Siblings Unlimited

Francine Klagsbrun’s MIXED FEELINGS: LOVE, HATE, RIVALRY, AND RECONCILIATION AMONG BROTHERS AND SISTERS (Bantam, 1992, $22.50), is not a subway rider’s book. I found it nearly impossible to concentrate at work after a morning commute’s worth of insights into sibling relationships. Not content merely to analyze my own family structure — as the oldest of four I certainly have enough material to work with — I began asking my colleagues at work about the birth order in their own families.

In Klagsbrun’s anecdotes I found strangers expressing feelings remarkably similar to some of my own; I took to xeroxing particularly meaningful passages to discuss with a co-worker, give to my mother, or stash away for myself. Here is an excerpt from this thought-provoking and fascinating work:

Scene: The living room of a cozy apartment in Portland, Oregon. A woman, in her mid forties, is visiting her older sister Both look serious, intense. They have been in strong disagreement for many months about the younger women’s religious plans. Reared as Roman Catholics they both remained devoted to the church for years. But some time ago, the younger woman had met and married a Jewish man. Although never asked by her husband to give up her religion, she had become increasingly interested in the idea of converting.

She had discussed her thoughts with her older sister, who had adamantly disapproved. Their parents, both dead, would have seen such an act as a betrayal of their faith, the sister argued. Conversion would set the woman apart from everyone in the family including the sister Why couldn’t the woman celebrate her husband’s holidays with him and their own holidays with the family without going such a formal break?

The younger woman had tried to explain her own thoughts, sick at heart at her sister’s unhappiness but clear about her feelings. Then they had stopped discussing the subject, each feeling she had made her point.

Now, visiting her older sister, the younger says, “Well, it’s over”

The older, recognizing the “it” to mean the religious issue and taking the “over” to mean her sister has dropped the idea of conversion, says joyfully, “Oh, I’m so glad you’ve put that behind you, and we can just go on as before.”

“You don’t understand,” the younger says, her voice trembling. “It’s over I’ve done it. The conversion is complete.”

“Oh,” the older cries. Her eyes brim with tears as she excuses herself and leaves the room. A few minutes later she returns, smiling, her face composed and two glasses of champagne in her hands.

“Mazel tov,” she says, using the traditional Jewish greeting for good luck “It’s not what wanted, but now that it’s done, I wish you only the best We’re still sisters, and that’s all that matters.”