Sibling relationships are powerful, in lockdown and out

two girls from behind in a hammock


By Sylvia Carr Clebsch

I stabbed my sister in the back with a fork.

I was chasing her through the kitchen. She was two years older and so always faster. As I ran past the counter, my hand explored the surface for ammunition—a potholder, a napkin, something to throw—and landed upon a cool metal implement. My fingers curled around it, barely conscious of what it was. I only knew it might hurt her.

I lunged for her bony little back.

Then: the pressure of fork against flesh.

I got her!

My two daughters love the story. They mention it often, as do I, when tensions between them reach a certain temperature, as they often have over the months we’ve been sequestered at home together in lockdown. Their disagreements come to blows, at times: a punch, a scratch, a shove. Maybe a hat thrown, a shirt tail pulled. No sharp metal weapons—not yet at least.

What happened after I stabbed my sister?

Did she stop? Was she hurt? Did she cry?

I have no idea.

Did I get in trouble?

Probably not. Our transgressions when we were growing up were so common as to be largely ignored, beyond a permanent separation at the dinner table, where my mother always sat between us. When our fights required her attention, my mother responded with an absent-minded: Lilo, don’t provoke. Sylvia, don’t hit.

I use these phrases on my girls now, the names unchanged, and it sometimes breaks the tension and gets a smile—perhaps because my girls recognize the same dynamic between the two of them: the older one making ‘unhelpful’ comments and the younger one becoming enraged and lashing out physically. What they’re feeling is normal, my relationship with my sister tells them.

Lockdown has created a pressure cooker for sibling relationships—and the current picture of our ‘new normal’ offers little relief from the intense contact with immediate families, or whomever we’re sheltered with. It’s brought out the best and worst in my girls’ relationship.

On their first day of homeschooling, a punch was thrown over whose turn it was to use the laptop. The ultimate punishment—separation—ensued.

Since then we’ve managed to procure a second laptop, so most days they complete their assignments with minimal conflict. They spend the rest of their time reading books aloud to each other and playing in imaginary worlds.

Lockdown has inspired several “boarding school” games, a world suited to our current state of confinement. They pretend they’re students and take on different names and personas. The schools are in England or Holland or America. The time period might be the 1930s or ’60s, or the Victorian era. It might be contemporary, though they’ve explained to me that in no imaginary world into which they enter does coronavirus exist. The games often take place on the trampoline. I’ve declared thirty minutes of jumping as acceptable ‘PE’, and they usually stay on much longer.

I watch them from the kitchen window, bouncing and shouting, or huddled together and chatting behind the thin black netting which shelters them from the adult world. What will they remember of this time? Those hours on the trampoline, immersed in imaginary worlds? The dark windows of their school as we drive by in our car? The queues stretching down the street outside our local shop? Playground equipment cordoned off by the metal barriers police use to hold back angry crowds? Or the suspicions rising between neighbors —who’s having a drink with whom at the back fence? Are they standing far enough apart? 

My older daughter says lockdown’s like moving backwards and forwards in time. Backwards, because we bake our own bread now. And forwards, because everything— school, work, socializing—takes place on the computer.

I’ve been Skyping with my sister Lilo more often than usual. We’re separated now by life choices, by 3,500 miles of ocean. I’m in the UK, and she’s in New York, training to be an Anglican priest. After our early years embroiled in violence, she now dedicates her life to the words of a peacemaker.

‘Conflict breeds intimacy’, she said in a recent sermon, which I watched her deliver online to an empty church. She was referring to strained relations with her husband and son living in an 800-square-foot apartment, and I thought of the two of us.

Despite—or because of—our  violent beginnings, she’s now my closest friend. Our reconciliation began in late childhood, when we swore an oath not to hurt each other anymore. We bonded during our teenaged years when our mother died and so we were often on our own, together.

As young adults, she settled in New York and I in San Francisco and London, and for the past 20 years, we’ve stayed in close contact through email, Skype and semi-regular visits.

We’ve been Skyping during lockdown because, like everyone else, we’re both at home all day, trying to manage work and homeschooling and household chores. We seem to need the contact more than in our former lives, a voice to reach out to through the chaos and uncertainty. Just as during childhood we contained each other’s anger and aggression, now we hold each other’s worries about money, our futures, our children.

She has just one child, so she has no sibling rivalry stories to share. He has no one to fight with—but also no one to play with, no one who will know his parents and family as only a sibling can.

Lately we see each other in summertime at a family lake house. Though not this year—the annual meetup has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Separated. And we didn’t even do anything wrong.

I imagine there were many violent incidents which caused my sister more pain than the fork. I must have left a bruise with a heavy cluster of keys which I hurled at her back in a scenario similar to the fork-stabbing. The hair pulling must have hurt too—her blond strands yanked from the scalp and ending up in my palm. The scratches bled. The bite marks lasted weeks.

Why was I so angry with her?

As the fork-stabbing story reveals, I was always slower, smaller, behind her, trying to catch up. (My greatest revenge is the fact I stand an inch taller than her as an adult.)

She was never very impressed with me, either. In a family photo of the day I came home from the hospital, my young mother sits on a sofa holding Baby Me while Lilo looks on with suspicion. ‘What’s the big deal?’ she remembers thinking.

Beneath the anger, I craved her approval—and in the best moments she merely tolerated me. I see this in my girls too. In so many photos, the younger one gazes up at the older one with adoration, as the older one looks out to the camera.

They are visceral memories, the physical fights between Lilo and me. The anger hot in my breast, the frustration burning in my muscles. Emotions rising up which could find no release other than in the satisfying scrape of nails across skin. Pushing away, pulling closer. An embrace, a violent embrace.

Separated from the rest of the world, families, or whomever each of us is sheltered with, have more intimacy now than ever before.

We are all each other has in the physical world, apart from the odd neighbor we chat to across the road or hallway, or the shopkeeper in his paper face mask and rubber gloves.

How strange the world must seem to a child, divided from their friends and teachers, from the school communities in which they’ve been socialized since toddlerdom. Parents always ‘on calls’ with work.

Are they lonely? Do they miss the world as it was?

Or is that me?

My girls have their boarding-school worlds to step into. They travel back to 1969, don old-fashioned dresses, play schoolyard chasing games with imaginary classmates.

Me, I plan my next visit with Lilo, perhaps next year at the lake house, if things are back to normal by them. Right now, even that seems uncertain. She’ll arrive first and greet me at the cabin door, arms opens—happy at last about my arrival.

For now, I look out the window and watch my girls shout and run on the lawn. I reach across the table. I open my laptop and call my sister.

Sylvia Carr Clebsch lives with her family in Cambridge, UK. When not preventing her two daughters from causing each other bodily harm, she writes and edits commercial content, personal essays and literary fiction.

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