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Me & my sisters

The relationship between female siblings can be fraught with difficulties — and full of support. Often, but not always, the squabbling and rivalry of childhood and teenage years gives way to a close bond as the years go by. Here four writers Lindy McDowell, Una Brankin, Rebecca Black and Helen Carson reflect on how they get on with their nearest and (hopefully) dearest

Lindy McDowell: ‘Whenever I am with them, we laugh, often until we cry’

When my sister Heather was young she was very, very pretty. She had long black hair parted in the middle, as was the style in the Seventies, eyes of cornflower blue, fair skin and only a sprinkling of freckles. I had curly red hair and at least half of south Derry's entire allocation of freckles.

One night we were out at a function when it was announced organisers of a beauty contest would be mingling with the crowd to pick girls to compete in an upcoming heat.

They approached Heather. Indeed they were very enthusiastic about her chances of progressing right through to the finals.

"What do you think?" she asked me.

Well, I told her.

As a feminist I said, I would have no truck with beauty contests. They objectified and demeaned women. They were like a cattle market.

Heather said she didn't fancy taking part anyway. It just wasn't her sort of thing.

I felt a wee bit ashamed. The true motivation behind my remarks wasn't solidarity with the sisterhood.

It was something much more base: sisterly jealousy.

I have two sisters, Heather and Roberta. We three are all very similar - but very different too. And we are very close. The main reason for this is also the saddest: I used to have three sisters.

Heather was a twin. Hilary, our other sister, died from bone cancer when she had just turned 17. During her treatment she'd had to have her leg amputated; such an awful thing for a teenage girl.

But she faced it with a youthful nonchalance and a fortitude that still brings tears to my eyes. I remember her death being like a dark shutter coming down upon our family. As the song says, she is forever young in my memory. Forever a teenage girl just wanting to have fun.

Her death scarred us all. Roberta was only about eight at the time. Heather, I think, felt it worst. She'd had such a close bond with her twin. I envied them that. To be honest, I was jealous of that.

We had a brother William, a couple of years older than me (sadly he too died far too young, a few years ago.)

The twins, as they were always known, were less than two years younger than me. I still maintain I suffer from a sort of displacement syndrome from having to get out of the pushchair to make way for the pair of them. My mother couldn't wheel us all.

They were not identical - Hilary got the red hair gene. And they were special, of course, in the way that twins always are. "Och, let us see your wee twins," people would cry to my mother when we were out and about. No singling out of poor old me.

At this point I should maybe confess that while Heather is the wise and practical one among us, and Roberta the achiever and the organiser, I have always tended a bit towards, well, the drama queen.

No wonder I envied the twins their tight sisterly unit. It wasn't that they excluded me. They didn't need me.

But when Roberta came along it was different. I was 10 and utterly besotted. I don't think she and I have ever had a row in the many, many years since.

That's not to say we have never had differences of opinion. All three of us sisters could be described as fairly strong-willed. Let's just say we do not often concede to each other (or anyone else) in argument.

I love both my sisters fiercely.

Heather, who has the heart of a lion, is the most brilliant homemaker. She and her husband Robert have three great sons, Bobbie, who's married to Laura, Christopher and Nigel.

Roberta and her husband Noel have a family of three as well - Stephen, Katie and Paul. Red-headed Katie is, like her mother, feisty, adventurous and a real wit. Both my sisters share that dry wit. They're both great workers. They will take on any task with a heart and a half. I would be more, shall we say, laid back. They are both kindly, supportive and soft-hearted. Roberta will sit out all night on her farm when the sheep are lambing just in case one is in distress. Then she'll go into her work the next day.

I'd call in sick.

Yes, the dynamic between sisters is often a complex one. We are the holders of each other's secrets. We know each other's insecurities. Yes, there are jealousies and tensions, but I can honestly say if there was ever any of that between my sisters and I in our youth (mainly me) it's long, long since evaporated.

I'm proud of the pair of them. I'm proud of the family that we've created individually and in the wider sense between us all. When I think of them I smile. Whenever I'm with them we laugh - often until we cry. And sometimes between us we shed a wee tear or two for another reason - whenever we talk about childhood and about Hilary, the sister who remains caught in time, forever a teenage girl. The one who didn't get to grow old with the rest of us.

The one who forever reminds us how precious we are to each other.

Una Brankin: 'I thought she was most infuriating creature ever'

There's a photo at home of my sister Tricia as a baby, screeching in a Moses basket, her small red face outraged. "You did that," my mother told me when I came across the picture in a biscuit tin a few years back.

As a toddler, jealous of the new arrival, I had put my chubby hand on her little face and scrunched it, as my mum described it, just as she was preparing to take the snap.

It was the opening gambit of about two decades of warfare between Tricia and me, the two eldest siblings in a family of five.

I have one brother and two other sisters and I never fought with them, but some part of Tricia's subconscious must have remembered the Moses basket incident in the garden, because she grew up utterly detesting me.

My antipathy wasn't as strong as hers when we were young, but I thought she was the most infuriating creature ever to be born.

We'd either ignore each other completely or argue, often thumping each other - hard - on the arms.

And when she vandalised Lulu, my favourite doll, gouging out her eyes and cutting off her hair, I cried all day. She'd accuse me of being selfish and hateful. I couldn't understand why she thought this but, looking back, I think my regular absences from home, until my early teens, meant that we never bonded.

During any school holidays or the times mum was giving birth, I'd go and stay with my auntie Bridie, who became a second mother.

She had one of the first electric toothbrushes and she'd buy me nice clothes. I had a room of my own in her tidy, ordered home in Portadown, and I used to struggle not to cry when she'd drop me back home after long stretches under her TLC.

Our house was chaotic and noisy back then. I hated it.

Tricia, on the other hand, was a home bird and a daddy's girl.

She'd get up early every Saturday morning to feed the calves and she'd chat easily to grown-ups, whereas I'd fall completely silent in their company.

Apparently, she was as jealous of Jo’s arrival as I was of her’s, but she grew gradually possessive of her and excluded me from their play time.

Being a bit of a loner, I didn’t care much but when they’d perch in the old-fashioned hen-house we had in a small field in front of the house, impersonating the elderly ladies who lived up the road, their chatter would be hilarious and I’d feel left out of the fun.

Anyway, that pattern continued throughout our primary school years.

We’d hit each other as hard as we could but I remember hurting her by accident one day and being mortified over it.

In one of those random, ill-conceived children’s games, she and Jo were standing on a trailer, shuffling from one foot to another and waving their arms, while my brother Michael and I threw things at them.

The point must have been to avoid the missiles but it went horribly wrong when something hard, a lump of coal perhaps, hit Tricia square in the eye.

I had thrown it without meaning to hit her face. I was absolutely horrified and  apologetic, and she must have known it, because she didn’t kick up a fuss.

She stood with her hand over eye while I froze, my hands over my face. When we got into the house, I admitted what I had done but cried because I didn’t mean it.

She could have claimed I’d done it on purpose, and I’ve never forgotten that she did not.

The arguing and chilliness continued into our teens, however. There were endless fights about clothes pinching and about chores.

Even as we grew older, the animosity would be seething under the surface when I’d come home from university at weekends. We must have unknowingly called a truce by the time she got engaged, in her late 20s, as there was no friction in the lead-up to her wedding or on the big day.

We remained distant, however, until she almost met her maker after an operation six or seven years ago.

Now we’re perfectly civil and supportive, when required.

Although, I’m still cross about Lulu…

Rebecca Black: ‘Our family holidays could get dramatic with three girls in the car’s back seat’

Sisterly relationships may seem from the outside to be simple, a rose-tinted scene of brushing each other’s hair and dispensing advice.

The reality is anything but — and actually much richer.

I grew up the youngest of three sisters, some seven years younger than my eldest sister Gillian, and almost four years younger than Lorna.

When I was born Lorna had to adapt from being the youngest to being in the middle, and a present of a puppet of her favourite Kermit the Frog was placed beside me in my cot to sweeten my arrival.

Growing up as the youngest was fun. Some of my earlier memories are of my sisters cooing over me. Gillian liked to spoil me and once made me the most popular child in the playground when she stopped by my school and gave me a tube of Smarties on her way past. Both my sisters cried when my long hair was cut into the popular Nineties pageboy hairstyle.

Poor Gillian had a lot of trail-blazing to do. It can’t have been easy when your little sisters thought it was tremendous fun to giggle at your first date as he waited nervously on the sofa in our living room to take her out.

But generally I have more childhood memories with Lorna, making up dance routines and arranging a stage in the back garden while Gillian was revising for her GCSEs and A-levels to realise her dream of going to Cambridge University.

While friends have told me of struggling to establish their identity as one of several siblings, my sisters and I never had that problem.

We are sisters but we are all very distinct, Gillian with her mass of wild curls, Lorna with her classic dark hair and blue eyes and me with my blonde, poker-straight hair.

We are different people too. My dad once summarised us as Gillian having the brains, Lorna the beauty and me the personality. It was a summation that caused some exasperation, but it was true that my eldest sister was the star of the school with the top grades, Lorna the gentle beauty, and I was definitely more of a quirky child.

Sometimes a teacher would bemoan that I was not as good at a particular subject as Gillian had been. It was a testament to my mum’s encouragement of us all as individuals that these sorts of comments rarely troubled me.

My mum had grown up the youngest of five girls and knew the pitfalls of being known in a small town as so-and-so’s sister. She inspired us all to focus on our particular strengths and not worry about comparing ourselves to each other.

Family holidays could get dramatic with three girls in the back seat of the car. My dad loved to drive, and drive we did — for three days and two ferry crossings each way to get to France or Spain each summer. It was a heady mix of squabbles, Tina Turner albums and the occasional wine gum dispensed by my mum to buy a few minutes of peace.

Being the youngest also toughens you up. My closest friend remembers the first moment we met in P1 and being impressed when, despite another girl telling me I couldn’t play in the sand pit with them, I sat down and played anyway.

Gillian left home to go to university when I was 11, and then it was just Lorna and I. We had a tempestuous relationship as teenagers, arguing over bathroom time, clothes and make-up. Yet no matter how much we rowed, anyone saying a bad word about her made me angry.

As adults our relationships have become very different and I appreciate them both.

One of the biggest transformations of our relationship came with the birth of Lorna’s first child. I’ll never forget walking into the hospital room, my sister pale in bed and her baby son lying in a cot by the window. It was the most extraordinary gamut of emotions, from seeing her so exhausted yet exhilarated by the beautiful little arrival, to seeing little Jack, red and wrinkly from the birth, yet peaceful and quiet like his mother, his big blue eyes taking in everything around him.

With Gillian and her family living in England, we all count the rare times we are all together as precious.

For my 35th birthday last month, the most special moment was just the five of us having dinner together.

Helen Carson: ‘The moment she peeked into my cot we knew we’d be best friends’

Dawn and I were always going to be close. Born just 13-months apart it’s fortunate that we get on, and we do, in fact, we always have — she is my best friend.

From the moment she peeked into the carry cot, calling me ‘baby’ and taking me on her knee I was always well cared for by my older sister.

My earliest memory is playing outside our house in Belfast as a toddler and running off with her doll’s pram. I didn’t have one and my mum told me off, pointing out that I had my dog on wheels instead.

And so it was from then on. Dawn breaking all the ground and, as it appeared to me at the time, doing all the interesting things first; going to school, reading and writing, joining the choir.

When I was born she was evicted from the cot and put into the bed my mum had slept in until she got married. It was a huge metal framed contraption with springs. Again, I wanted this bed which was far more appealing to the wooden confines of the cot, so I would climb out.

And we shared a bedroom until both of us left the family home for our own houses. I always slept in the top bunk and Dawn and I would chat endlessly about everything under the sun . . . school, our parents, Starsky and Hutch, which one of Charlie’s Angels we wanted to be right up until the inevitable teenage angst and more.

When I was 17, she back-combed my hair and taught me how to apply Siouxsie-inspired eye-liner and many years later read every book about pregnancy when I was expecting my son.

We frequently ganged up on my poor mum, especially if she was getting frazzled about something or other.

Hearing her swear would make Dawn snigger, then I would start too. We do it still. When she’s giving off about my dad, one of her neighbours, some politician she doesn’t like the look of and when she hands me yet another clipping she has snipped out the Daily Mail, it just causes us to dissolve into laughter.

In our teens and 20s we went out to clubs, pubs and gigs together, and now too, still socialise with each other. My sister was the first there when I suffered a miscarriage 19 years ago and when my son Pierce was born two years after. Again, when Pierce’s dad Seamus passed away five years ago, she was there for, not just me, but the two of us.

We’ve shared holidays with Pierce to Spain and America so he has a real family experience when we are away from home.  Not one to shy away from protecting me, Dawn keeps a vigilant but discreet eye on me, and has on occasions, seen off someone who threatens her little sister’s happiness. If I’m struggling with something in life she has knack of reducing it to nothing with a withering and sarcastic comment which always makes me laugh,

She gave Pierce a mild ticking off once and it did not go down well with him as he was so used to having me all to himself.

Many, who are more used to sibling rivalry, have expressed surprise at how well Dawn and I get on but to us it’s completely normal.

While we squabbled as kids once it was over, that was it. We have each other’s backs and few ever get through that partnership.

There were times when we were younger that other children would make fun of us because we stuck together so much. But what could be better than having a sister who is also your best mate?”    

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