For a long time, my Canadian TWIST AND SHOUT LP was my favorite album – I still have it, vinyl of course. Reading this entry again, it’s telling that as quickly as I acquired this treasure, I feared its loss – “I just hope it doesn’t get broken or stolen on the way home.”
Surely, I’m not the only person for whom the joy of acquisition coexists with fear of forfeiture. Looking back, many – if not most – of my relationships traced a similar trajectory. No sooner did I fall for someone than I obsessed about our inevitable break-up. Who would lower the axe? When? Nothing lasts forever.
I maintain my sense of impending doom originated with the birth of my beloved sister Janet, who usurped my place as center of my parents’ universe. It proved that when I least expected it, the people I loved and trusted most, might – for no apparent reason – replace me with a newer model. (For further evidence of this theory, see photo galleries Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby and And then there were three.)
For all my snarkiness about how Janet’s birth destroyed my life, the truth is we are and always have been very close. I’m using photos of Janet and I enjoying each other in this blog to balance the hundreds of photos where I look like if I can’t kill her, I’ll kill myself. (Full disclosure – it’s far easier to find photos of me in abject despair beside a smiling Janet than photos where I’m happy. Just saying.) Janet previews all of my bitter tongue-in-cheek photo captions so she can rein me in if I go too far. I think (hope) she finds this whole sibling rivalry “you ruined my life” business amusing – aside from that unfortunate episode when I “accidentally” shoved her baby carriage down a flight of stairs.
Janet’s emergency run to the hospital to have her appendix removed via surgery (it sounded so exotic at 13) was the most thrilling and life-threatening event our family had faced but Janet was just getting started. She quickly cornered the market on medical crisis. Joyce and I still have our appendixes. Joyce and I never broke our arm like Janet did. (She broke it skate-boarding. Some might say she was ahead of her time. Others might say she was desperate for attention.)
Janet also suffered – and still does – from horrific highly dramatic migraine headaches. Unless you count mild acne or clinical depression – and I don’t because they’re boring head things – I don’t think I had a single health issue during childhood or adolescence.
However, in the last 14 years I made up for lost time with three cornea transplants. Like me, Janet and Joyce inherited Fuchs disease (because it’s a genetic disease, duh) but so far their cases are mild. I’d be stunned if either of them needs a cornea transplant. Of course, at this time last year if you’d told me I’d need two cornea transplants before the year ended, I would’ve called you crazy.
Just to prove I’m not making this cornea transplant thing up, here’s a close-up of my right eye that clearly shows the 16 tiny stitches holding the dead person’s cornea in place.
I’ve written elsewhere about how right UCLA was for me (link) but I knew little more than its four initials when I applied. For all I knew, it could’ve been located in the dregs of downtown LA. (Except then it would’ve been called USC. Whoops, my snark is showing.)
My parents were equally ill-informed – their now-void plan had been to send me to a Lutheran college where I’d meet and marry a guy at least half-Scandinavian. To their credit, they hid their disappointment well and didn’t try to change my mind.
Consequently, on Friday after Thanksgiving in 1968, my parents and I left my sisters in Santa Clara and drove to LA. It wasn’t often I spent significant time with them without my sisters as buffer. It was exhilarating to reclaim their undivided attention but also unnerving. Too much focus on me risked revealing defects I sought to hide, especially from them. Based on the most formative experience, which took place when I was two years and two days old, imperfections – the failure to entertain, for example – were cause for replacement. Either one of my younger sisters – both less flawed than me – could easily take my place.
It wouldn’t be the first time. They’d done it before and could do it again.
Click this link to view family photo albums illustrating the inner torment of a highly sensitive recently displaced first-born child. You’re not being disloyal to Janet or Joyce. They signed off on my weird obsession decades ago. I’ll add new photos and captions in the near future.
In 1965, I was foolishly over-optimistic about how easy it would be to conquer my tendency to talk like it’s a race to the finish line (and the loser dies) whenever I speak to a group. The larger the group, the faster I gallop.
Obviously, nerves – or more accurately fear – is the root of this malady. A doctor explained it’s due to a primal burst of adrenalin – speaking in public triggers a “fight or flight” response in my reptilian brain.
Given my father, a Lutheran pastor, delivered a sermon to a large seated congregation every Sunday, you’d think I might acquire this skill naturally – by osmosis. I did not.
I made up for it in small groups – such as my nuclear family – where I felt comfortable. There, I morphed into “Chatty Cathy”, a nickname I loathed. It was all Janet could do to get a word in edgewise.
My father recorded us after dinner and doing family devotions. I belted out every verse of every hymn I knew by heart, barely pausing to catch my breath. In my monotone shriek, it had to be excruciating. My father tried to slow me down. “It’s Janet’s turn. Let Janet sing.”
And on and on, all recorded for posterity. Clearly, I was desperate to entertain them lest they decide I’d become redundant now that Baby Janet was on the scene. Photographic evidence of my terrifying ordeal can be seen in my gallery, “Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby”.
From today’s vantage point, life looks simple in ‘64 but it didn’t feel that way then. I obsessed over what other people thought of me (which they didn’t, much). Subtle shifts in friendship sent me reeling. I stewed about my performance in school. I wanted to be number one in everything but I was afraid to be best at anything.
My need to be number one began in ‘53, when my parents shattered my fragile 2-year-old psyche by bringing my sister Janet home. I got their message loud and clear. If I’d been a better baby – cuter, smarter, more entertaining – they wouldn’t have needed another baby. I ran outside and bawled my eyes out.
They flat-out refused to return her. Over time, I discovered she – and later Joyce – had some good points. Little sisters were easy to trick. Gradually both of them became fun to talk to. In fact, it was easier to talk to them than anyone else in the world.
Because we knew which buttons to push, emotions ran high. They could cut me to the bone, infuriate and inspire me, rouse my jealousy and my compassion. On balance, we shared more laughter than tears.
I trust them with my deepest secrets, my darkest self. When I fail and feel all is lost, my sisters raise me from the dead. They’ve got my back when I need them most. They love me when I don’t deserve it, believe in me when I give up. They’re the wind beneath my wings, my bridge over troubled waters. They light up my life. You get the gist.
Maybe all things considered, what my sisters give me is bigger than the narcissistic wound Janet inflicted. Maybe gains always come with pain. Maybe I should stop whining about what happened 63 years ago.
Have you ever noticed how in virtually every fairy tale since the beginning of time, the oldest sister(s) are ugly harpies and the youngest is so clever, kind and beautiful – so gosh darn special – that she always wins Prince Charming’s heart? Sometimes older siblings have no plot function or personality at all – they exist only to make the hero a youngest child.
This blatant favoritism for the youngest sibling didn’t die with old-fashioned fairy-tales like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. It’s alive and well in contemporary fiction – Ron Weasley is the youngest Weasley brother and Ginny (the youngest) becomes Harry’s wife in Harry Potter. Ender is the youngest of three in Ender’s game. Alyosha, the youngest, is the most morally pure of the Brothers Karamazov.
The purpose of fairytales and myths is to teach children about life. What lesson is an oldest child supposed to take from this bias? No wonder I look so ticked off in childhood photos of the three of us. The subliminal message in myth and lit was I didn’t count in this story. I was a stage prop, meant to do something venal and stupid and exit to make way for the chosen one, the good one – my youngest sister Joyce.
If you’re interested, there’s a list and explanation of this trope at
And if you’re in the mood for some sisterly snark, follow these links to either or both of these photo galleries – My Two Years and Two Days of Bliss (link) and Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby. Pictures don’t lie!