely my fault. She was punishing me and I felt very punished indeed.

While she wasn't exactly a warm person, she was caring in her own way. When I was struggling during my early days in New York, she used to send a check here and there for $50 or $100. I was touched by her gesture, for she was struggling herself in Houston. It should've been the other way around, though, shouldn't it? The older one caring for the younger one? I'm sure she shored up some resentment over it, especially since I'd come home with some hundred-dollar haircut or an eighty-dollar Prada skirt I found at a consignment shop which, I'll admit, was irresponsible. At the same time, I was young and living in Manhattan. What can I say? I felt a constant pressure to keep up appearances with my peers. 

If I reach deep enough, I can tell you of one instance in which I had total confidence that she didn't hate me completely. We were teenagers at the time and there was a rumor spreading about me while we were at a party together. I can't believe now how affected I was by it then, but people were calling me "superficial" because I'd apparently turned some guy down the week before "because of his looks". There were whispers and dirty stares going around the room. "Snob!" "Who does she think she is anyway?" "She's not even pretty enough to be a snob." 

For the record, I turned him down because I thought he was creepy. Tell me, what kind of a guy drives 45-minutes across town, in the middle of the night, to deliver a red rose and a handwritten card confessing his feelings to a sixteen-year-old girl he's never even spoken to? The gossiping ate away at me. (Having my actions grossly misunderstood and misrepresented is one of the great curses in my life.) But my sister stood up for me. She stood in front of that crowd of older kids and demanded they stop spreading rumors about me. "My sister is a good person," she said, through her tears. "She is a good person."

I felt like a failure witnessing my sister's boldness. Could I ever come to her rescue as fearlessly as she was doing for me? I wasn't sure I had it in me. In fact, I was such a coward that I prayed such a situation would never arise. Today, there'd be no question. Like I said, I'm a late bloomer.

For the longest time, my dysfunctional relationship with my sister was a source of great shame. I was afraid that it would be reason for anyone I met to write me off. "She must be a truly deplorable person if her own sister refuses to speak to her!" It's a temptingly easy piece of information to tuck away as future ammunition.

At this point, though, I've come to accept that perhaps this is her only mechanism for coping with her emotions–or lack thereof, rather. It's the most compassionate explanation I've found. After all, her history of unleashing years-long silent treatments has extended to our dad, one cousin that I know of, and God knows who else. Her insidious hostility goes beyond my own character flaws, you see.

So, no, I don't know my sister's phone number and I didn't bother to save it. I don't know what she does or where she lives. We no longer have any significant ties to each other. What moments we did live through together are nothing more than a pile of ashes now: indistinguishable, delicate and disintegrating.

But maybe burning through it all is a form of healing in itself. As reflected in Nature, controlled burns are necessary in dense forests because they create the environment for regrowth. With the overgrowth cleared, the sun is able to filter through the remaining trees; its rays can penetrate beneath the foliage. The hope is that those sparks of light will awaken all of the hidden seeds to grow into new flora and greenery.

But I'm not holding my breath for it.

 

 

 

The Unbearable Heaviness of Eating

Many of our meals in Copenhagen included herring (here, fried, brined, and topped with red onion), potatoes, and pork.

Many of our meals in Copenhagen included herring (here, fried, brined, and topped with red onion), potatoes, and pork.

We arrived at the home of my boyfriend's mother, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, just a few days before Christmas. Her two Swedish lapphunds, Sigge and Silop, barked incessantly when we stepped inside, uncertain of who these strangers were. After all, it had been five years since my boyfriend last visited and it was my first time there altogether. The sharp barking ceased once the rounds of hugs commenced.

His mother, Jeanette, lives in a large three-story house that was built on a hilltop in the early 1900s and overlooks a lake. In fact, it's so big that it was transformed into three apartments in which to house herself and her companion Hans, her daughter Pia and teenaged grandson Marcus, as well as Pia's grown daughter Veronica and her boyfriend Kasper, who have their own private dwelling in the attic with a puppy named Belder. 

After such a long journey, we were hungry and eager for a hot meal. Everyone bustled around the table, setting out dishes, pulling up chairs, and pouring cold beer into glasses. A board of traditional Danish dark rye bread sat at the center, ready to be topped by an array of pickled herring, rullepølse (spiced rolled ham), and Gamle Ole, a distinctively pungent cheese. A large brick of softened butter was hurriedly passed around.

The chatter was done loudly and Danish, though, I didn't much mind. I was a fly on the wall, witnessing a Danish family's weeknight dinner. "Jessica!" Jeannette called out from the other side of the table, in her heavy accent,  "I am happy you are here." As a foreigner, those magic words instantly made one feel warmly welcomed. 

Hans, being Swedish himself, carried over his pièce de resistance: Janssen's Temptation, a rich Swedish casserole filled with lots of potatoes, cream, onions, and juniper-and-sugar-tinged pickled sprats. I personally can't resist any home-cooked dish that appears in a casserole dish, but found that–aside from my boyfriend, who requested that dish–none of the others partook. I tried offering some to Pia, who sat beside me, but she smiled and happily pointed to her plate of rye bread and cheese.

Hans peered at me over his glasses and sighed, "Danish people find the taste of 'Swedish anchovies' too strong." Then, he looked at the table and announced, "I have a second one in the oven called Jensen's Temptation," he joked, "which has less anchovies." (Jensen is the Danish version of the Swedish surname Janssen.) Everyone rolled their eyes and shook their heads at him.

"Do you really like this?" Veronica asked incredulously from across the table.

"I love it!" my boyfriend exclaimed, shoveling a forkful into his mouth.

"Well then, that can be your Christmas present!" she deadpanned as laughter erupted.

Hans passed me a shot glass filled with snaps, a Danish aquavit. Soon enough, everyone had one.

"Be careful with this," my boyfriend warned, "People have been known to completely lose it after two."

Jeannette held up her glass and roared, "Skål!

"Skål!" we roared like a band of rowdy Vikings as we downed the shot. A fireball of alcohol raced down my throat. 

It would not be the last I'd see of dark rye bread, cheese, potatoes, cream, butter, herring, pork, or snaps. Day after day, they'd all make their appearance. Don't get me wrong, it was some of the most memorable home-cooking I experienced, but I started to feel like a Christmas goose whose gullet was being filled to capacity. 

After Day 4, I looked over at my boyfriend and wailed, "I don't think I can do this anymore! I just need clear broth and bitter green leaves!"

We were in bed, severely jet-lagged, watching The Americans on Netflix at 2 a.m. He had a made a habit of bringing midnight snacks into bed and I had made a habit out of indulging in them with him.

"Oh, stop it," he said, taking a bite of rye bread, slathered with whipped lard and topped with pickled herring. "It's the holidays."

Sigh.

"O.K. One bite."

 

 

 

Pumpkin Pie

Sigh. I love fall, I really do. It's my absolute favorite time of the year. For me, it's September that feels like the start of a brand-new year, not January. Leaves may be drifting off of trees, but that first chill after a hot summer is something of an awakening. I pull out my sweaters from storage with glee and I go crazy at the sight of pumpkin pie at the grocery store.

A slice of pumpkin pie is the equivalent of Proust's madeleine for me–it reminds me of Thanksgiving with my family, though I can't seem to recall any one Thanksgiving specifically. It's as though all of my memories have coagulated into a creamy-smooth pumpkin custard. One taste contains many years' worth of gatherings. Oh, I can just hear the loud chattering now... And the shrieks of laughter from all of the little kids running around!

Instead of whipped cream, I prefer putting a dollop of whipped sour cream onto my pumpkin pie. Yes, you read that right–sour cream. I find that whipped cream makes it too sweet and I like pumpkin pie precisely because it's not too sweet. A latte with a sprinkle of cinnamon goes nicely with it, or you could do with a hot ginger or chai tea. 

 

 

Tribute to the Original SGD Muse

My mom posted this photo of her #singlegirldinner on her Facebook page in June of this year.

My mom loved sharing photos and videos of the things she cooked and ate–usually with friends–but the ones that resonated with me were her #singlegirldinners. Despite all of the differences I felt that we may have had, when I look at this photo, I know that I'm my mother's daughter. She is, after all, my original SGD muse. She was a woman who most certainly lived life on her own terms and was happiest when she had the freedom to come and go as she pleased.


This past August, I lost my mom–along with two aunts and two uncles–to a tragic car accident. A little more than a month has gone by and I still don't know what to make of it. I can only seem to process it when I'm alone in bed at night, where I can privately burst into tears or talk to her through my thoughts or simply think about her. I'd never experienced grief before but, yes, it's true: Grieving truly is a personal thing. It's a fact of life for a reason, but the way you experience grief is one of those things that only you can know–like knowing when you're hungry... Or when something random triggers a long-forgotten memory.  
 

 

Sisters, Life, Thoughts

Did I have all the fun I could? Did I work hard enough? Did I remember to tell Meg everything I needed to tell her? Did I thank everyone enough? Did I honor my sister in all those ways? And in the book itself? Or is it only my standards I have to live up to now?

The next morning, after sleeping a good ten hours, I woke up with a weight in my heart. Not wanting to get up. Wishing I could call Nora to rehash it the way we always did after rehearsals or long hours on set. Those three days went by so fast. So fast. Like life.
— An excerpt from Delia Ephron's essay "Nora, Meg, and Me" (Vogue - October 2013)