Friday, October 12, 2012

Book Review: Losing My Sister by Judy Goldman

You have a pretty good hint in the very beginning of how Judy is going to lose her sister, but the bulk of this book is about losing your sister another way: through misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and resentments.

Judy and Brenda (and big brother Donald) grow up in Rock Hill, SC, just over the state line from Charlotte, NC (where they all end up) and seemed to have a pretty idyllic childhood, with loving parents, a beautiful house (they had a working fireplace in their childhood bedroom!) and neighborhood friends. Brenda, the older, was of course protective, and Judy liked to be protected. Until they became adults. And they began to chafe at childhood roles they'd long played.

Most memoirs I read are either of the stunt-memoir type (where someone does something crazy for a year like reading the entire OED or dressing like a man or working a different job every week) or they are very specific (like a memoir of working in a mental hospital or going back to working retail as an older adult or going to prison). Ms. Goldman's book hearkens back to a more traditional memoir -- a looking back upon one's life and reflecting on the history and what influences have made one what one is today, what memories stick with you, and what experiences turned out to be more consequential than one thought at the time. Her book reminds me of Beverly Cleary's terrific memoirs or Cursed by a Happy Childhood by Carl Lennertz. While Ms. Goldman also had a very happy childhood, that didn't translate into the perfect adulthood as well. In most arenas -- work, marriage, motherhood --  life sorted itself out well, but when it came to Brenda, things were very up and down. They'd go years with talking frequently, shopping and lunching, but then there'd be a blow-up -- often so surprising to Judy that she didn't remember afterwards what it was even over. And neither sister was good at apologizing. It's not that they wouldn't do it, but they'd do it in a way that was defensive, inviting more hurt feelings and not the reconciliation they had in mind. They pulled it together through their mother's Alzheimer's, and their father's cancer, but in large parts of both those situations, they were only pretending to get along, or they were ignoring the underlying problems that they both knew one one day rise up again, when it was more convenient.

I expect most sisters go through these kinds of upheavals. When I read You Were Always Mom's Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives by Deborah Tannen a few years ago, I was struck by the rigidity and reinforcement of the birth-order roles from the moment we are born. For instance, when you meet two little girls, you might ask, "Who's older?" No one ever asks "Who's younger?" making it seem like being older is the thing to be, giving the older sister a sense of power and entitlement and the younger sister, resentment. Competition is something else imposed from the outside from nearly the very beginning: "Why can't you do XX like your sister?" is something every young girl has heard scores of times, and will unfailingly bring on an eye-roll. My own mother used to frequently tell me and my two sisters that when we were adults, we'd be best friends. As we were pinching and hitting each other, that seemed bafflingly impossible. Judy and Brenda start off their adult lives that way, but prove even sisters who are best friends as adults can have just as many difficulties. And those are made all the more poignant by the health issues and losses in their family.

The book is fluidly written with soft remembrances of times long past, along with sharp reminders of today. Anyone with a sister will see themselves in one of these two, and hopefully won't (but probably will) see too much of themselves in their rifts. Ms. Goldman speaks to a universal trial in our lives today -- how do we keep family close, without being suffocated by who we used to be?

Judy Goldman will be appearing at Bibliofeast in Charlotte on October 22. For more information, click here.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Park Road Books.


Kristen said...

Yeah, I love my sister but we definitely have our moments, just like we did growing up. And we have turned into very different people so that changes the dynamic entirely.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful review. I so appreciate the warm attention you gave my memoir.

Judy Goldman