My younger sister, Laurie, or Laurel as she preferred to be called, died in January, seven months ago, age 76. I think about her almost every day. I think mostly about loss, because our loss started when we were about high school age when we started to grow apart. As a close friend put it to me, “You two were like oil and vinegar.” I have a mix of memories from our childhood; many are happy. My mind has a way of shelving the not so happy memories in the back so I can pull out the happy ones in the front.
Over the last 30 years, I barely saw Laurel. But I never labeled us as “estranged” until her death, when I started reflecting on our non-relationship. The dictionary defines estrangement as having lost former closeness and affection: in a state of alienation from a previous close or familial relationship. That about sums it up, although it doesn’t capture the mix of sadness and shame I felt after Laurie’s death, when I realized it was too late to heal our rift.
Joshua Coleman, in the Atlantic, noted that families used to center around mutual obligation and interdependence to assure everyone’s survival, and those values shaped our identities. But we no longer rely on each other for survival, so forming an identity has taken a more individualistic turn. Whereas identity used to be grounded in religion, class, and community, “personal growth and happiness” are now more important for figuring out who we are. We have the autonomy to carve out identities separate from our families.
My two sisters and I, the Evans sisters, growing up in the late 40’s and early 50’s, started out relying on each other. We needed to have each other’s back. Our father was an alcoholic given to angry bursts, and after our mother divorced him, she married another alcoholic with a similar meanness. He became the stepfather who raised us. We had to look after each other.
That all changed in high school, about the time when adolescents seek their own identity. Marylyn, our oldest sister, four years older than I and 6 years older than Laurie went off to college at the U of Wisconsin in Madison—she escaped the family dysfunction. Laurie and I were left in high school, but we ran with different crowds. Meanwhile, our mother and stepfather struggled with financial and marital problems, so we fended for ourselves. Laurie hung with outsiders, characterized as “wild.” I took the school-centered path. That’s when our estrangement started.
Finding one’s way out of an alcoholic family is fraught with problems, as evidenced by the fact that AA has spun off AlAnon with12 step groups focused on supporting family members. From the first, Laurie was the target of our stepfather’s erratic discipline. The research on estrangement says that one sibling often believes they were treated worse than others. Those who are targeted often become “grievance collectors,” and as I look back, I see how our stepfather’s unrelenting criticism of Laurie made it hard for her to find her own path in life. Marylyn became a librarian, and I became an educator. Laurie was an experimenter and a searcher.
A searcher! Something I never saw when Laurie and I were busy being oil and water. Again, turning to studies about estrangement, one of the things that fosters it is mobility. We move around in this society. Since we don’t rely on one another, we’re free to move on. It’s like a Catch 22—moving around gets us out of dysfunction but it also robs us of opportunities to confront and grow from our differences. Marylyn moved to Florida, and Laurie moved to Detroit and then to Texas. I stayed in the Twin Cities and raised my children. Had I been able to connect with Laurie, I might have learned that Laurie and I weren’t so different after all—I consider myself a searcher in many aspects of life. My searching was and is less experimental than Laurie’s but it’s there.
Eventually Laurie found a passion, rescuing homeless animals. She raised two fine children on her own until she met and married a guy from Detroit who made them his family. I couldn’t ask for more for Laurie given her difficult start. Unfortunately, I saw all this from a distance, busy with my own life.
I always told myself—and believed it—that Laurie and I would someday sit down, hash it all out, the little slights and differences that we both nursed. We’d laugh about it and go forward. But the truth is we didn’t. I’m writing this because in reading about estrangement, I know how prevalent it is. Some 25% of families have some level of estrangement—that’s not trivial. I’m also writing this to urge anyone who feels even the slightest estrangement with a family member or friend—Find a way back!
This spring, after Laurel’s death, a dear friend died, a friend with whom I’d had a period of estrangement for which I could find no cause. He stopped talking to me, no matter how many times tried to open a dialogue. When the pandemic hit, I missed him more than ever. I folded 1000 origami cranes, stringing them together (which is the difficult part), put them in a box, and deposited them in his driveway. The crane is a powerful peace symbol, one that my friend had introduced me to. Upon finding my gift, he called me, and we healed our friendship.
With Laurie, I could find no way back, but I didn’t look hard either. I didn’t travel to Texas for a sustained visit. Instead, I mailed cards for her birthday and Christmas and other important occasions. I didn’t sit down nightly folding six cranes for nearly a year. I waited for something to happen so we’d get together. And it did, only it was a death and funeral. Realistically, it would have taken both of us to heal the estrangement, but one person needed to open the door. Now that Laurel—she’ll always be Laurie to me—is gone, I’ve lost that possibility. But the memories I have of growing up together remind me that love can persist, even when we feel separated. Reconnection lives in that love.