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Rivals | By Lorrie Goldin

My friend, the mother of three teenagers, keeps her children’s baby pictures on her refrigerator. She says it helps her remember that she once loved them. There’s a photo on my refrigerator as well. Two blond-pigtailed little girls, one a full head taller, the other’s diaper-clad bottom drooping, walk hand in hand down a dirt road. It reminds me that my daughters, now 12 and 15, once loved each another.

I try to hang on to this as I duck the barbs that now routinely fly back and forth.

“Omigod, you’re such a goody-goody.”

“Well, you’re a freak.”

Soon both girls retreat behind slammed doors to nurse their wounds or plot revenge while I ponder how things went wrong. Whatever happened to the hours of playing vet clinic, when the compassionate doctors worked side by side saving bedraggled rabbits and injecting plush puppies to protect them from chicken pox?

Gone are the shared baths with bubble hairdos, rubber duck races, and intertwined limbs. Now Emma berates Ally for the gobs of hair clogging the drain, while Ally accuses her sister of using up all the hot water. They used to love to get all shiny-clean together; now it’s a competition to see who can sling the most mud.

It was not always like this. When Emma found out she’d soon have a new sister, she declared that the baby could sleep in her room, rather than the tool shed she had designated for a possible boy interloper. I, too, was thrilled with the prospect of mothering two girls. I had always longed for a sister. When I was born, my much older brothers responded by proposing to use me as their football. After our parents nixed that idea, they pretty much ignored me. How I wished for a sister who would join me in dress-up and tea parties, then pore over Seventeen magazine with me as we conspired about makeup, boyfriends, and curfew.

With two daughters, I would be able to play out my fantasy vicariously, a Mary Cassatt painting come to life. Indeed, the initial signs of feminine bonding were promising. When Ally was born, Emma insisted on sleeping on the floor next to her crib every night for months.

It turned out that such sisterly devotion was really part of a 24/7 surveillance strategy to make sure the new baby didn’t usurp Emma’s rightful claim as queen of the household.

Soon big-sister attentiveness gave way to massive indifference punctuated by outbursts of rage. But like a loyal puppy who is slavishly devoted to its abusive master, Ally adored her older sister despite her not-so-benign neglect. As an infant she perked up whenever Emma came near. Later on she deferred to Emma in every game they played, let her pick the biggest piece of cake, and stuck up for her even when we were enforcing timeouts for incidents of younger sibling torment.

Gradually Emma made peace with her rival. The two played happily together for hours, Ally the reverent servant to her kind, though bossy, master. Emma taught her sister how to tell a brontosaurus from a triceratops and how to blow gigantic bubbles in a glass of milk. They slept arm in arm in the same bed, not to keep an eye on each other, but because they couldn’t bear to be apart.

As the girls grew, their interests changed from vet clinic to building forts, writing plays, and shooting videos. Their true pleasure was in the elaborate planning of the activity rather than the product itself. I loved to eavesdrop on their scheming, an enthusiastic crescendo of mutual creativity and hilarity.

Then Emma entered high school, and Ally was unceremoniously dumped. All efforts at engagement have failed. Even Ally’s attempts to bribe her older sister—like offering up a prized Breyer horse—go nowhere. Emma, too cool for her now cumbersome and embarrassing family, barely deigns to speak to any of us, least of all her annoying kid sister. Bewildered and bereft, Ally is not consoled by my attempts to explain normal adolescent development. All she knows is that the idol whom she had so loyally championed has abandoned her.

“You know, it wouldn’t kill you to be nice to your sister,” I implore Emma, who rolls her eyes and turns up the volume on her iPod.

Ally, no longer so forgiving, now has the gumption to fight back instead of worshiping her tormentor. Our once harmonious household has become an uneasy demilitarized zone with frequent truce violations. A borrowed bobby pin can set off World War III. Whenever I see commercials featuring grown-up sisters giggling fondly together over a cup of coffee and some shared memory, I despair, fearing that my girls will reunite only at my funeral to quarrel over who gets the family silver.

So it’s no wonder I gaze wistfully at the girls holding hands in the photo on my fridge. I hope they come back soon.

Lorrie Goldin, who lives in San Anselmo, is a psychotherapist practicing in Berkeley and San Rafael. She recently learned that Mary Cassatt never had children, which perhaps accounts for her idyllic portraits of domestic life.


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Photo by Iuliia Sokolovska.