The other day I got a question I hadn’t heard in awhile: “Are you related to [semi-famous actress with the same slightly unusual last name as me]?” It’s a question I used to get a lot, back when she was popping up fairly regularly in well-known movies. Now she mostly does supporting work on TV, as happens to depressingly many actresses who get a little long in the tooth.
The answer is, yes and no. Here’s the story: my father became an officer in the Navy when he graduated from college, mostly to bug his parents, I think. While he was stationed stateside, he met a girl—let’s call her Joyce—who had gotten knocked up by a recruit. The knocker-upper said “oops” and shipped out, leaving Joyce with the ticket. So my father married her, and she gave birth to a child—let’s call her Annelise—who had my father listed on her birth certificate. It was a “real” marriage, as far as I know, and my father was Annelise’s father (as much as anyone in the late fifties who was in the Navy and shipped around the world was, which is probably not a lot). My grandparents were horrified, especially my grandmother, who was, to be honest, a real bitch. She was mean to Joyce and never treated Annelise as a grandchild.
Once my father was out of the Navy and hanging around for long enough for Joyce probably to figure out how difficult he could be, they divorced, and my father left the state. Annelise was about five years old. Eventually he knocked my mother up and married her. I always knew about Annelise—they told me I had a sister, my father would occasionally go visit her (and paid child support), and they said I’d meet her one day.
When I was five, my father fell off a mountain on his motorcycle and died. For awhile we knew what Annelise was up to because my father’s social security benefits were divided amongst all of us, but I never did get to meet her. Once the benefits were gone, I didn’t hear about her until I saw her name on the credits of a movie. Then pretty soon she seemed to be everywhere. My aunt wrote to her once, and Annelise wrote back, politely saying, essentially, your family was always mean to me and my mother, and now you want to know me? (My grandmother was mean to my mother, too, but Annelise never knew that.) When my grandparents died Annelise declined her share of the proceeds, which was rather nice of her, since it meant more for me and my brother and sister.
I’ve never met her, and she’s not genetically related to me. So, not my sister. But: we did have the same father, a father we both essentially lost at the same age. Does that make us sisters?
It’s not like my undisputed biological sister feels much like a sister either. We have met, of course, but we were almost six years apart and always very, very different:
hanging with the geeks
traveling alone to Europe
flat chest and stringy hair
getting advanced degrees
caught smoking at school
unprotected sex in Corvettes
buxom and extremely pretty
smoking, smoking, smoking
|(It’s not like I wasn’t, um, experimenting, I just worked at hiding it rather than flaunting it, you know?)|
She was always sure that I looked down on her for not being as intellectual as I was. And I really don’t think I did. (I looked down on the Corvette thing, because really? A Corvette?) In a lot of ways, I envied her. I envied her for not having had a father die (she was born after); I envied her bravado; I envied her looks; I envied her singing voice; I envied her seeming sureness about settling down. I also felt like since she was my sister, we HAD to be close. I spent years trying. I finally thought I had, around the time she adopted her son. We talked a lot, I visited her often, and I defended her to my mother during my sister’s divorce from her very nice husband. She was always kind of … bitchy, but I told myself that was a front for her insecurities.
Then my sister got the most obnoxious new husband you can imagine. A guy who the best thing you can say about him is, he doesn’t hit her … I think. A guy who, after they visited us, my unbelievably tolerant husband said, “That guy is never allowed in my house again.” But she looooooooves him. And seems to have morphed into his clone. She says mean things about everyone, she spends her evenings getting drunk on Bud Light and smoking, she keeps talk shows on her TV 24/7 … it’s like she’s working on making me look down on her. Which, well, now I do. We haven’t seen each other since shortly after their wedding four years ago. We speak once a year at Christmas.
So: My sister? We have the same mother, but the same father only genetically. Does that really make us sisters?
If my sister were left alone in the world and homeless, I would help her out. I’d feel obligated. But why? Why does a genetic tie mean anything? I have friends who would—and have—dropped everything to help me out in times of need. And I will always be willing to do the same for them. My stepfather? Even were he and my mother to divorce, he would be part of my family forever.
This is one reason I feel no guilt about not “giving” HB a sibling. There is no way I could guarantee him anything from a brother or sister. Let him find his true siblings as he goes along. In my experience, the majority of only children appreciated not having to share their parents, and an awful lot of people have siblings to whom they might as well not be related. (I haven’t really mentioned my brother. That’s perhaps an even more complicated story.)
How about you? How do you feel about your sibling(s) or lack thereof?