Maintaining our true selves while letting in love, doubt, an opposing point of view: this, says author Luanne Rice, is the essence of sisterhood
My two sisters and I grew up sharing a bedroom. The room was shaped like an L, and as the oldest, I occupied the long section while their beds were jammed into the L’s short and narrow toe. I felt jealous that they got to be so much closer together.
Beside my bed was a window facing our back yard and a distant hill. Many nights we would climb out, even when snow lay thick on the roof, and wish on stars. Being together in our room was one thing, but taking it outside made us feel even more united. The Rice Girls against the world: bring it on.
There was a lot of world. Another window in our room, next to my middle sister’s bed, faced Lincoln Street. We had secrets in our house, and one was that our father drank and came home only when he felt like it. He was a handsome, hilarious, and brooding Irishman, and if he wasn’t home by six, he wasn’t coming.
I knelt I on the hard oak floor by that window, watching for his headlights, praying he wouldn’t die or kill someone in a car crash, that he and my mother wouldn’t get a divorce, that everything would be okay.
My sisters indulged my religious rituals. Although we’d all grown up Catholic, I’m the only one who aspired to being a mystic. To encourage me, and also make fun of me, they painted Jesus on the crucifix tied to my bedpost with Lightning Bug Glow Juice, so He would glow in the dark. I felt hurt, betrayed — a taste of the two-against-one dynamic that inevitably occurs in three-sister relationships.
Sometimes, being one of the two felt delicious. My youngest sister was often the one left out. She was so sweet and easy to torment. She excelled in all subjects, but going for extra credit in her seventh grade science class, we told her she could get a better grade if she would tell her teacher that she had been studying the teachings of Mark Eden, hoping to further develop and enhance herself. (Mark Eden was the name of a bust-enlargement device, then advertised in the back pages of magazines.)
Mostly we stuck together. At 16, the minute I got my driver’s license, I taught my sisters to drive. A few years later, when our youngest sister was 14, we drove to New York City and parked in front of our friend Twigg’s Fifth Avenue apartment building for a Jefferson Starship concert in Central Park.
We would tell our mother we were going to study at the library, leave the house in jeans and sweaters, change into party clothes in the car, and head straight for the Griswold Inn in Essex, to drink with sailors and locals. When our middle sister began dating an older man who ran a cruise line, she would take us on their dates, telling him it was a package deal.
The troubles of our house brought out the wild in us. We might have been too working class to be considered “lace curtain Irish,” but there was a curtain: parents on one side, daughters on the other.
Soon after our father died, my sisters moved to Newport, Rhode Island. These were the America’s Cup years; my sisters worked on the docks while I stayed in their Brewer Street apartment writing short stories. My mentor Brendan Gill, drama critic at The New Yorker, warned me to beware of “womanizing yachtsman.” He set me up with his close friend Claus Von Bulow, to make sure I was looked after.
My sisters and I took long rides together, singing to the radio, windows open, hair blowing in the breeze. All three of us squeezed into the front seat, say we were riding “six breasts abreast.”
I never could have predicted how our paths would diverge. At times we’ve gone so much longer without being in touch than I’d ever thought I could bear, then circle back. My youngest sister and I call each other every night at six.
My middle sister used to speak the words of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. She’d say them seriously, in a deep and steady voice, without melody. “If you should ever need me, I’ll be there in a hurry. On that you can depend, and never ever worry.”
I know she meant them. I know she’s out there. Life can throw even — or especially — the closest sisters into conflict. Maybe we know each other’s secrets too well.
Three sisters. I never was a mystic, but I do believe we’re mythic. We came out of the same womb, rode six breasts abreast, wished on stars from a snowy roof, swam in deep blue sea. We know each other’s stories, and we’re in each other’s hearts. And no matter what happens, I love them forever.
Editor’s Note: New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice has written 28 novels. Her latest, The Silver Boat, is the story of three sisters. Don’t miss her New York City reading on Monday April 11 (Barnes & Noble, 150 East 86th Street at 7 pm)