Cat’s out of the bag: The relationship between four sisters


Helen Chao

THE INSTANT I MENTION MY, “three older sisters,” I am swamped with surprise, acknowledgement and at last, the listener’s envy, echoed by a “Oh, you’re sooo lucky!”

I’ll nod, reflexively, and reply with the default: “Yeah, I am lucky!”

Ensue their onslaught of assumptions.

“I bet they do everything for you. You guys must be really close. You can talk about anything with them, right?”

Well, not exactly. In my opinion, we used to be rather distant (emotionally and physically). I had harbored a peculiar grudge against my sisters. A toxic feeling, festering, as I was reminded of my position as the “part time” sister. It was unjustified, I grumped, for all three to scamper off to college or graduate school for nine months, with a melodramatic sunrise as a backdrop. They’d return to unload boatloads of gossip and stories until two o’clock in the morning, without me.

Yet in thick and unforgiving black sharpie, I read their hypocritical birthday cards that said, “Happy Birthday! Remember, you can tell me and ask me about everything.”

We were vastly apart in age and distance, considering one sister was out-of-state for college and the other two were in California colleges. While I understood age and distance were unalterable, I hid a resentful loneliness. Granted, it was a grand old time during Christmas break — yet to me, it was a reunion between the three old pals, and me, their little sister and still a measly preteen, an entertaining spectacle on the sidelines.

At 9 p.m., I sat in the midst of their whirlwind, “college girl” conversation, enthralled by this distant world of underage drinking and partying, a world laced with the stench of weed (a nickname for a friendly garden plant, I assumed?) and couches tie- dyed beer-brown. The clock flashed 11 p.m.; the conversation stopped.

“You should go to bed. It’s sorta time for you to sleep now,” all three of them said. Conversations with school friends were earnest and giggly. Yet among the sisters I’d conversed with for thir teen years, the hubbub and gossipy atmosphere slackened to one- word answers. When a sister confided in me — about serious things, too — sometimes, only to me, the conventional transaction of a secret for a secret fell short. I was still in this
ring around the rosie of gossip.

Actually, I’m talking blasphemy.

While I feigned indifference to the gossip, I did have an urge to lasso my fleece blanket, cowgirl style, and yodel away all my secrets. Am I not the crazy lady who traps all her “cats” in bags, the writer of this column? Heavens, it’d actually be a relief to pan all my secrets out, casino dealer style. Take your pick, I’d sniff at my sister and pick disinterestedly at my fingernails. I’d exhale my burdens in a nonchalant sentence.

Prior to the beginning of sophomore year, my greatest talent was my facade of a happy-go-lucky girl binging on a diet of rainbows and pixie dust. Throughout eighth and ninth grade, unbeknownst to the rest of my family, I struggled religiously and thus emotionally. I became accustomed to concealing and refusing to speak of my emotions, independent in the worst way possible — if my stress was at all noted, I related it to school.

Some battles, I reproved myself, you must fight for yourself. Squeeze your gut and collect that scattered wit yourself, escort the psychiatrist to the exit before they try to sweep it up themselves. Solve your own problems and you’ll truly learn. So I kept the grumbling to myself.

As I grew older, the 11 o’clock bedtime blurred. I was acknowledged as a high schooler and offered admission to this exclusive sisters’ club.

“Come to brunch with us,” they said. “Watch a movie!” “Another brunch place!”


It was unnerving, to say the least. I was rejecting their offers for sisterly bonding, and they found themselves with a sister who refused to have fun or confide in them. It was certainly better off that way. The worries purveying me were truly personal. It’d take copious amounts of self-reflection, but I’d take on my midlife, excuse me, adolescent- life crisis myself—no sisters allowed.

My personality molded itself to my epiphany, and I became reserved and introverted.
Unfortunately, sisters are annoying. Persistent. All three latched onto me as overenthusiastic, uninformed sidekicks. Through a sisterly “sixth sense,” somehow, they recognized how stressed I was.

So what if I was unwilling to divulge my problems?

After all, my struggles didn’t matter, in the grand scheme of things — it was if my sisters could make me happier. Badgering for me to lay off the homework and go for a boba run, aiding me in their own ridiculous way. My cumulative rejections didn’t deter their Sunday brunch offers in the slightest. In a teasing way, they despaired of their little sister’s avoidance of outside sunlight — only to drag me out to face the rays and meet a teetering pancake stack, with all three sisters looking at me expectantly. I dug in.

Well, we all dug in, chatting between forkfuls of pancake.

We still do to this day.