On sisterhood

Mary Barnett
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

…and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

According to my mother, her oldest sister Hope was a beauty and a tyrant. By the time I met her, however, she was an “old maid” of about forty, who had taken up permanent residence in the best bedroom of her parents’ elegant home in Milton, Massachusetts. She had the best view, my mother said, which was some consolation, and would probably get the house after all, and through the wisteria branches that framed her window, you looked down the long sledding hill to the grand meadow and the purpliest sunsets you ever saw. Rte. 695, a spur off the most traveled highway on the East Coast, dead-ended in the woods, just beyond that meadow. And rumor had it that, single-handedly, Hopie had done it, foiled a shortcut that threatened to foul her view. She ran a command post from her doily-covered bedside table with a hotline to WNPR and senators who wished they were fishing. I walked down the sledding hill once, years later, to see for myself, and there, behind a stand of trees, just out of sight of Hopie’s window, a deserted three-lane highway grinds to a complete stop. Then nothing but grass and trees and birds.

Back in the old days, my mother said, there were cows and horses and chickens, and we drank milk straight from their udders, and it took a whole day to move the family and all our trunks eighteen miles to the big house in Cohasset. And sometimes the Rockefellers came too, my mother said.

At my grandparents’, after a long, formal meal at the long, formal mahogany table in the long, formal mahogany dining room, my grandmother would ring the little silver bell, and May from Ireland would come out through the swinging wooden door and clear away the dishes. Following my grandmother’s example, we swilled our fingers in our individual glass finger bowls and retired to the parlor to play parlor games. We played Adverbs and Dumb Crambo and a family version of Charades without hand signals. Dividing ideas into manageable categories with the help of a dedicated ancillary system, like hand signals, was common and boorish, like eating a lobster with a bib. It was important just to use your head.

There are more things in heaven … began my mother.

Philosophically! sang my father.

So, we eschewed hand signals. We merely behaved, and then tried to guess what the other was doing.

Hopie didn’t come down for meals because she was indisposed, and so the help brought her food up to her on a plastic tray. As far as I could make out from my mother, Hopie had had some permanently debilitating kind of personal trauma that involved horses or headaches, or a failed love affair, or bleeding of some sort … it was all a bit vague. In any case, she’d been in bed ever since.

I think it’s all in her head, my mother once said, disparagingly, an adverb that proved challenging to act out. But the comment was also confusing, like much of what my mother said. It was sweeping, and dramatic and implied things were dire beyond reason, which was supposed to be our first and last line of defense. We were Unitarians. Brains had pride of place in our family. They sat on top. Had Hopie’s thoughts actually been able to immobilize her against her will? How could people protect themselves?

My mother could be solicitous when it came to me, however. Concerned that I might one day grow up to be like Hopie, she kept both of us on red alert for any telltale signs that I was becoming “neurotic.” This was a full-time job. As a teenager suffering from mysterious, debilitating stomach pains, fueled by the anxieties that powered our household (the summer we lived out in the country with no electricity or hot water to get in touch with nature) I spent long afternoon hours in the bathroom sweating and crying. Concerned I was becoming a hypochondriac, my mother eventually gave me a huge plastic button to wear: “I FEEL GREAT!!!” it said in red, white, and blue caps. Eventually, my mother took me to the family doctor, and then explained on the way home about the dummy placebos he’d given me and how they worked.

You don’t want to end up having to talk to a psychiatrist, my mother said. Look what happened to Hetty.

Hetty was another sister of my mother’s. She lived far away and seemed to prefer birds.

I remember once, my mother said, we were having dinner, and Hetty was back from college (where she saw that psychiatrist, my father chimed in), and suddenly, Hetty just burst into tears. Right there at the table. Can you imagine? It was perfectly ghastly. Of course, no one said anything. We were all being perfectly normal. We just ignored her and went right on eating.

In any case because of Hopie’s … neurosis … you couldn’t see her in the usual family group. That might give her a headache. Instead, we climbed one by one past the imposing John Richardson grandfather clock, that looked sternly down as you rounded the corner of the stairs and tiptoed down the long hallway to the bedroom in the back. You’d call out “Hopie?” tentatively into the silence of the long hall and wait, and then she’d whistle, and you were in.

You were always nervous at first … I mean maybe she’d be in the bathroom or something. It was her bedroom after all, which is private for most people, at least grownups. But there she’d be propped up in this hospital bed in her old pink bathrobe, her long legs wrapped in surprisingly attractive ace bandages, capped with red slippers. Hi ho! she’d sing out and give you a big kiss and then send her legs straight up in the air for your amusement, using the hidden remote-control switch on the bed. Surrounded by her books and newspapers and favorite pictures of you and your cousins as babies and a Liberty tin of candy that she offered you as if you were an adult and might actually say no and her phone and the TV going, and it was really quite unlike the rest of the house, because it looked like somebody actually LIVED there.

Hopie kept a terrarium by her bed. Inside, two orange newts cavorted under a canopy of miniature moss trees. A hermit crab nestled tight against a rock. It was as if she had the world beside her in a glass jar, and when you looked in, what you saw was rare and coherent and precious. You felt that way, too. And because Hopie was always horizontal, you were at eye level, so she saw you, whether you were saying anything impressive or not.

Eventually, Hopie, like the sisters who came after her, began a long slow slide into dementia. My mother wouldn’t visit anymore. The specter of her formally imperious sister reduced to nonsense syllables was too much for her to bear. So, I went.

Hopie sat on the side porch in Milton in an upholstered living room arm chair. It had been carried outside by one of the small rotating crew of devoted servants who continued to assist her, their help having been provided for into perpetuity by her parents. May from Ireland had died long ago, but there was still Mrs. A., Annie, and Fred. Fred Higgins, I found out, had actually helped build Hopie’s cottage with his father, Fred Higgins, who in turn had driven the boat that motored my grandfather through the salt spray, directly into his Boston law office, all summer long, to avoid traffic.

It was Fred who called me several years after Hopie died, genuinely distraught. The Big House and cottage had just been sold for several million dollars as a tear down to the 33-year-old owner of Lumber Liquidators. He was happily ensconced in a neighboring property but needed some extra space for a revolving garage.

The last time I saw Hopie was on the back porch in Milton. It was 1997, two years before she died. I was with my future husband, whose self-effacing midwestern presence my memory had excised from this familial New England scene, until he helpfully filled it in for me. The porch looked out over the long sledding hill and the birding meadow below. Hopie sat silent in the shadow of the nine-foot-tall alabaster maiden figurehead, rescued from a shipwreck on one of my grandfather’s great adventures. It launched its creamy stone breast out from a porch balustrade, as if searching for TS Eliot in the waste land of the back garden. I felt awkward standing there, forty-two, feeling nineteen, not knowing what to say or what part of her to reach for. As the sun slipped over the sledding hill, she mumbled rhythmically, Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill … until finally I tumbled after, and the porch light blinked on. Glancing back as I walked out to my car, it looked as if the porch itself, with Hopie on it, was plowing at great speed into a dark green sea. She was lashed to the mast in trails of wisteria but seemed at peace about it. Was it possible not to want to be larger than life? To be content with the size you were?

It’s too bad, my mother said one Thanksgiving, sighing heavily as we swung back onto Route 95 where it makes its big curve around, circumventing Boston and Milton, skirting a meadow and a window and a few hundred birds. What a waste. No family … no life … and my mother shook her head sadly and stared out the window as cars zoomed by, and we fought for control of the back seat, and my father finally pulled over and laid down the law, and Jack sent his root beer back up through his nose.

When Hopie was having a good day, which wasn’t very often, she would venture downstairs on the arm of my grandfather and sit perfectly balanced on a long green canvas rocker that worked sort of like a see-saw. It was always placed in the best spot, right in front of the fire. Never once did she let her feet go above or below her head. She just hovered there perfectly horizontal. Once or twice she winked at me. Between you and me, she seemed to be saying, this takes a lot of patience and skill and practice and ability, and not many people can do it, actually. For an invalid, I thought, she had remarkably good balance.

Mary Barnett is an essayist whose work has appeared in Tin House, Commonweal, Christian Century, and Letters. A former choreographer and dancer, she is the director of In Good Company, Inc. and the performance series Dancing Out Loud.
Originally published:
July 30, 2018


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