Brand building through storytelling

My complicated valentine to my sister Joyce

The ideal sister is like a good friend but closer. When you’re down, she supports you but never says, “I told you so.” When you’re uncertain, she offers advice but never hands down judgments. When you simply feel talking—about politics, men or begonias–she’s there. And when you’re on top of the world, she shares your pleasure without the slightest hint of jealousy. Now, who could argue with that? And why doesn’t it apply to my only sister and me?

My younger sister Joyce is a writer/reporter in New York; I am an editor in Toronto. What with our jobs, the distance between us and my obligations to a husband and small son, we seldom get together. We talk by phone, exchange birthday gifts by mail, anticipate our rare reunions with pleasure.

Joyce is without doubt one of the liveliest people I know. When my job’s humdrum and my son impossible to please, I miss her a lot. She shares my enthusiasm for vintage Cary Grant movies, rich cheesecake and Mexican pottery. together, we’ve strung cranberries for Christmas, scouted bargain basements for treasures and planned, over endless cups of coffee, the TV sitcom that would make our fortunes. In our best times together, each of us is sharper, funnier, more inspired than we are with anyone else.

Then again, we sometimes carp at each other as we never would at friends. Consider what should have been a perfect weekend just a couple of years ago: Joyce had tickets for a Bob Dylan concert in New York (her Christmas gift to me). I would meet her and stay over for shopping, exploring, sampling hole-in-the-wall restaurants known only to insiders like Joyce. What could be more fun? Well, our mutual excitement carried us through the concert—both of us hushed and reverent and a little disdainful of all the 12-year-olds in the audience. But next day, after a shopping expedition on Fifth Avenue, our weekend began to sour. “Those salespeople are such snobs!” said Joyce. “Have you noticed how they never show me anything, how they look at me as if I ought to be shopping at Woolco?”

In fact, Joyce has quite a bit of money to spend at places like Lord & Taylor and this, I confess, is a sore spot between us. Which perhaps is why I said, “You know, you really should get your coat cleaned.”

“Are you calling me a slob?”

“Well…no. But there’s no point wearing good clothes if you won’t look after them.” Her coat was an elegantly cut cashmere. Mine was an old fur with, I hoped, a funky charm. “Besides,” I added, “look at those holes in your gloves.”

Need I say that, from then on, things went downhill fast? Joyce found fault with me and I with her, and I boarded the plane for Toronto disliking both of us intensely. All we had in common, it seemed then, was our cattiness.

Yes, I truly love my sister. Yes, the bond between us is uniquely rich and strong. So, why do these things happen? Jealousy. After long scrutiny of my relationship with Joyce, I’d say that to be a sister is to know the wrench of love mingled with nagging twinges of resentment.

From the beginning, we competed. Joyce came on the scene when I was a timid thumb-sucking four. My dream then was to become beautiful—the stories I told and the pictures I drew were always full of golden-haired princesses. “You weren’t a pretty child,” my mother says now, “but you were vivid.” Joyce, on the other hand, was a knockout from day one, and vivid too, as our family album still testifies. Enormous eyes. A thick tuft of silky black hair. Skin so brown she could have been Polynesian. And a radiant smile. Friends, relatives, even total strangers exclaimed regularly over her exotic beauty; and if you ask me, it was pretty hard to take. Still, pushing Joyce’s carriage gave me a certain cachet. Too shy to join the neighborhood kids on my own, I would wheel her up to them and say, “Joyce is here.”

As my sister grew older, she realized that I drew, wrote stories and was labeled “creative” by teachers and our parents (who valued artistic talent. Lo and behold—Joyce also began to write and draw. I guess she had to. She wrote one-woman extravaganzas starring herself, and staged the, complete with commercials, in our living room. At five, she drew self-portraits and peddled them door-to-door for a nickel each. Her wheeling-and-dealing was generally viewed as cute (except by me) but there was a catch. Our parents gradually concluded that Joyce would do anything for money and blamed her whenever a small pile of change disappeared from our father’s desk. I, on the other hand, was famous for honesty and moral fortitude.

We were stereotyped early. Energetic, ready to challenge the world, a lovable conniver—that was Joyce. Contemplative, painstaking, trustworthy—that was me. “You know Joyce, she’ll try anything,” my parents would say. Or, “You know Rona–a sterling character.”

I longed for some of Joyce’s chutzpah. Every time she started a community newspaper or organized a babysitting agency (this at age 11), I’d ask myself: I’m older and smarter, so why can’t I do that> And I’d answer: Because it would be pretty complicated and it might not work. As it happened, things didn’t always work for Joyce, either. But her failures were so damned endearing. Take the babysitting agency, which got no calls. Our mother still has the hopeful posters Joyce made—a smiling self-portrait captioned “Loving childcare PLUS crafts, games, guitar lessons, storytelling: 15 cents an hour.”

Meanwhile, as we grew older, Joyce coveted what she saw as my cool sophistication. (To me, it was shyness, pain and simple.) After all, I wore nylons and carried a purse. I burned candles in my room and read Dylan Thomas. I said, “Oh, Go-od” with a disdainful expression no mere kid could muster. And I would never, but never allow her in my room when my friends were around. She’d knock on the door and we’d tell her to get lost. “I was really jealous of your friends,” she recalls. “You were so hip.”

Joyce and I didn’t talk much, growing up (I always figured she was too young to understand), though we had many raucous arguments over who really owned the brass beads and whether Joyce could borrow my cableknit sweater and even who got the larger slice of pie. When I made her cry, I wasn’t sorry. “Be patient with her,” my mother would plead. “She admires you so much!”

Sweet, downtrodden Joyce. Mean-minded me.

Only when I left home for college did we really get to know each other. Step one was the letters Joyce sent me—long gossipy letters with whimsical drawings in the margins. What do you know! My little sister was funny, and more perceptive than some of the hotshot intellectuals I hung around with at school.

Stage two began when I met my husband. My parents disapproved. My father, who has a philosophical turn of mind, asked Paul to define beauty and was not impressed by the flippant answer. My mother asked pointedly, “And what do you plan to do with yourself?” Paul leaned back in his chair, took a deep drag on his cigarette (my parents are rabid antismokers) and said he wasn’t sure. Another wrong answer! With Joyce, though, he got along fine. She didn’t judge him or dismiss him as a phase I’d soon outgrow–knowing, I’m sure, that when I cheerfully hand someone the larger slice of pie, I have to be serious. And when, later, I wrote home, “good news! We’re getting married!”, only Joyce was happy for me.

The older we get, the closer we get. I’ve sustained Joyce through more than one emotional crisis; she has helped clarify some of the ongoing confusions in my life. But our friendship is still emerging because we’re still emerging as people. Each of us feels secure in some areas, vulnerable in others; and these areas are different. I would like to be as well-established in my career as Joyce is in hers. (She has already published a book.) And she would like a family. (“When you were my age,” she says wistfully, “Benjy was already walking.”) Result: I find it difficult to greet her career successes with pure pleasure, while she sometimes hints that I am a lesser mother than she would be. Sometimes our adult conversations echo our childhood spats as each of us struggles for dominance. Family habits die hard.

But they are dying, and I’m beginning to find Joyce’s unique strengths more inspiring than threatening. I become bolder, more assertive with time; she, meanwhile, becomes mellower, more tolerant. As young women intent on creative and personal fulfillment, we need all the role models we can find. And in some key areas, we’ve chosen each other.

Postscript, 31 years later: In my 20s, I thought it was okay to fudge a small fact in a first-person article. The Bob Dylan concert took place in Boston, and the shopping trip in New York. The only person living who would know is my sister, who may not notice. But whether or not it matters to anyone, I figured I’d set the record straight.

First published in Miss Chatelaine, 1976. Copyright Rogers Media Publishing.

Posted by Rona

Leave a Reply

Stay up-to-date with Rona.

To see what’s on my mind these days, friend me on Facebook.

Miss my old site?

Visit the archive to find your favorite blog posts and Chatelaine editorials or browse my published articles. Sorry, I’m not blogging anymore.