I’m making a list of all the things I will miss about my mother. I have the undisputed number one.
Every morning, between ten and eleven, my phone would buzz with the words “Mi Madre” and I’d pick up and she’d chime, “Sister!” and I’d go faux-italian and say “Meeeee maaaadre”… Then we’d chuckle and she’d ask if I was coming for tea and tell me how she’d slept and ask how the children were.
Sometimes, we’d sit together, us four sisters with my mum, talking about things sisters talk about, usually our hair, our facial hair, our weight, boys and work. At a particular moment, perhaps we’d laugh or unanimously exclaim about something, my mother, very much part of the conversation, would dramatically lament, “I have no sisters.”
It was annoying, this constant reminder of her lack of sisters. We tried to understand as much as one of four sisters could: not much. My mother had no sisters. She had no siblings. The only child of an entire generation of nine, she had no cousins on her maternal side. She had us, her children, who thought of her more as a friend, an equal, but we didn’t get it.
In the last few years, she began to reach out; to her best friend and my father’s eldest sister and the wives of his brothers. Painfully shy for years, she opened the doors of her grandmother’s house to women who passed by and always had a cup of tea and time for a chat on the balcony. My husband’s sister, distant cousins, a couple of random maids, old friends, the lady who fed stray dogs… all of them. Even our mildly disreputable (judged secretly by the sisterhood) neighbour, with her Chinese tattoo and ‘too-forward’ manner, was invited over to play cards and chat with my mother.
“Sister!” What would you do without one? Who else has the courage to tell you the absolute truth in absolute support? And from whom else do you have the faith to receive it at face value?
“Am I looking fat in this?” Yes.
“Am I too fat?” You need to start exercising.
“My boyfriend is an idiot.” He’s an idiot.
“He’s not that bad.” He’s an idiot, but he’s not that bad.
“I’m going to marry him.” You’re an idiot. But okay… hahahha he’s nice. I like him. But I may kick his ass if he misbehaves.
My mother was more like a sister than a mother. On some days, I felt she was a scatty, younger sibling, huffing around, too big for her boots. On some days she was a wise older sister, telling me like it was, presenting the most incisive, uncanny truths and rounding it off with a double entendre that would make me go red from shame and blue from laughing.
She had built a sisterhood at home. Taught us to rise above petty differences and silly competitiveness. Each of us, she said, was beautiful in our own way, special in our own way. She knew what it was to be a woman. She knew that it was hard and easy, beautiful and ugly, depleting and exalting. She knew you must not be a woman alone.
In the last few years though, without realizing it, I’ve begun to feel especially tenderly to those with no sisters. I’ve reached out to women, especially those who were going to have babies or had just had them. I wanted them all to feel like I did at the best of times, cosseted, safe, accepted, supported. I wanted to do for them what my mother and sisters do for me. Tell me the truth. Hold my hand while doing it. Drink tea with me. Talk about life and love and men and women and children.
And I have found them. Old and new friends, mums outside the school gate, relatives, strangers who suddenly walked into my life… Women who needed a sister. Even if they already had one, or two… you could always do with one more.
I always knew, looking at my phone buzzing ‘Mi Madre’ that one day that number would go silent. That there would be one last time she called me ‘Sister’. I never took it for granted. And now her voice is a secret in my head.
But what is there for all to see is the sisterhood she has set off. Her daughters and grand daughters, her friends, her neighbours…
My wise, laughing, scandalous, delicious, caring, wonderful mother, we will reach out to all the women in our lives and will call each other by what we are to each other: sisters.