The Value of Sisters

This weekend, I was most fortunate to have a lovely, highly successful family gathering. This was a big deal since I rarely, if ever, host events like this but the new deck was a great opportunity to have everyone arrive on our little patch of earth, eat a lot of food and hang out together in the blissful Spring sunshine.

It went so well. So very well and part of the reason for that was because of my sister. I have two sisters, as you will no doubt know, but this weekend my sister Adele came down from Sydney and hosted this BBQ with me. That I came through it with minimal anxiety and maximum enjoyment is in a sense down to the way we work together and from that experience I want to draw some incredibly valuable lessons.

Adele and I

It’s not that there was much cause for stress, really. I mean, it was a family BBQ. Meat, salads, a nice table setting, plenty of cold drinks to keep everyone lubricated. It’s not that hard. But I don’t do it often and I’m more than capable of doing it, but I’m equally capable of finding reasons to dredge up self doubt and anxiety.

Last week, there was a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald about women and the way they treat each other terribly. It got a lot of coverage and was inspired by a book called Twisted Sisterhood: Unravelling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships. We’ve all seen it. We’ve all experienced it. Women can be truly, devastatingly awful to each other. It starts early. One of my earliest memories of female cruelty is from kindergarten. The girl who was most popular in our class, the girl who always had girls racing to be her partner in group activities, had an amazing ability to utterly destroy someone’s confidence. She knew there was perceived value in her friendship.

Each day at the end of lunch we had to line up in pairs and hold hands as we marched into the classroom. One day, the popular girl singled me out. It was my turn. A light shone on me. She chose me.

The bell rang. Children began to form a line. I ran to her side and reached for her hand.

No. She would not hold my hand. She reached for another girl’s hand instead. She sneered at me. ‘I don’t like you. I’m holding someone else’s hand.’

She was six years old and already knew how to crush the spirit of another girl. Thirty-two years later I still remember that feeling of complete devastation. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t chosen. Does that say more about me than it does about women? Or a bit of both? I think of that girl, whose name, hair, clothes and attitude I still remember with startling clarity and I wonder if she went on to become a good person. Did she learn lessons about what women could do to each other? Did she suffer at the hands of another cruel woman at some point? Or did she continue to be scathing and cruel all her life?

More realistically, she probably turned out to be just like the rest of us. Capable of being cruel one moment and loving the next. I think we can all be that way and we could do well to focus on building each other up, not tearing each other down.

My sister and I weren’t always such good friends. We were competitive in high school, vastly different, not particularly bonded. In our early twenties, life went differently for both of us. She married young; I was at university and living a life unlike hers. She lived overseas for a number of years and we each had a bunch of stuff going on that kept us apart.

Now, in our thirties, we are the very best of friends. Our differences work for us now, not against us and there are more than enough shared and common traits to balance out the differences. Throughout our lives our mother has often said, ‘Friends will come and go but sisters will always remain.’ I take issue with that statement a little because I know plenty of women for whom their relationship with their sisters is anything but ideal, but when it works, when you and your sisters are bonded, then the statement is true. That you came from the same womb, that your earliest memories are entwined, that you can look in the mirror together and see tangible evidence of your blood-ties is powerful in the extreme.

When I felt anxious about all that we needed to do to make this weekend work, Adele was there reminding me that there was no reason to stress. She ran through check lists and menus with me, she worked out the menu and made fun plans with me. She reminded me I didn’t need to clean every crevice of my house.

Most importantly, she helped me create the best cake that’s ever been served at my table. A Black Forest Cake of which we were both immensely proud.

Our black forest cake.

It took us some hours but the effort was worth it and in fact it was about the most fun you could have making a cake. It tasted every bit as good as it looked and was in every way a triumph. Adele decided to make the ganache balls dusted in cocoa to rest on the top and that was a moment of pure inspiration.

At the end of the day we congratulated each other on a great day and a happy, successful family gathering. We did it together.

Women, when we build each other up, celebrate each other’s successes and strive to support each other with kindness and positive action, are amazing. So much can be achieved, including lasting memories, memories which are better than those cutting, nasty memories like the one I carry from the actions of the most popular girl in my class in 1976. It is so great to know that in years to come I’ll look back on that Black Forest Cake as a symbol of what my sister and I could achieve together. I’ll take that over a memory of childhood cruelty any day.

If you’d like to read Adele’s take on the triumph of our cake, you can find it on our shared blog, here.



26 thoughts on “The Value of Sisters

  1. just catching up on this post, and i just wanted to say how lovely it is, in many respects. as others have said, many of us have painful memories of childhood exclusion, but it is so good to balance this against the more positive relationships we develop. i worry about my children in this respect, but i guess it helps us to become resilient. and that cake is amazing! i’ve been thinking of black forest cake a bit lately, craving a more structured cake than the quick one-bowl-wonders i usually make. off to check adele’s post ….

  2. That is such a lovely post Bells, I had some water welling in my eyes and then when I read your mums comment they started overflowing!!

    I think many of us have had a similar experience as your school one, I can pick many that are still hauntingly vivid in my mind today.

    I want to go call my sisters now 🙂 xoxox

  3. Great post & every word you wrote is so true about women. I have the same problem with my sister & we only got really close during the last 10 years of her life & I miss those times.

  4. Lovely, thoughtful post. My sister and I are very close despite a 6-year age difference. I have always found female friendships to be challenging and sometimes intimidating, but often wonderful pursuits.

  5. Helen, what a lovely post. We had such a lovely day being all together. The day Adele came home from hospital you were the devoted big sister and you have been that ever since to Keith and Fiona aswell. I remember writing and telling you this when you were in England Helen, that you are the link that joins us all together. You are always there for each and every one of us. I just wanted to tell you that again Helen. All my love, Mum xox

  6. Great post in so many ways. My daughter is 7, and it does seem almost all kids strike out meanly to some degree. I’m trying very hard to teach her kindness. I’ll be sharing your story with her tomorrow; so lovely that it shows both sides: mean and controlling as well as kind and supportive. And how we treat others at her age can be felt and remembered for years to come…

  7. oh bells what a great post and I relate to so much of it! my sister and I fought like cat and dog throughout high school and were like chalk n cheese but we’re great friends and although we have very different lifestyles she is always my sister while friends do come an go! oh and I went to all girls high schools, bitchiness was everywhere but I survived and am still a nice person! luckily:)

    oh and the cake, off to check out other blog! my mum is a languages teacher and I loved growing up when she’d bring leftover black forest cake home from german class. yuuuuum. oh man I’m imagining the yumminess right now!


  8. Oh how true your story is Bells! I too recall girls like that at school, and unfortunately my 9 yr old does too. I agree, women who stick together and are friends are a very powerful force and can do many great things and sisters are great. I only have 1 sister and we dont do a lot together anymore as she is so busy with work but we still try and catch up with each other when we can. Your black forest cake looks amazing and very delicious. So glad your first family BBQ went well.

  9. This makes me worry about my daughter who is to start school next year. I hate that there are girls out there that don’t have a lot of self esteem and need to put others down to make themselves feel better.

    I have one sister whom I have a wonderful relationship with and a number of ‘sisters’ who I have known since primary school and am still very close too. I am very, very lucky to have both in my life.

    And that cake!!

  10. It really was a great weekend. I loved baking with you Bells and I think it was just so nice to bounce ideas off eachother to create what I think is a masterpiece.

    It was lovely just hanging out on the deck and chatting too whilst Willem found people to hang out with or IPhones to play with.

    Thanks for a lovely time. I always feel at home at your place.

    Love you.

  11. Children can be cruel to each other, as I’m discovering again with my small school child.

    My sister and I were not good friends until she had her baby. We are such completely different people with such completely different interests that I suspect once our babies are all grown up we will go back to being relative strangers to each other. I could be wrong, but I suspect that that is the way it will go.

    Sounds like you have a much better relationship now with your sisters, enjoy:)

  12. Please, i want to be your sister, I want to be invited next time you make one of theses cakes!!! It looks absolutely fantastic!!!
    From Charlotte starting to freeze in England!!!

  13. I always wondered if my sister and I would end up friends but at this point, it’s probably not going to happen (for a number of reasons). I’m envious of women who have sisters who are friends. It’s such a wonderful relationship when it works.

    I used to always get nervous when I had a group coming over for dinner or a bbq but now I know if I provide good food it’s usually ok. I have a large Thanksgiving sit down dinner coming up this week and I find I’m looking forward to it. Your party looks like it was lovely. It’s good to celebrate early spring when everything feels so hopeful.

  14. I so agree with you about how women can be awful to one another but they can also be great for one another in a way a man can’t be. Double edged sword, isn’t it? I also have two sisters one of whom is like my mother, sixteen years older, the other I didn’t have such a great relationship with until the past ten years and now we’re closer than ever.
    Sounds like a great time was had by all!

  15. My experiences as both a child and a mother have given me evidence that it’s not just girls who can be cruel–kids can just be mean.

  16. This post brings up so many feelings and memories of my own. I can really connect with the girl in your class, as there were a group of them in my school who banded together and seemed to target me for their torture. (I changed schools in 4th grade, and was the only new kid in a school of very clique-ish children). When I taught high school I always dreaded confronting those same (stereotypical) girls than I ever did the meanest boys. While I still am working on the part of me that just wants to fit in and be liked, as an adult I have found friends who will support me and are nothing like those childhood memories! Thank you for sharing this today!

  17. I’m with Rose Red: envious. I am very close to my brothers and they have given me wonderful sisters-in-law. But a sister would be nice!

    I so sympathize with you on hosting anxiety. The last time we had Farm Boy’s family for dinner, I had a terrible microwave incident — burned something and the whole house was filled with smoke! It smelled very smokey still at dinner time. They were so gracious, though. I think the key is to only invite nice people over!

  18. I am surprised u would feel anxious or stressed over organising a lunch u seem so confident …nicely written I can relate to it and wish that I had that with my sister!

  19. I read that story too, and was sad at how little things have changed in some ways. We are socialised to compete with each other, and its such a waste of time. I’m glad that my sister and I are finding a way past that, and I’m always grateful for my knitting sisters, who’ve taught me its safe now to have women friends. Finally!

  20. What are great post. Having known both your family for so long, it was great to read a story of hope, deep joy, and love.

    I certainly don’t get the way in which girls/women treat each other. It is amazing that any girl manages to make it through it all.

  21. What a lovely post, Bells. It cuts me in half, as my sisterly relationship is of the ‘opportunities lost’ variety, and yet I am delighted to have such comfortable relationships with some other women I know, including a sister-in-law and a number of dear friends (eg @crazybrave!).

    Your comments about the girls who weren’t very nice in primary school also hit a nerve (can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be able to relate, actually). My nemesis was Cindy – I even wrote a (I suspect not very good) short story about her (and other primary school dramas) about a decade ago called ‘Queen Bee’. You’ve inspired me to re-read it and maybe see if some of it deserves an airing on my blog eventually. In one (true) scene, I fall off the high bars and knock the wind out of myself. Cindy not only mocks me, she forms a marching queue of uncomfortable followers to strut past, looking down on me while barking sycophantic laughter. The cruelty of children, eh?

    Thank you for posting this, Bells. It’s good to reflect on the moments that made us, that are still making us. xo

  22. I know I’ve said this to you before, but you are very lucky to have sisters! I always wish I had a sister.

    I have a similar memory from kindergarten (maybe there was one of those popular girls in every class). She wasn’t popular any more by the time we got to high school, or even primary school. Funny how things change.

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