One of my sisters is a year older than I am. One of my sisters is a year younger. Older Sister is petite. I am not. By the time she was four and I was three, we were frequently mistaken for twins. I loved it. She hated it.
Older Sister immediately – and sternly – corrected even the nicest little old ladies: “We are not twins. She is a year younger.”
“Ooooo,” they would laugh. “Aren’t you an adorable little spitfire!”
By the time I was five, I was taller, and mistaken for the eldest by outsiders. Which was a bummer. I adored Older Sister. I’d beg, “Let’s wear the same outfit! I’ll bend my knees and we’ll see how many people think we’re twins!”
Older Sister was having none of it. “I am a year, a month, and eleven days older than you are! I’m not your twin and I’m not playing with a baby like you!” She would run off to play with anyone else. Older Sister would only play with me to cut my hair, cut up my clothes, or get me to do something stupid. I’d get in trouble. She’d laugh.
At the time, I was emotionally crushed. Looking back, I am merely grateful that I was too big to chuck out a window (thereby getting physically crushed). Older Sister already had Big Brother to compete with – what child wouldn’t be angry and resentful over losing her mother’s attention to a newborn at age 1 (plus a month and eleven days)? Most pediatricians and child development experts recommend at least two years between children. Properly parenting four kids within five years is asking too much of two parents.
Again, people. FAMILY PLANNING.
I craved Older Sister’s approval just as much as I did parental approval. I’d run up to her after a solo in chorus like an annoying puppy, desperate for a scrap of affection: “How did I do? Didja like it? Was it okay?”
Even though I was five inches taller than Older Sister, she managed to look down her nose at me: “You were flat on ‘do.’”
I scuttled away with my tail between my legs that day, and on any other day I made the mistake of asking for validation. At school, Older Sister regularly pretended not to see me. If I approached her, she would make fun of me to the other upperclassmen. “God, Autumn, which hooker did you mug for those earrings?!”
I would then avoid her until Older Sister unexpectedly offered to do something nice, like arrange my hair for Homecoming. (The fine motor skills that make her a brilliant surgeon today began with French braiding.) I’d immediately revert to excited puppy state: “Thank you! You’re awesome! Do you like my dress? Do these shoes look okay?”
Older Sister: “I guess. But you’re going to dwarf your date.”
Eventually, I gave up. I competed with Older Sister instead. I couldn’t catch her in math or chemistry, but I bested her biology test papers and fought hard to match her in AP English and AP History. I’m not sure Older Sister noticed. She was busy winning Faculty Award, being a National Merit Scholar, and getting a full ride to a prestigious university. I merely got to stand up and be recognized at my graduation. I also got a scholarship, but mine didn’t cover room and board, darn it.
But a funny thing happened when I went to visit Older Sister at college. She smiled when she saw me. She even HUGGED me. Then Older Sister dragged me around her dorm and sorority and introduced me to everyone: “This is my little sister, Autumn. She’s a freshman, but not here, blah, blah…” She even linked arms with me, like we were best buds. Her classmates exclaimed over how similar we looked and sounded. One even asked if we were fraternal twins. I nervously awaited an explosive denial. Older Sister just laughed and said, “Yeah, we got that all the time when we were kids.” She smiled, like it was a fond memory.
It took me five minutes to recover from the shock and realize Older Sister was bragging about me. I was no longer an annoying little mutt, yipping at her heels. Now, I was a goddamned PUREBRED SHOW DOG!
Older Sister took me drinking at an Irish bar. She dragged me along to frat parties – insisting all the while that I could NEVER say “frat” (which is apparently insulting) and had to say “fraternity.” She even asked if I wanted to go see a movie, just the two of us. I hyperventilated, sucked a mint into my lungs, and went to the movie anyway. My lungs ached, but it was a good pain.
Part of me gloried in my change of status. The suspicious part waited to be kicked. I called Younger Sister to report on this sisterly miracle.
“I know!’ she gushed back. “I went to visit and it was the same thing! So weird!”
We pondered and decided that Older Sister must have a) missed us and realized our true worth or, b) realized that everyone else at college openly loved their families and she was trying hard to fit in.
We were pretty sure it was B, but Younger Sis and I enjoyed those college years nonetheless. We sent each other gifts, care packages, and cards. Like real sisters.
And then came graduation. I graduated in three years, because even just paying for college room and board is a financial killer. This meant that Older Sister and I graduated the same week, and I actually graduated several days ahead of her. There I was, horning in on her special time, once again. But she had matured, and she took it well. It probably helped that our father’s parents opted to go to her graduation instead of mine. (They gave me a really nice sapphire ring as a consolation prize. Younger Sister opined, “I hope they skip mine and send a ring.”)
Older Sister and I both attempted to graduate with highest honors. We shared nail-biting phone calls as we awaited results. Her major was Pre-Med, and her project was undoubtedly much harder that my 120 pages of liberal arts whatever. Mine sailed through committee.
Older Sis was the first person I called with the news. “I did it! I got summa cum laude!”
Older Sister managed an almost cheerful, “Congratulations!”
I knew right away. “Oh, no. They didn’t give you honors?”
Older Sister said, “Not highest. I only got manga cum laude.”
I couldn’t believe it. Genius Judgmental Older Sister hadn’t gotten highest honors? This was a travesty and I told her so. I wanted to go punch her committee in the face. All of them.
But Older Sister admitted that maybe she hadn’t worked quite as hard as she could have. Maybe she’d spent a little too much time being Sigma Chi Sweetheart, or perfecting an inward 2½ pike on the diving team. (Amazing, isn’t it? Older Sister even kicked ass in being well-rounded.)
Still, she was a little bitter: “I guess I’ll be sitting with all the other losers who got magna at graduation.”
Yeah. She really said that.
Sitting in the “loser” section, though, while her little sister pranced around with highest honors must’ve lit a fire under Older Sister.
Four years later, I sat in the audience for her medical school graduation, watching Older Sister officially morph into Genius Judgmental Doctor Sister.
She was Medical School President.
She won the Surgery Award.
She won the Research Award.
She won the Academic Award.
Seriously, no one else in the Very Prestigious Medical School’s graduating class won anything except for my sister. When she got her diploma, the Dean STOPPED THE CEREMONY and made the other graduates wait while he gave a speech about how brilliant and amazing my sister truly was.
Afterwards, her future husband gave Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister a huge hug and said, “There, woman! Are you happy now? You WON graduation!”
Doctor Sis went onto win her residency and her cancer fellowship. She now saves lives with both her research and her surgical skills.
Sometimes – okay, every time I think about it – I enjoy thinking that me and my highest honors had a tiny little something to do with all that greatness.