Brand building through storytelling

The gentle art of healing an estrangement

A friend is just back from spending several days with her sister in New England. Why am I telling you this? Isn’t hanging out together just part of being sisters? Not for these two. They had barely spoken for 15 years. When my friend told me she was making this journey, she looked both resolute and anxious. Now she says her visit was “wonderful.” Her eyes glisten. She means “full of wonder.”

My friend is in her 60s. She and her sister, so close in age that their mother used to dress them identically, like twins, were never friends until now. Half a century ago, their family was ravaged by parental bad luck and bad judgment. The girls retreated into separate solitudes, as children often do in the wake of familial disaster. “I was lonely,” my friend says. “I didn’t know that my sister had been lonely, too.”

On that springtime visit, the two almost-twins went out for a walk that crossed decades and silences. As they headed back for lunch, my friend did something she had never done before, just because it felt right. She put her arm around her sister’s shoulder. Her sister turned to her and said, looking awestruck, “I have a sister.”

I asked my friend what it took to bridge the chasm between these sisters. The first step, more than a year ago, was a Christmas card with the briefest of hand-written greetings. I know of people whose relatives have sent cards back unopened: RETURN TO SENDER!! But as emotional risks go, a Christmas card is pretty small-time. For my friend and her sister, it sparked an e-mail correspondence that let them build trust by degrees. With e-mail there are no awkward pauses, no hands twisting in laps. You can frame your message with care, and read the reply at your leisure. You can even run it past someone else if you feel old buttons being pushed (what you want to avoid is reacting on impulse, then hitting “send”). This past Christmas, my friend sent her sister a card with a photo inside: her newborn granddaughter. Nothing warms troubled hearts like a baby. Next thing they knew, the sisters had decided to meet.

If you’ve explored this site, you’ll know why I’m touched by my friend’s story. I too have reconciled with my sister. E-mail saved us both from lifelong habits—her tears, my chilly silences—that had undone us on the phone and across kitchen tables. But it’s not the only way to start a healing conversation. Steve Martin, whose harsh memories of his father’s emotional abuse caused a long estrangement with the whole family, spent 15 years calling a truce in weekend lunches with his parents (hey, nobody said this stuff is easy or quick). He writes in his memoir, Born Standing Up:

After our lunches, my parents, now in their eighties, would walk me to my car. I would kiss my mother on the cheek and wave awkwardly at my father as we said goodbye. But one afternoon, perhaps motivated by a vague awareness that time was running out, we hugged each other and he said in a voice barely audible, “I love you.” This would be the first time these words were ever spoken between us. Several days later, I sent him a letter that began, “I heard what you said,” and I wrote the same words back to him.

I know that countless people carry a grudge in the family to their graves. Yet I’ve seen time and again that even the most thorny characters are capable of breakthroughs, right up until they leave this earth. Don’t believe me? Hotfoot it to your video store and rent The Straight Story, in which an ornery old cuss of 73, with failing eyesight and no driver’s license, chugs 300 miles by tractor to bid farewell to his estranged brother. Based on real events, it’s tender, brave and expansive, a modern geriatric twist on one of the oldest stories around—the life-changing quest. The grizzled hero says to one of many strangers who help him, “I want to sit with [my brother] and look up at the stars, like we used to, so long ago.

Do you have a favourite reconciliation book or movie? Share it here.

Click here to read about my sister and me, and here for a previous post on reconciliation. 


Posted by Rona

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