We are five: always, five, the five of us, the group of us, the lot. “You guys,” “the girls,” “the sisters.” Once, when I was young, someone asked me how many sisters I had and I answered, quickly, without giving it a thought, “five,” as if I couldn’t extricate myself from the larger being, the group, that we made up. I was one of them and they were one of me.
We are a tribe: each loud, brassy, strong, in her own way, each of us born about two years apart so that my parents, presumably, could catch their breath. I was first: curious, playful, shy, quickly carving out my old space in the world, trying, though I didn’t know, to fill the void of a miscarriage two years prior. My next sister didn’t wait much longer—she, born eleven months after my first birthday, arrived with a vengenance. With something to prove. When it was just the two of us, me walking around in a t-shirt, a leaky diaper, and a Band-Aid I affixed to my head because I liked the look, she was still immobile, reduced to sitting in a carriage or crib. I’d reach in and try to play with her. I was three, so I probably tried to eat her: nibbled on her toes, smooched her face, slobbered on her ears. She hated it, my mother would tell us later, and she didn’t stand for it. She’d attack, in the vicious way that babies do, grasping at my eyes and ears to try to get rid of me.
The next two came all at once: twins, which was weird for me, because one day I had one little sister and the next day I had three. They are identical but roundly different, and after a while, even you couldn’t fall for their identical twin switcheraoo. They both called each other “sissy” and carried mismatched stuffed animals around everywhere they went—a matted tiger and a purple bear, called “Tiger” and “Purple.”
Two years later, our youngest sister arrived. We’d all been spoon-fed femininity by then; We had scores of photos of us in matching dresses and hats, each of us looking like discarded swatches in a fabric store, and we were all enrolled in ballet and tap dancing classes at a local studio. Barbies and doll babies littered our rooms, but finally: here was a baby come to life.
We attacked her, relentlessly. We tried to feed her and wash her and poke her and play with her and dress her up and fuck with her and boss her around and protect her. She, now, is the strongest of us all; some of her first words were “Get away from me!” and “Leave me alone!” I am pretty sure she can beat me up.
It’s almost a party trick: my sisters and I each share a first initial, and all of our middle names rhyme. Tell me all of my sisters’ names, in a row, I’d tell new boyfriends. I want to see how well you know me.
At home, it was just a roll-call of sorts: my parents would call out two or three names before they got who they wanted, and, when beckoned, my sisters and I would yell out another sister’s name to get us out of trouble. When I was 13, I was putting towels away when my father called me to come downstairs. “I didn’t do that, Jazzie did it!”
Once, I asked my mother why they’d gone through all the trouble to make our names match, expecting something deep and meaningful and heartfelt. “We’d just thought it’d be funny.”
It has been ugly, sometimes. My parents divorced in 2012, a few weeks before I graduated from college, but they broke up much before then. For two years, they lived in the same house but avoided each other. Their interactions always ended in screaming. I was gone for most of it, home only for holiday breaks, which made me feel lucky but unbearably guilty, with my little sisters having to bear the brunt of the dissolution. One night before Christmas, I couldn’t take it any more; after we’d all gone to bed, I heard my parents, mid-fight, in the living room.
“You two need to get out of here,” I shouted, descending the stairwell. “You can fight, but you don’t have to do it here. It is mean and disruptive and unfair to me and my sisters. You are adults, you are supposed to take care of us. Stop this now.” I could hardly speak, silenced by my fury, but before I could go further, a bunch of voices piped up behind me: “You don’t need to show your anger in that sort of way! You can be mature about it!” “I really hate to hear you fighting.” “Can you please stop?” “You are loud, and I am trying to go to sleep.” My sisters had assembled behind me, my Greek chorus, each of their faces clouded with the same frustration and sleepiness and fear. I went back to school feeling a little better.
It feels weird to write something in honor of my sisters without sounding elegiac; I always read these sorts of essays and think, “Oh, no; someone’s about to die.” But my sisters are very much alive and kicking each other in the shins under the dinner table. This past Thanksgiving found us all back in the same room since the summer, when the twins graduated from high school.
I dreaded going back; “I love my family,” I told my boyfriend, “but I can only love them for three days at a time.” I was fresh from balancing two jobs and a slew of freelance work; I was tired, and I just wanted someone to take care of me. Enter my sisters.
Janeé, 21, who I can only accurately describe as “like me, but worse,” has pledged to help me embrace my natural hair; she snipped out my extensions and detangled the short afro that lay beneath, twisting it into little curlicues to achieve a style she thought I’d like. Reneé, 18, so pretty and so weird, did my makeup before we took our family photos, dragging more makeup than I’ve ever owned, her “backup supply,” over to the best-lit mirror of the house, and complimenting my skin. In a house filled with grandmothers and aunts and boyfriends, my sixteen-year-old sister Moneé, the funniest person I know, and I found ourselves alone, so we watched Shrek for two hours while she pointed out the discrepancies between the movie and the musical.
The night before I left, Trenée and I got into a fight; she was being selfish and I told her so, but in too many words, and she rolled her eyes and disregarded me as only an 18-year-old can. But by nightfall we’d forgotten, and I came into her room to tell her goodnight, and also to take back the scarf she’d stolen from me. We sat cross-legged on the floor while she told me about the plant she was taking care of back at school and what classes she might take next, when we realized, at about the same time, that I was holding her in my arms and rocking her. “What are you doing?!” she asked me. “You are my baaaaaby and I want to take care of you,” I said dramatically, but it’s true.
Earlier this year, I was walking down the street and stopped, suddenly broken and in tears: I’d known for a while that the world was a terrible place, and figured out ways to protect myself from it, but I had no idea how I’d protect them. I was terrified. I was overwhelmed. I understood my parents a lot more.
Tied for 1. Trenée
Also 1. Reneé
Just making it to 1. Moneé
(These are all of their middle names, since the Internet can be a horrible place. And because you are wondering: I am Siné.)
I’ll admit it: 2014 is the first year I ever truly loved my sisters. Before I only tolerated them, or, in fleeting moments, liked them, but this year something changed, I’m not sure what. My sisters have taught me what real love is; I love them differently than I do my parents or my boyfriend, who have made it easy for me to love them. My parents weren’t the ones who stole my favorite sweater or ripped my tote to shreds; my boyfriend didn’t embarrass me in front of my fifth-grade crush at Wal-Mart or borrow my favorite purse the morning after I got rejected from my first choice college without asking because I was “too busy crying.”
So when people ask me about them, I tell them the truth: “We like each other now.” 2014 was the year my sisters became more than just my sisters, our relationships fraught with old fights and stolen sweaters and pilfered snacks and petty grievances. 2014 was the year we became friends.
I won’t be home for Christmas, but I can’t wait until I can see them again. Every homecoming is the same: quiet, then loud, then love, all at once, kisses and hair pulls and dramatic falls to the ground, then they remember my boyfriend is there, too, so they attack him with hugs. It is crowded and aggressive and embarrassing but transformative; if you’ve never entered a room with a group of people, no matter how small, shouting your name, I highly recommend it.