Sisterhood Is Powerful

By Marjorie Ingall

Published February 24, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Josie and Maxine have something I never did: the experience of both having and being a sister. And it’s so intense, so all consuming, so loving and so teeth gritting, I’m not at all surprised that the feminist movement spawned the phrase “Sisterhood is powerful.”

I adore and admire my brother, Andy. But growing up, we weren’t particularly close. He was always happily, serenely self-sufficient; he didn’t need my big-sisterly approval. On long car trips, he’d torture me by quietly chanting my name over and over in a singsong until I lost it and smacked him — and my parents barked at me. Then he’d smile at me angelically. We’d draw an invisible line down the middle of the backseat, dividing our territory, but he’d inch his pinkie over it insistently, until I lost it and smacked him (and got in trouble). He’d waggle his fingers in front of my face, chirping “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” until I finally had to smack him (followed, of course, by getting in trouble). In return, I once blamed him when I accidentally broke off the gerbil’s tail by slamming it in the door of the cage. My parents believed me. It was a small triumph. I felt bad about the gerbil.

So watching Josie and Max’s relationship develop has been amazing to me. Before I was even pregnant, Josie told me she needed a baby sister. I worried that my flamboyant, attention-loving big girl would resent sharing the spotlight with a little interloper, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Sure, there have been ugly moments and sobs of “You love her more than me!” But from the instant Josie first held Max, they’ve been in love.

Before Max could sit up, she loved to watch Josie. Her eyes tracked her big sister all over the room. At 7 months, she laughed hysterically when Josie farted. Now she toddles after Josie, calling “Sistoo! Sistoo! Hug!” She wants to sit in a big-girl chair so she can sit next to Josie. She hands Josie “Goodnight Gorilla” (which she calls “Gillygilly”) or “Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb” (aka “Dumma”) to “read” to her, and Josie usually obliges. Watching your two little ones cuddled on the couch, one reading to the other, may be one of the sweetest quotidian parenting moments ever. Certainly it is if you’re a writer.

Josie’s favorite book to read to Max is “Goodnight Max,” by Rosemary Wells. The plot, such as it is, involves big-sister bunny Ruby having to change her little brother Max’s pajamas repeatedly after he finds crumbs in the pockets or discovers cherry candy stuck to the feet or spills water on himself. At this point, I’m so bored with this story that my eyes cross as soon as Max picks it up. But Josie’s always happy to step in. After all, it involves two of her favorite subjects: a bossy, empowered big sister and fashion.

Max used to watch, eyes shining, as Josie jumped on her bed. Now she demands “Up! Up!” so that she can flop around right next to Josie. Soon she’ll learn how to jump, too. Max used to be afraid of the bathtub; the only thing that would stop her crying would be if Josie got in, too. Now they soap each other’s backs and pour water on each other’s shoulders.

Josie loves to pick out Max’s outfits, and often wants to dress “like twins!” She decreed that she and Max would both be pumpkins for Halloween. When Grandma got Josie an adorable dress from the Hanna Andersson catalog, Josie’s first response was, “Can Max get one, too?” I’d worried about Josie having to share a room that used to be all hers, but she couldn’t wait for Max to move in. I tell her how much Max looks up to her, and she tells me all the words Max says to her that she doesn’t say to anyone else. “Max just said ‘schadenfreude’! She only said it to me, because she loves me the most! I am like a god to her!”

I don’t mean to sound like everything is all Cheerios and roses around here. There is screaming, and jealousy. Josie gets frustrated with Max for always grabbing her toys and messing up her art projects, and Max has been increasingly jealous when she sees me snuggling with Josie. Recently I saw Josie patting

Max’s head and squeezing her hand with increasing, um, enthusiasm. I said warningly, “Josieeeeeee,” and she shrugged, “I’m feeling aggressed!” I said, “I understand those feelings, but you can’t take them out on Maxine. Go squeeze a pillow if you feel aggressive!” In response, Josie started pinching the air with her fingers. “You can’t pinch Maxine; she’s never pinched you!” said our baby sitter, Rita. Josie answered, sensibly, “But I want to make sure I pinch her before she pinches me!”

But in general, Josie’s love of Max has increased over time. A few months ago, Josie drew a picture of three stick figures — two big ones and a small one — and told me to write on it, “This is my whole entire family.” When I commented to my friend Daryl-Lynn that this perhaps showed some ambivalence about sisterhood, she replied, rightly: “Well, no! That’s not really ambivalent at all!” These days, though, Josie draws picture after picture of her and Maxine together. She writes “Josie” above the big figure (it looks like “tosie,” because her Js still point the wrong way) and “Max” above the small one. Often both figures are wearing crowns. Sometimes there’s a little pink blob next to Max: Cack, her special comfort object, a stuffed pink cat she nuzzles in her crib.

Andy never followed me around like an imprinted duck the way Max trails Josie. I know Josie’s patience with this behavior will get frayed as Max continues to copy everything she does. But right now, Max’s attentions make Josie feel responsible and important. And I hope to God I can encourage Josie’s sense of responsibility and pride while showing Max how to be her own person. I hope I can raise two girls to have strong self-esteem and healthy body images. I hope I never convey that I think one is “the cute one” and one is “the smart one.” As someone who never had a sister, I thrill to my friend Jessica’s tales: “Sometimes I’d wake my little sister up at night and pretend to be a fairy taking her into my room, which I’d decorated as ‘fairyland’ with colored lights and paper flowers with candy inside. Today, she says that totally made her childhood.” And when my friend Mary Elizabeth tells me about the love shared by her two girls (who are slightly older than mine, but also consist of an older hambone and a younger, goggle-eyed observer), I brim with hope for our future. Granted, Mary Beth’s girls may be goyim, but Lucy, at five, wrote the most beautiful midrash ever: Heaven, she said, is where you are before you’re born. And she and Bea love each other so much now, because they knew each other in heaven. And Lucy got to be born first so that she could tell her parents to have Bea. And so she did.

Our woo-woo moments tend to be smaller, less gasp inducing. I crank up the stereo and watch Max wiggle her head, windmill her arms, and bounce. I watch Josie leap and whirl like a Jules Feiffer cartoon, like a Bennington dance major, with her eyes shut and eyebrows raised dramatically, hands fluttering. I watch my girls dissolve like puppies into giggles. And I thank God for this gift of sisters, one I never knew I wanted.

Write to Marjorie at

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