My older sister, the Queen of England

  Oct 22, 2011 – 7:00 AM ET Last Updated: Oct 21, 2011 5:56 PM ET

I have lots of women friends, but apart from being endowed with high intelligence and a good sense of humour, they aren’t at all alike. A few years ago, trying to find a common trait that would explain why I had gravitated to them socially, I realized almost all were the oldest female child in their family. (Interestingly, the few who are second female children have older sisters who disappointed their families; my friends assumed their role). From this, I concluded I was unconsciously seeking to recreate the sibling dynamic I grew up with.

I am the middle child of a female triad, 18 months younger than my sister Anne, and four years older than my sister Nancy. The age gap between Nancy and me is meaningless now and we became close friends in maturity, but in childhood it might as well have been a generation. Until adulthood, Nancy was the adorable family “baby” — often a responsibility, but never a peer.

My conscious attention was focused obsessively on emulating the parent/teacher-pleasing achievements of my “perfect” sister Anne. Because she exuded imperial self-confidence, I regarded Anne as infallibly trustworthy to negotiate the world beyond our doorstep on my behalf. My corollary assumption was that I was an idiot in need of her protection and management, without which I would drift helplessly into danger or social perdition, a notion Anne may have encouraged to secure my uncritical thraldom.

My first coherent sibling memory has me slumped disconsolately in the living room of our summer cottage. Anne, then nine, is spending a week at a summer camp with our cousins from Detroit. It is the first time we have ever been separated. I suddenly blurt out to my mother, à propos of nothing, “I don’t miss Anne at all, you know.”

From my mother’s sympathetic smile, I realized that I had given myself away. I missed Anne’s micro-management so acutely, I had no idea what to do with myself. So I sat and read comics or stared at the wall. I was a reverse Pinocchio — alive at the end of Anne’s strings, a blank wooden doll without them.

From my worshipful optic, there wasn’t a single chink in Anne’s armour. She was pretty, popular, athletic, academically conscientious and civic-minded: an enthusiastic joiner of clubs, synagogue youth groups and model parliaments, a chairer of prom committees.

Imagine Queen Elizabeth as a child — self-possessed, focused and poised, with a cheerful smile and ready stock of polite conversational gambits for her entourage of adult courtiers — and you have the general idea. Similarly to Elizabeth, Anne seems in retrospect to have been the kind of child who knew what was in store for her — she’s one of Canada’s highest-achieving women — and far from resisting the heavy responsibilities awaiting her, embraced her destiny as to the mantle of leadership born.

I was not born to lead. I was born to daydream myself into whatever persona dovetailed with the novel I was currently absorbed in. If Anne was like the Queen, I was like a colony that had yet to discover identity pride. Far from resenting being bossed around, I was grateful to have most of my decisions made for me. More time to daydream.

But following in her footsteps was occasionally stressful. It didn’t help that I was only one grade behind her in school. Teachers were wont to say things like, “Oh, you’re Anne’s sister. Well, we’re expecting great things from you!” For many years I cultivated a conscious strategy of subachievement. I would deliberately under-study for tests. That way, I could point to my lack of preparation, rather than my inferior intelligence as the reason for grades that were commendable, but lower than Anne’s uniformly stellar marks.

Keenly aware of the burden I laboured under, and with the very best of intentions, my mother rather overdid it in the self-esteem department. She’d praise Anne’s report card, and then, unsolicited, tell me, “Barby, you are just as smart as Anne!” Harping on my only competitive advantage — I loved reading, and enjoyed writing — she lavished praise so fulsome that I completely discounted her prediction that I would be a professional writer as a crude application of psychological affirmative action. Her boosterism was the kiss of death to my secret ambition for many years.

It was only when I went to university and met professors and other students who didn’t know Anne that I began the slow transition to independence. Anne’s imperfections became visible; a taste for responsibility replaced some of my daydreaming. The sun eventually set on the Empire of Anne, but the sibling Commonwealth that emerged became one of the great sustaining pillars of my life.

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