“Does this make me look fat? Do I look tired?” my baby sister has barely set foot in my house and I am already fielding a barrage of questions on the topic of her appearance. We haven’t seen each other in two years. “I can only ask you because I know you won’t lie.”
Not sure what it says about me but I know what it says about our relationship – we are incapable of lying to each other.
I look at my sister and it’s like looking in a mirror, a reflection most sisters would recognize. In our case, she is a more beautiful version of me: longer legs, slimmer hips, bigger boobs and a sweetness to her features I don’t possess, in an Ashley Judd sort of way. Seven years younger than me, we never competed for friends, schools or boyfriends – never any jealousy between us. Our paths couldn’t have been different – she married young – and we led diametrically opposed lives but our united sisterly front has never wavered.
Looks aside, we share a stubbornness, an obsession for planning and tidiness that is not casual. As I watch her glide in and out of my house, I notice these traits in her are more uncompromising, a sure sign that I have softened with time. It will happen to her too.
My mother, also staying with me, watches our interactions as if we were still teenagers, the family patterns unchanged. I sit on the couch idling the hours away, listening to my mother chit-chat about nothing because that is what I used to do on Sunday afternoons. I linger before going to sleep, watching my sister smoke another cigarette and talking about life, because that was our routine before falling asleep in the room my mother insisted we shared. The house was big enough to afford us separate bedrooms but she was adamant we be together. Looking back, it’s a source of great memories.
Every family has dynamics that don’t change despite the individual changes – around the Christmas or Thanksgiving table we all revert, for better or worse, to the children we used to be. It’s hard to outgrow our roots. And, for us, it’s rare to be under the same roof: my sister lives in Rome, my mother in Bologna and I am in L.A. These three weeks are a precious interlude we don’t take for granted, despite the occasional bickering and my occasional wish everyone disappeared and left me alone for a handful of hours. I feel like I am perpetually planning the next meal, regardless of who is going to cook it.
I saunter down on Sunday morning, with an armful of laundry to take care of, and I find everyone already in the kitchen, making coffee and toast. The dogs are switching allegiance between the females in the household depending on the time of the day or, more likely, who is holding the food. I see pieces of dry toast being ejected by the toaster, a rare concession for an Italian breakfast which, usually, consists of nothing more than black coffee.
“People, it’s Sunday! Let’s make pancakes” and the Italians crowd around the stove to witness the miracle of pancake making, which they end up eating with great appetite. Screw the dry toast. Tonight the rest of the American family will make the trek up our canyon and we will grill meat and fish, while I watch the coming together of two cultures, the broken English and the hand gestures of fragmented conversations that, somehow, are understood by all.
In a spontaneous burst of affection, I hug my sister and smell the sleep and the tobacco on her skin. We walk away from the embrace and, simultaneously, we shriek “You are all bones!”. So much for being fat. Sometimes there is no better mirror than your sibling.
Family is precious. Family doesn’t last forever. The individual members can be imperfect, annoying, boring and even painful but the whole works. I learnt to appreciate my family as I got older, as I moved farther, as time started shrinking, as I became more compassionate and forgiving.
In the words of Don Corleone, not a model of respectability but a character who knew a thing or two about family: “Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.” If we are lucky, the raw deal of having to face life all alone is sweetened by the presence of friends and family around us. So far, I have been very lucky.
Images (aside from Marlon Brando) copyright of C&S