I've bookmarked on my computer a piece from the New York Times which follows the four Brown sisters via forty years of an annual photographic portrait. Maybe it's because they are all around my age that I find the slow transformation so riveting. And here we have just a visual-- a snapshot-- an annual moment... but we infer things-- there are deep emotional changes-- darknesses and distances. The body language of the girls shifts and alters. One year they are tightly embracing... another year they seem isolated. The dynamics between sisters changes-- the hairstyles, the clothing... what they seem to represent. We are given so little information and yet so much. It's like a sad film without a soundtrack... and why is it sad? It is sad to me. It is life-- the effects of time which are the only way we can really understand it. Passages. One of the women is the photographer's wife. She seems to be a little more mothery... one or two of the others seem to be going through a more traumatic metamorphosis-- maybe a gender or sexual identity thing.. who knows? But I keep speculating... observing.
Maybe it is because I'm so estranged from my own sister that this fascinates me. I mean-- I have so many close girlfriends who feel like my family-- a kind of girl-intimacy I've always enjoyed since I was small and shared bunks and cabins at camps and schools. But the sister thing-- the genetic similarity, the familial DNA blood-bind... to have lost this is tragic in a way, although so often necessary. I would say I am more the victim than the perpetrator of familial betrayals and they hurt, even though we do without and go on and have a rich life in spite. My son, on the other hand-- I can't imagine anything coming between us. My sister-- there was a sort of underlying competitive schadenfreude I became aware of only in middle age. It seemed so contrary to the sort of thing I felt-- wanting to make things and give things to my sister.. loving her children, sharing their joys and sorrows... it was shocking and terrible. It was an awakening and a lesson. I moved on. I tried to learn to share my affections where they are at least respected if not reciprocated.
There is a small human drama I have been observing now for two or three years. A girl I used to pass in Harlem, with her pimp, or her dealer... pretty, white-- mid-20's-- out of place in the crowd she hung with on corners late-nights: people smoking weed, slapping one another, playing loud music-- a local party and social 'club' for some.. for others, opportunities to exchange things, make some deals, etc. More recently I began to see her on her own, walking quickly like a dog with a scent-- underdressed in winter-- disheveled and nervous... or walking slowly and without linear sense because she is high and distracted. The last few months I see her outside crack houses and project yards-- begging, pleading. The hood boys have a way of ignoring these girls. They are blocked. But I have observed that each Friday her sister comes uptown, hunts her down-- hands her an envelope-- maybe cash, maybe some disability check she receives for her. I watch the sister and her boyfriend. She used to buy her a sandwich or some food-- sometimes they'd eat somewhere.. and then the sister took off, back downtown-- sometimes looking backward, with teary eyes... sometimes just looking down. Lately there is only a cursory hug-- the using sister is emaciated and her face is marked with sores and infections. Her arms and legs are covered with needle punctures gone bad, track marks and other scars. I am obsessed with this story-- what I infer-- the enabling, the attempts at rehab, the kidnapping, the betrayals; I know well the path of addiction with and without intervention-- the rocky stumble downroad and the pain of loved ones watching as though through a television screen-- unable to prevent, unable to touch.
My own sister and I were reasonably close; of course, you are thrown together-- share bedrooms and toys... but as the younger, I always assumed too much-- that I would have a protector, a team-mate, a
sympathizer. I was fiercely loyal and covered for her, took some parental hits. At a certain point, her life became unmanageable and she just walked out of her old self the way moulting snakes slither away from their skins. I can scarcely remember her scent-- maybe her acne preparation she wore at night-- I even thought bad skin was cool, craved it back then-- although I hated the smell of the gunk she used. Shalimar, by day. Years later, in my 30's, I reached out one night--- my second marriage was deteriorating and I was hitting a wall. You go back to childhood for clues... No, she said, I never think about that. A slammed door.
I have always been a girls'-girl... I have tons of great women friends who are my family, who have my back... my acquired sisters-- even my beloved cousin, who shares my heart... we are honest and intimate. My sister is not only lost to me forever, but she has re-invented a story in which she is the true heroine-- the good girl, the one who inherits the birthright, like a twisted version of the Biblical tale where the hairy brother shaves his arms and pretends. When I see this sister in Harlem-- taking the difficult trip uptown -- I know I would have done this... I do this, for my 'other' sisters, for the women in my life who need uplifting or assistance or even a nurse. The word itself... the way it is used for nuns-- yes, it is a privilege, a title-- a sacred thing... not a mere juxtaposition of birth and DNA.
Looking at the Brown sisters-- their subtle movements and frozen gestures, their metamorphosis and transformation from girls into women-- from strong into vulnerable, mature, complex beings.. like a painting which evolves... which deepens and completes.... I still feel a kind of sorrow and maybe envy. This tableau of intimacy and womanhood, of genetic similarity and connection-- it fascinates and evades me. I am missing this, despite all of my wonderful and fulfilling friendships-- old and young--- I am somehow a failed sister, an orphan of sorts, a disconnected twin. It is loss, in life, that makes us realize what we have had; I have learned this, and maybe this is the lesson of my family. I have tried-- once or twice-- at my father's funeral, for example, which was a 'show' run by my sister-- I have tried to sense the missing in her. But it is not there. I do not recognize the woman she is; I do not feel her or know her. Not for a second was there the smallest opening, the millimeter of Achilles heel.
No one in my original birth family is quite like me. They resent and despise my honesty and truthfulness. They fear it, in a way. I suppose this is a kind of power I do not fully appreciate. I write, I confide, I disclose to my friends, I absorb their vulnerabilities and never betray. Never. The younger-- my son, even my niece, although I should not betray her-- they sense and love me. But familial estrangement is in itself a kind of betrayal. Among four sisters there is room for relationships to wax and wane. But between two sisters-- it is like a marriage that either thrives or ends in divorce. There was so much at stake, for her. She had to be the winner, and I am glad, in a sense, to have conceded that. If only that had made her feel complete. My poor father went to his grave misunderstanding me (this was important to her), and I forgive him. My success as a human has little to do with his version. I was valuable to my sister as long as I gave and donated, have come to terms with the harsh reality of this. In our fictional moving portraits over 40 years, there would have been so little touching, so little revealed-- just the aging, and in her eyes, the desperation and subtle anger-- the determination and the deception. Here I am, I am what I told you I was. As for me, my eyes would be watery, despite everything I know... I am breakable and here I am-- anyone's sister, trapped in a loveless photograph without a birthright, wearing last year's sweater. I am what I have done, what I have left behind, the love I have had, the love I've been given, the failures, the betrayal: I do not love being photographed but I no longer mind if you look at me. I stand alone.