Relationships & Divorce
Relationships & Divorce
Learning to Let My Sister Be My Friend
Our abusive father made sure my sisters and I weren't close. It took decades to repair the damage he'd done
When conversations with my friends turn to our families, they often extol the relationships they have with their sisters. “My sister is more than just family, she’s my best friend,” one friend tells me. “She’s the first person I call when I’ve had a hard day or when things aren’t right,” says another. I wish I could chime in and say, “I’d be lost without mine. We talk every morning and text several times during the day.” But for most of my life, that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I never had that kind of relationship with my older sister, Debi, who has passed away. And my relationship with my younger sister, Karen, has been strained at times, and difficult to maintain. We have so much working against us. Sometimes it’s just easier for us both if we keep our distance to avoid dredging up the past. When we look at each other, it’s hard not to see the face of the girl that had misbehaved and caused each other pain. When we were children, our father would beat us and our mother would watch.
I always knew that my father physically abused us. As an adult, I came to understand that my mother’s behavior was emotional abuse. Thinking about my relationship with my sisters, I realize that my father was guilty there, too. He divided us.
The Wedge Between Us
Even when we were little, Dad was threatened by the idea of me and my sisters getting along. Any sign of camaraderie and he’d intervene. Once after I’d finished my chores, I offered to help my sister with hers so we could go outside and play. When Dad saw me, he told me to sit down and wait. He told me I was never to offer again. Everyone had to finish their work on their own. He seemed worried that if we formed a bond, we’d team up against him.
Growing up, Dad did everything he could to undermine our relationship. He got a kick out of us not getting along, and would frequently pit us against each other. If I got angry at my sister and wrestled her to the ground, he’d laugh. If she fought back and tried to pin me down, he’d get on his knees, slap the floor, and urge her on. Later in life when we’d hurt each other with words, he’d laugh, too. Especially if we called each other fat, stupid, or lazy. Those were insults we’d learned from him, almost as though he’d been training us to use them against each other.
The most destructive thing Dad did to sabotage our sisterly bond was the way he punished us. When one of us did something wrong, he would beat us all. Dad would line us up and then force us to watch the whipping while waiting our own turn. With each strike, we grew angrier at the sister who was to blame. Dad taught me to resent my sisters. They were nothing but trouble for me.
I didn’t really know any other way. It wasn’t until third grade that I learned both of my parents had sisters. My mom was estranged from hers — owing largely to her relationship with my father — and I’d only meet her once. Dad was ebullient when he was with his sister, but later I’d learn that their relationship was held together by a string. The slightest conflict and he’d cut her off.
When my sisters and I grew up and left home, our relationship modeled the ones our parents had with their sisters. We hardly talked and never wrote. When we did see each other, usually at weddings and funerals, we were cordial but distant. There were times when I thought about calling them. I’d find a recipe for chocolate sour cream cake, like the one our grandmother used to make, and want to share it with them. Or a particularly painful memory would resurface and I’d want to talk to someone who would understand. Once I even called Karen, but the timing wasn’t right. She was still angry about the past and wanted nothing to do with any of us.
Years later, after our parents had gotten divorced, Mom had a heart attack. Because I lived closer than Karen or Debi, she became my responsibility. For the next 12 years, Mom’s heart disease tethered me to my sisters. We spoke on the phone more frequently. But usually it was so that they could scold me. Neither agreed with the way I was caring for Mom. They felt I should be more involved, see her more often, mother her. I felt I was doing my best. Finally, Karen convinced Mom to move to North Carolina to be closer to her. I’m not sure why that broke something, but it did. When Mom passed away a few months later, I flew in for the funeral and left the same day. I didn’t want to spend the night with Karen. Debi didn’t even show up.
It was later, when Debi got sick, that Karen and I repaired our relationship. After three decades away from home, we were finally on the same page. We acknowledged that the way we were raised had caused our distant relationship, but it didn’t have to affect it going forward. We were adults now. We were in charge. We joined forces to help our sister and when it came time to bury her, we were there. We had in common our grief and our guilt. We should have done more for her. She’d had a hard life. Dad was always toughest on her.
After Debi’s funeral, Karen and I agreed we needed to do more to mend our relationship. We confronted Dad about his abuse. After a difficult intervention, the three of us agreed to try to be a family with the time we had left. And for five years, we upheld our agreement. When Dad got sick, Karen or I would stay with him. When his house needed some updating, we spent a week together, cleaning and painting. We’d spend the holidays together, celebrating in ways we never had as children.
Karen and I were closer than we’d ever been. We talked often, and for the first time we ended every conversation with, “I love you.” Dad noticed we were closer, too. Whenever he and I spoke on the phone, he’d ask about how we were getting along. When I’d let my guard down and tell him how good things were, he would warn me to be careful. He said we both knew how difficult Karen could be. I could see what Dad was up to. He was threatened again and like before, he was trying to undermine my relationship with my sister.
He began lying, telling me things I knew Karen hadn’t said. I refused to take the bait. Instead, I told Karen what was going on. Together we warned him that he wasn’t going to be able to wedge himself between us. We told him there’d be no more lies. He stopped for a while. But then he started up again. First with little things, like how long it had taken him to drive to my house. Harmless stuff, but I knew I couldn’t let it slide. I started calling him out on every untruth, but the lies only intensified and became more vicious. I warned him I’d had enough. When he persisted, I gave him an ultimatum: stop lying or I’m out of your life.
Not much later, Dad told a string of lies that implicated both me and my sister. After months of regretting having gifted an expensive tool set to his favorite stepson, Brian, Dad had shown up at Brian’s unannounced and told him that Karen and I were angry that Dad had given him the tools. Dad said I had raised a stink and had ordered him to get them back. He hated to do it, but I’d left him no choice. In fact, he had left me no choice. I ended my relationship with Dad over the phone.
An Unbreakable Bond
I had barely processed what had happened with Dad when Karen called. Her voice was shaking. She told me she’d had a long conversation with Dad. He told her that I’d cut him off. Then she said, “He also told me some troubling things that you’ve said about me.” I fell silent, waiting to hear how disappointed she was that he’d lied again. Instead she said, “My head is spinning. I just don’t know what to think or who to believe.” I was crushed. How could she forget that this is what Dad does? He would say or do anything to undermine the ties between us.
I gave Karen my word that I hadn’t said anything disparaging about her to Dad. She said she’d need to think about it and get back to me. When I hung up, I was in tears. I imagined Dad on his knees, laughing and slapping the floor, egging us on.
I’d nearly eaten my nails off before Karen called back. She apologized for taking so long. “I’ve just been too upset to talk. I can’t believe a father would deliberately do this to his daughters.” I wanted to reach across the phone and hug her hard. She hadn’t taken the bait after all. I don’t think Karen and I will ever call the other best friend. But sometimes I do wonder if I would be lost without her. She’s the only one still alive who knows what it was like to grow up with our father’s abuse. And when I have a bad day she’s not the first person I call, but if I do, I know I won’t have to explain a thing.
Teressa Shelton has lived in nine states and three countries. After graduating from Belmont University in Nashville, she embarked on a career managing medical practices. Her first book, The Sergeant’s Daughter, is a memoir about her relationships with her sisters and father. She lives with her family in Springfield, IL.
What a moving account of what must have been a Herculean effort to separate out the lies from the truths and to emerge from the emotional fallout of insidious abuse.
Thanks Karen. Sometimes just because they’re family doesn’t mean they’re good for you.
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