The riddle and the untying of the riddle: an homage to sisters

The moth and the fish eggs are in their place/ the suns I see and the suns I cannot see are in their place/ the palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place/ These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me/if they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing/if they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing/ if they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing.

-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

By the time I was three months old, my middle sister was in utero, and by the time I was two and a half, my youngest sister had been born. Along with the challenges of a closely spaced brood, the apocryphal stories verbally handed down to us speak of environmental chaos and peril: deadly spiders, scorpions in toddler shoes, fecund cats birthing kittens among the babies, self perpetuating baskets of laundry doubling by the hour, an organic apple farm passion project gone horribly wrong despite zealous romantic intentions, community canning for church fairs, a workaholic dad, the squalor, the dishes, the damp, the near death of mom in a dramatic post partum haemorrhage after she’d been sent home from hospital, three cribs crammed into one tiny room. A year or two into therapy I tried to draw it, get a sense of what it might have felt like to be an infant here. Nothing to scale, everything too big or too small and too much and too little. My unborn sister taking up my mothers internal space, literally and metaphorically: the little emotional capacity my mother possessed shared out between us from before I can remember. And I have tried to imagine how awkward it must be to hold a wriggling baby while another somersaults inside you. It must have been awkward for all three of us. I can’t have been held very satisfactorily though. The sheer bodily awkwardness of boobs and bulge and fetus and baby! One of the creepier facts I remember from my own pregnancy is how one’s internal organs slowly compress over nine months to make way for the entity inside. It seems like a useful symbol.

Apparently I “self weaned” off the breast at three months, no fuss. I prefer to think I learned early on in infancy that there was never going to quite be enough and it was time to move on and learn to live by the rules of scarcity. At least there is some dignity in leaving before you’re actually forced out. I was born into famine and that logic has governed my relational reality. This implicit memory has manifested in all the ways I take-in: breath, food, love, attention, whatever. I feel shame when I am too greedy, take up too much space, when I am too much, when I demand more than my ‘fair share’. I vividly remember all the haggling over seat boundary infractions when we sat three-in-a-row in the station wagon on the endless road trips.Negotiating shared space is in my bones.

And this is the paradox. That the very births that probably obliterated my mothers attention (admittedly probably already fairly impoverished by this point) and over stretched her in terms of her emotional capacities and physical limits, are the same births that preserved my soul. I am not dead, face down in a gutter with something dodgy in my bloodstream because therapy and because sisters.

I love that deprivation and salvation spring from the same genus. What could have been a truly unbearable trauma was witnessed and endured by two other people and because of that, perhaps I have been able to make sense of my story, and through symbolising it to myself and each other over the years, metabolise it. It wasn’t entirely overwhelming. Some of the experiences I have managed to assimilate into my identity and use to claim personhood, to build a self. But only because we were hydra, or some other many eyed, many-remembering three headed gorgon. I have leaned heavily on our collective, imperfect, dissociated memories to cobble together some kind of workable history for myself, a plausible backstory so I can step into my present and future.

Our insanely close ages were protective in myriad ways. We played together daily- Winnicott has taught me never to underestimate the integrative, healing possibilities of play. Our play was wild and imaginative and physical and muddy and absorbed. We created a fantastical bubble of horses and miniature microcosms and elaborate games. We did mirroring for one another that wasn’t available elsewhere: so much of my sense of self comes from what my sisters reflected back about who I was. (It wasn’t always flattering, but at least I felt I existed to them) We kept each other safe from night terrors, often bundling into the same bed together after dark.

I joke that we were such close comrades because we knew even then who the enemy was. There are few pleasures more delicious than shooting a knowing glance across the table at a sister. Or a screenshot of an email. They see. They see me. We’re all in on the joke, we are all three audience to the absurd comedy that was our childhood. And just as important, we played audience to one another. Our felt experience was often communicated through a dissenting glance, a smirk or a roll of the eyes. There was in -fighting, of course, but we needed each other.

And it is odd to think the minuscule age gap between us all both tore us all to shreds and knitted us together. But. Its true. This tangle they left inside me is sacred, I am who I am because of them, and I’m grateful that they exist.

copyright Diana Smith 2018

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