When we were little, my mother dressed my younger sister and I in the same outfits so we looked like twins. I remember a particular dress she bought for us. It had a blue and white plaid design, with pleats and red ribbons that could be tied into a bow. I have come to hate that dress because it reminds me of a time when things were quite stormy between Patricia and I.In my family, hierarchy and seniority was an unwritten rule. You obey your elders, even if they were older by minutes. I was two years older than Patricia but she didn’t realize this for a while.
Whenever my father or mother shared goodies among the children, the eldest child always takes the first piece, then came the turn of the second born, then the third and so it would go on until every child had a piece of cake, candy, fried bush meat or freshly baked loaves of bread. Whenever it was my turn, she would reach for the very piece I had my eye on. Scolding from either of my parents never deterred her from her mission to re-assign her place in the hierarchy.
Before the ugly blue and white pleated dress, there were the tricycles. Hers was white with red ribbons attached to the handlebars. Mine had blue ribbons. I can’t recollect how our choices came to be, but the tricycles became the blue print of what our favorite colors and personalities would be for the rest of our lives. Even the mesh underwear my mother was so fond of making us wear around the house were in red and blue.Patricia was red, fiery and hot.I was blue, mellow and cool.
At the threshold of our teen years, our eagerness to be different people became evident with the onslaught of ferocious rivalry. I knew I was older and with that knowledge came responsibilities; I had to be bigger and better. But she was bigger, with legs that ran almost her entire frame.
I remember one of many fights we had. As usual, she had the upper hand, pinning my scrawny body to the floor and beating the daylights out of me. When my mother came into the room and asked what the ruckus was all about, Patricia started to cry. When Patricia cried, she made cute pathetic little sounds like a wounded kitten, (I bawled like an angry donkey). Without waiting to find out what was wrong, my mother started to beat me for hurting my sister. After that, the pretty white gloves with which I handled Patricia came off and I put on something that would provide a little more protection – caution.
My brothers gave her the nickname “scorpion” because of her sharp tongue, which she used liberally to cut people down to size. Once, I came across an article written by a well-known journalist in the Daily Times, the Nigerian counterpart of the New York Times. The article attacked modern Nigerian women who dressed in western clothes, accusing them of wearing high heels and too much make-up. I showed Patricia the article. She was furious. While I wrote a polite but firmly worded response to the paper decrying the unfair generalization, Patricia wrote a response that made me cringe. She told the writer that if he did not like the way the modern Nigerian women dressed, he could take off his own suit and tie and go back to the hills and mountains to live with the apes, naked. Both responses got printed but my sister’s name was left out.I have cause to believe it was done for her safety.
She was the only person I know who has ever told my father she hated him, while he was still within earshot. He had just scolded her for one of her many mischievous deeds and my father as usual used a lot of hurtful words when he is upset with any of his children (Patricia probably inherited her sharp tongue from him). After his tirade, as he left the room, Patricia turned to me and exclaimed, “God, I hate him!” My father is a big man with menacing features. He ruled his household and my home village with an iron hand. No one, no one ever talks back to him, at least not in his presence. So you could imagine my surprise and horror when Patricia actually brought the feeling that I sometimes harbored, to life when she uttered the words, “God, I hate him!”
Her aggressive behavior was not limited to words. The family pet dogs (and most people) avoided her or stayed at a safe distance until they could determine what mood she was in. One snake was not so lucky. In my family’s home village compounds and homesteads were built in heavily wooded areas, so snakes and other animals are quite common. On our way home through a forest pathway, just beyond the walled borders of the family compound, we encountered a small grey colored snake just about 27 inches in length. I ran. My brothers and cousins threw stones at it from a distance. Its eyes flashed and it curled its body into a formidable bundle and stood its ground.Patricia was livid. With eyes matching the serpent’s creepy determination, she grabbed a tree branch lying on the ground and clubbed it to death. Then she carried the carcass as she would a trophy, to show off to the rest of the family.
Not long after, I found her Achilles’ heel. To outsiders, she was a quiet and reserved person but in truth, she was shy around strangers, shy to the point of invisibility. I used this to my advantage because I was never at loss for words. I could think quickly on my feet and come back with witty repertoires unusual for a thirteen year old and never gave up the chance of putting her in a spot in front of strangers.
Thankfully, we spent most of our teen years in separate boarding schools. Our rivalry was restricted to a few vacation weeks and those times were intense indeed. With our raging hormones and female temperaments, it was left to my mother or my older sister to preside over fights and quarrels. Somehow, I got blamed for most of the fights.
“You are older and supposed to know better,” my mother would say. Older? The she-devil with the face of an angel challenged my authority whenever she could. She could not however, compete with me in academics. I got better grades, and had more friends. I was once held back a grade when our school closed down and we had to move to a new school. While Patricia moved on to the next grade, my mother tried to soothe my crushed ego. She explained that it would serve me better as I prepared to take my Common Entrance Examinations (a standardized test which determined acceptance to select secondary schools). Patricia saw this as one step closer to her goal of academic superiority as she was one class behind me. Three years later, she got held back a grade when she moved to a new school and balance was restored.
Soon, we left the tumultuous teen years and settled into an early adult life.I had just been given my visa to come to the United States. I was drifting off to sleep on night when suddenly, Patricia jumped up from her side of the bed, straddled me and put a vice-like grip on my throat.
“Why?” she asked, as I struggled to breathe.
“Whhhyy-whaaat?” I gasped, trying to get her hands off my neck. She wouldn’t budge.
“Why do all the good things happen to you? Why do you get all the luck?Why do I get stuck here, while you get to leave this god-forsaken house?” her eyes were almost as dark as coal. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or kidding. I tried to say something but I beginning to get light headed.
“Get off me!” I screamed as I managed to get away from her grip.
At that moment, I realized that all these years, after all the fights and the competition, after all the rivalry, she always saw me as the victor. She hated that she had to struggle for what came easily to me. As the ninth child out of ten, she hated being near the bottom of the sibling hierarchy. So, as she glared at me from the bed, while I stayed in the corner of the room away from her wrath, I felt triumphant. But then, the moment passed. The tension in the room faded. We never again addressed the issue.
Now, our childhood is almost forgotten. Ironically, we are now closer than we have ever been. She’s the only person I told when I got my heart broken. She’s the only person in my family who
calls me at 4 a.m. just to say hi. Remembering how we were, I think she is just being a good rival, keeping tabs on her opponent.
Just as I thought we had gotten past our battles for superiority, she called me a year ago to gloat about earning her bachelor’s degree before me. That was followed by another call announcing her new job in a bank. My congratulatory remarks were lost in her steady stream of questions as she tried to compare my wages to her salary, down to the market exchange rate of the American dollars and the Nigerian Naira.
Although two sisters who could not have hated each other more as siblings, may have loved each other the most. Sometimes, when I wake up, I still half expect to see her long limbs spread eagled all over “her” side of the bed, just as she likes to sleep. When I do something stupid, sometimes I listen for her high-pitched cackle. We are thousands of miles apart now, just as we wished in words yelled out in many of our heated childhood arguments. We may have succeeded in living totally different and separate lives but some things have not changed and I’m not sure that I want them to.