When I tell my friends that my sister has cut me out of her life, their reactions are varied. “Has this ever happened to anyone you know?” I ask, hoping that it has, that my story is not anomalous, it is predictable, to be expected, and that I am an innocent bystander in a family drama. But that notion makes me a victim and I am not a victim. That this “happened” to me is true; it was out of my control. But did I perpetrate the estrangement, wish it, cause it? I don’t think so.
I am in flashback, reliving the moment the court officer arrived at my apartment and served me with my father’s will. I thought I had put that sad day to rest, but I am at lunch with my 96-year-old mother and her Russian caretaker, and I am telling the story again, more than twenty years later, tears cascading down my cheeks.
I try to breathe as our conversation shifts away from my father and onto me. My father was Austrian, like my mother a survivor of the Nazi genocide, and I have a strange impossible-to- prove hypothesis: Genocide survivors write their wills differently, they conceptualize inheritance, the future, and continuity differently. I was a Jewish child born into the world to be slaughtered, my father said before he wrote me out of his will, thus slaughtering our blood tie.
My sister is only obliquely connected to this story as we are half-sisters, and she did not know my father at all. Every other weekend I disappeared into the lacuna of my father’s house, returning on Sunday night to my “home.” My six-year-younger half- sister might be doing her homework, or watching a television program. My mother might say to me, “Give your sister a bath, Carol,” or, “It’s past her bedtime. I let her wait up for you.” Whatever my mother asked me to do for—and with—my sister, I agreed to willingly.
I suppose I should be grateful that we had, albeit briefly, an idyll of sisterhood which lasted until I went to college. My sister and I began a letter correspondence and spoke on the phone at least once a week. Though the cache of letters has disappeared, I remember my joy at their arrival at my dorm in Boston, the joy I felt as I replied in kind, and my sister’s voice on the phone after my mother or stepfather allowed her to talk to me for a few minutes. And I suppose it was during those phone calls, connecting only briefly, that we began to lose the closeness that we’d had when I still lived at home. How she missed me, my mother said. I should have gone to school in New York.
Even if I had understood the word “abandonment” at the time, what could I have done about it? My life was my life. I was not my sister’s parent.
My mother divorced before I was a year old and remarried when I was four. My sister was born two years later. My stepfather was different than the other adults in my life until that time. He was less afflicted, and therefore more loving. Now the reason is obvious: most of his family had escaped the deportations, slave labor, and crematoriums. His parents and siblings were living in New York. My mother, on the other hand, everyone she knew and loved killed in the camps, was emotionally erratic, even hysterical. Like my father she could be viciously cruel, cutting in her remarks, and unforgiving. Her de-stabilizing influence on my entire step-family, for example, was the focus of constant gossip. My new aunts consulted my obstetrician-gynecologist mother on medical matters, and once she also became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, they solicited her opinions on their spouses, and obstreperous, complicated American children. She relished the role of potentate in our new extended family.
My emotions are not even that tangled: I still do love my sister. My door is always open, I have told her, if you ever want to talk to me—or with me—to a family counsellor. She has refused. Thus, the estrangement has become embedded in my life, a glacial rock. Such finality erodes hope, not to mention that it defies the centripetal importance of family itself. For a Holocaust family this is an especially big blow. Not only has the Nazi genocide decimated our family, sent relatives to their deaths, or into a disapora, we have now done Hitler’s work for him.
During my two years in California, where I finished my schooling, and ten years in London where I taught and worked as a journalist, my parents and my sister drew closer. And the irony was not lost on my parents that I had returned to the Europe they had fled and that I preferred Europe to America, considered myself an expat, whereas they were relieved and grateful, understandably, to be Americans.
During those ten years abroad I hardly saw my sister. Once we met in Paris while she was in high school, a trip sponsored by her French teacher. She was distracted by her obligation to share some American Express traveler’s checks my parents had given her to take us all out for a good meal, but she refused to use them. What was she trying to say to me about her now special place in our nuclear family?
This contretemps in Paris was a forehadowing of more to come.
I do not want to write this penultimate section. What shall I say? That when I returned to America we were already strangers—not estranged, but strangers. That when our mother, the woman whose womb we occupied, required help, we were able to communicate well and make arrangements, but that we never spoke to each other informally, warmly or serendipitously. That our children never mingled or got to know one another. And that this went on for many years until our mother, aged 99, was in hospice. We spent twenty-four hours at her bedside apart but together, together but apart. Then she was gone, the tie between the half-sisters broken asunder.
During a recent move, I found a photograph of my sister and me as we sat in an airport lounge waiting for my flight to Toronto to work in a summer camp. I am eighteen; she is twelve. As I looked at this photograph, a powerful love for my sister surfaced in me. We had been sending each other formal birthday greetings in recent years, but I had decided to stop. Let us either talk or not talk, I thought. Had I finally shut the door? Would this photograph pry it open again? I sent it to her with these carefully chosen words: This reminded me of our happy times together as loving sisters. I hope you and the family are well during this difficult [COVID] time. Carol.