If memory serves, it was a rainy Sunday afternoon. By that point, my sister and I had been forced to share space for far too long and tensions were running high. We couldn’t pass each other in the hallway without a shoulder check, or even look at each other without hurling an insult—usually pertaining to the other’s feminine hygiene. We really knew how to hit where it hurt.
I can’t remember what it was, exactly, that made me take it to a more physical level that afternoon. My sister was making lunch in the kitchen, her back turned to me as I sat at the table enjoying a nice slice of banana cream pie. I tried my best to fight it but finally succumbed to the overwhelming urge to sneak up behind her and smear a handful of whipped topping across her face, into her ear, and then quickly wipe my hands off on her hair.
Not surprisingly, she took it very personally, and within a nanosecond, she was hot on my tail as I ran like I’ve never run before to my bedroom. To this day, there is no doubt in my mind that if she would have caught me she’d have bludgeoned me to death right there in the hallway with her forehead.
The lock on my door had been removed—the result of a previous “situation”—so I did my best to stave her off by throwing my shoulder into the door while she pushed with all her might from the other side. Suddenly the pushing stopped and there was silence. I suspected it was a trick. Not one to be fooled, I waited another 10 minutes before finally letting my guard down when I heard her back in the kitchen making lunch.
“Truce?” I asked, cautiously peeking my head around the corner.
“Yeah, sure, truce,” she said nonchalantly as she finished making her ramen noodles. “This is dumb. I don’t want to fight anymore.”
Satisfied I had emerged victorious and she had finally recognized my dominance, I sat back down at the table with a smug little smile on my face. I placed my napkin thoughtfully on my lap and continued where I had left off with my banana cream pie, minus the handful of whipped cream that was now crusting over in her hair.
The minute it hit my lips I berated myself for being so naive. I ran to the sink to try to spit out the mouthful of garlic salt she had dumped on my pie, garlic salt that was now slowly making its way down my tongue and seeping into my throat.
“Like your pie?” she snarled as I spit and lurched into the sink, frantically dabbing my tongue with a paper towel.
What must have gone through my mom’s mind when she ran into the kitchen and saw my sister, covered in sticky remnants of whipped topping and me vomiting into the sink, I can’t say. I can only imagine it was something resembling a cosmic plea that someday we have kids who put us through a similar hell.
When my third daughter was born, I knew I was in for it. I flashed back to my own childhood—the sibling rivalry, the fighting, the plotting, the nonstop guerrilla warfare. If one has it, the other wants it. If one sees it, the other grabs it. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. I could toss a squirrel turd into the playroom and suddenly it’s full-throttle Hunger Games.
I used to really make an effort to police my kids’ fights. I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on and be as fair as possible in my punishment.
“OK, so you honked her nose because she took the pink My Little Pony out of your hands?” I asked, brow furrowed, scribbling notes into my mini-notebook. “So how did the goldfish get in the toilet?”
But over the years, something happened. I’ve given up. I completely ignore the bickering for the same reason I don’t watch the political debates. Because it is the same fight over and over until I die. The same fight my siblings and I had. The same fight my parents, and their parents before them, and every sibling has had traced back to the beginning of time. The Bible glossed over the details, but Abel used to give Cain pink bellies until he finally had enough and took him “out to the field.”
The fighting has become the soundtrack to our home—background noise that my ears have learned to tune out, except in moments of actual danger.
“Hey, not the good knives!” I yell out the back door when they’ve challenged each other to a duel. “Those were a wedding gift from Grandma. Use the old rusty ones instead.”
And I know my mom had arrived at the same place long before the whipped topping incident 30 years ago. “I thought I heard someone throwing up in here,” she said that day, peering over my shoulder into the sink, then narrowing her eyes. “You two can fight all you want, but Christ on a cracker, if you barf on my carpet there will be hell to pay.”