Ghosts of sisters present

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South Beach Sisters, Flickr image by adwriterWhen we were small and shared a room, my sister and I used to wake from the same nightmare. Sweating, we would prop ourselves up on pillows and recount our versions into the dark, shocked by the similarities.

Nowadays my sister, as doppelganger, looks back at me when I catch a reflection in a shop window or a bathroom mirror in passing. And yet in reality we are so different. She handles her loved ones with slow tender movements. I treat mine with tight squeezes and hundreds of rough kisses.

Often it is our differences that confront me and cause unease. This is more than the anxiety of a younger sister; it is a wish to close the gap and tighten the connection to the way it was when we were children.

Our mother's relationship with her sister is the same. My aunt lived on the land, five hours west of Sydney. What I craved when I visited her as a child was the similarity of my aunt to my mother, coupled with her difference. While the patterns of daily life were alike — breakfast tasted the same, dinner too — it was changed. Some rules varied, the jokes were earthy and the moody silences more pronounced.

My aunt's home was a masculine place. She had three sons and there were always other workmen talking at the gate, driving past on a tractor or urging cattle with a horse. This was a world where mud-caked boots lined the outside verandah and thick khaki work shirts scooped a pattern around the Hills Hoist. The men were gruff: spitting, hitching pants or stamping out boots. So foreign, and yet my aunt made every moment familiar.

But in accordance with the idea of a spirit-double, the similarities were also an illusion. An unexpected sharp word from my aunt would send me staggering.

My sister and I used to nudge each other when our aunt arrived to stay from the country, wearing the same coloured lipstick, the same Peter Pan collars and the same tartan pants as our mother. Little did we realise we would become the same too: mistaken for each other at parties and in the street, sisters who have come to look more alike as the years duck and dance behind us.

While courage and a feeling of wellbeing can be drawn from this sisterly connection, there are pitfalls. Husbands can get jealous, siblings can take offence and sisters-in-law can feel excluded. This hazard of exclusion turned and faced me recently when my smallest child asked to watch an old family movie she'd found in a drawer.

The movie was Christmas day at my mother's house: white damask tablecloth, the good silver, salmon pink blinds and heavy side-swept curtains. My sister and I were seated together, our shoulders turned inwards. Two crescents. We were talking in low voices, with intermittent bursts of laughter. We were separate from the others, intimate in our co-dependence.

For a few moments I was cheered by the sight, assured that our sistership was strong as ever. But, as the camera pulled back, I saw beside me the figure of my sister-in-law. She sat alone and I recognised for the first time the exclusivity of our relationship. I felt ashamed. So, does that mean that an intimate, intuitive ghostlike connection between sisters requires the sacrifice of other relationships? I don't want to believe it's true.

In some ways, the similarities between my sister and I, and between my mother and my aunt, are a trick. Because like a ghost, the twin image I see in the window or mirror is soon gone. Even if we were twins rather than close siblings, in time the likeness would become a magical sleight of hand.

Then again perhaps our entanglement is more prosaic than I think. Our mother used to sew our clothes: sweet elastic-waisted skirts in floral cotton and little A-line dresses. She made them to match. One in pink and one in blue. Maybe the connection was driven by seeing each other across the bedroom in the same garb so early on. Or was it determined by our little matching beds, one with a blue mohair rug and one with a pink mohair rug.

What I do know is that when we were children, my sister had an imaginary friend who lived in our bedroom light, but I didn't need one. I had my doppelganger.

Prue GibsonSydney-based Prue Gibson writes on visual art and art history for Australian and international art magazines and journals. She recently received an Australia Council grant to write a book on deathly imagery in contemporary art and she also dabbles in fiction.

Topic tags: prue gibson, siblings, family dysfunction, doppelgänger



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Existing comments

Most enjoyable, thanks. I am a twin and I can assure you, Prue, it is even more difficult to forge a separate identity. But I have never known anything else and wouldn't be without my sister. We live far apart but stay close. We wore identical but different coloured clothes at one stage before we were brave enough to go our separate ways. I don't think either of us ever had an imaginary friend.

Kathleen | 31 July 2009  

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