What Matters

How did it start?

I assume it somehow began with me.

I am the mother of two daughters, Lily and Julia, who are at such odds.

But they were never close.

We had four children and it looked rather neat to have boy, girl, boy, girl, only the four year gap between the two boys and the nearly six between our daughters meant they never paired off by sex.

Our first two played enthusiastically  and maybe we expected they would add in the third. However, he often went about his own interests with apparently small regard for siblings.

I was seen by others to manage the three of them well and being called a “good mother” was comfort to drape around myself.

Then came another pregnancy, just as the previous youngest was ready for school.

Although initially disconcerted, I began saying it would be lovely to enjoy a baby from 9 till after school without other demands.

“It might be peaceful,” I too often repeated.

But it certainly wasn’t.

From the start that child, Julia, cried more than the others  and always in the night.

During that time the washing machine flooded ,bringing down plaster beneath, and an expensive plumber proved useless, and there was shopping and cooking and relentless clearing up, apart from the fact that the older children each grew more difficult, with our younger son often sick enough to stay home.

Probably I’d imagined the three would amuse their new sister and even help.

I’d been required to “ look after” my sister and had done as asked. There was little question of disobeying a mother with a slipper ready for punishment.

Did I, aged four, truly care for baby May, or was it training and being given no room to voice hurt jealousy?

I continued being called a “responsible big sister,” with our parents quick to approve any sign that I loved May or was kind.

This family “fact” was not thrown into serious doubt until the death of our widowed mother, just as I was worn down, fraught and facing a baby who protested at sleep.

After being accommodating, trying  to make things easier for my parents, it seemed unfair to have  fighting children.

Had we left too much space for them to argue and complain as May suggested? She only had one daughter.

Not that there was any question of us threatening ours with force to keep control of behaviour  or their anger.

I couldn’t  admit to regretting  a fourth and unexpected pregnancy.
I didn’t even think it.

Not really.

It was just that everything seemed to slip out of hand and I could barely cope.

I found myself wanting to scream or simply walk out the door and keep on walking.

I was more than ready to return to work.

My once eager appetite for a family life was definitely beginning to wane.

Certainly patience with my sister ran out.

I had listened to her ,as she so often required , and came to realise it was mistaken to have ever imagined this gave me accumulated credit, or a turn where she heard me.

May was dismissive of my domestic struggle and expected me to receive her many responses to our mother’s death and  grievances at the inadequacy of other listeners.

Suddenly it was stark , that I was no longer obliged to put myself aside for May.

If part of the shift was our mother’s death, freeing me from a long pressure to be a helpful big sister, perhaps I should have been alert that their father’s death might alter dynamics for our children.

There was some tension immediately but, while I was submerged , it only registered as unpleasant surface vibration.

I could not reach out to any of the four adult children, when my husband’s death absorbed me.

I did have to take more notice when Lily heard Julia was “spreading poison behind her back” in the extended family.

Did Julia ever consider that anything she told friends or cousins about Lily  being too organising would find its way back to her?

Unlike  careful Lily, Julia was  lose with words – they tumbled out readily, liable to fly one way or dart off in the opposite direction.

Lily once knew our  incantation, that her little sister was inclined to say  three contradictory things before breakfast.

Julia was born into a talking household and tried joining especially fast, making nonsense sounds long before she could use actual words.

The content or its consequence mattered less to Julia than that she was a player, set on getting centre stage as soon as possible.

Although Lily was more cautious and proud of it, she was hardly able to recognise the source of all her sturdy beliefs.

As long as a certain standard of behaviour was maintained we didn’t have to pay  attention to what each thought about other family members.

But Julia speaking ill of her sister took the cover off “we all get along.”

If this surfacing antagonism was cutting straight to a power struggle, did either of them realise it was not something they could win?

Lily could not gag her sister.

If there was bitterness lying in tangled roots it had rarely shown itself on many  family occasions of shared meals and celebrations.

Possibly their father set the required tone.

Once I was on my own, we began to meet for birthdays or Christmas in Lily’s big house . She offered.

Family grew complicated as  all four had partners and Lily had twins by then.

Julia might send her obliging boyfriend,Donald, to be helpful but Lily began to mutter that her sister should not swan in as if she was the big attraction, her presence more than sufficient.

Perhaps for Julia it was a contribution to perform, with stories of her own exploits or those of friends. She did keep us entertained and her brothers, who had less to say, appeared amused to listen.

Unlike childhood fights which, however furious, soon passed, this one stuck in a groove, going round and round  in the same circuit, with each daughter locked in position and trying to draw me in.

Neither would let me ignore it.

After the second Christmas, an exhausted Lily turned on me for not standing up to Julia and asking her to help. “Because she is the youngest she always got away with being selfish.”

It wasn’t exactly that Lily expected gratitude, but made explicit   the cleaning and cooking required to offer hospitality, which Julia never returned.  She was always guest not host.

Julia believed that Lily liked being important in the family, drawing all of us round her children.

Why should she fawn with gratitude when Lily had taken up the place she wanted?

They seem to be settling into a permanent standoff.

When I am gone they probably will not have to see each other and that feels  sad….a waste of connection.

My husband’s clear voice lingers “behave decently with others if you wish to be treated decently.”

He was a solidly reliable man, not easily ruffled, who had considerable faith in continuity, until his  own abrupt end.  A sudden stroke.

It wasn’t possible to know if the dynamics between the girls changed as much as I assumed with their father’s death.

Lily went immediately to the hospital. Knowing she would be home with her  babies, I rang and asked her to contact the others who were all at work.

Lily, there nearly as quickly as the ambulance, took on the role of intermediary with hospital staff as I was too stunned to be of use.

Julia would not forgive that Lily didn’t try harder to reach her . She began asserting  how  of the children  she lost most with his death.

She was devastated not to be left a message or be singled out in his will.

How she ever imagined a man who so valued fairness would single her out amazed me.

Yet how badly she seemed to need this claim to being favoured , which
Lily took  as a threat.

Julia  shaped conviction that Lily was closer to me , so obviously I would call her first.

It wasn’t like that. Yes, Julia and I had a difficult start and she was not an easy child  for me but as  parents we loved all four . We were especially moved by one or another but this shifted around for both of us.

My husband valued Lily and admired her particular intelligence but often felt Julia needed more of his encouragement.

Julia invited me to her friend’s exhibition and then suggested dinner.

I paid as usual.

“Lily felt safe as long as you were there for her. She said so years ago.”

Julia told me this and more over a shared sticky toffee pudding.

“Lily knew she could rely on you. It surprised me because it was Dad who helped me believe I would manage. How could you let Lily know before me, she got there  in time.  I didn’t.”

True, he was alive some minutes after Lily arrived but  wasn’t conscious, as I’d told Julia  already.

“I know I made a fuss about it, but it wasn’t really the will, I just needed  some sign that I mattered. You wanted Lily near, and her  help with probate  and stuff.  I had lost so much and who noticed that?”