Recently my eldest granddaughter, Taria, 8, was assigned to re-create a work of art. She chose my favorite photograph, one that’s hung in our home since my three daughters were young, and enlisted her mother — my eldest daughter — to take a carefully posed picture. Backs toward the camera, Taria and her two sisters, Alila and Neasa, sit with arms entwined around each other’s waists and shoulders. It’s a beautiful re-creation of the aptly named Entre Nous by Willabel Cole Mitchell.
The French often use the nuanced term entre nous — ”between us” — when they’re telling a secret that should remain so. I can think of no better phrase to describe the confidences shared between sisters. I once read that no one in the world knows you better than a sibling of the same gender and about the same age. This has certainly been true for me.
My sisters — one older, one younger — have known things about me that no one else knows or ever will know. Secrets held entre nous.
When we were young, my grandparents lived on the other side of our duplex. My sisters and I would sneak through a hole in the cellar wall to creep up the stairs and surprise Gram as she baked our favorite chocolate chip cookies. In winter, we sledded down our backyard hill, over an embankment, and onto a frozen stream, one of us keeping an eye out for our mother because this was considered dangerous and off-limits.
In summer, we spent a week at the beach. Only my sisters would remember how upset I was when I lost my red purse at high tide, all my savings washed away along with my hope of a special souvenir. In our shared bedroom with a twin bed and bunk beds, we whispered late into the night about crushes, broken curfews, unfair parental rules. When my younger sister was hospitalized for a week with a serious infection, and later, when my older sister left for college, I felt bereft without both my sisters as bookends — off-kilter, unbalanced.
As a young mother, I delighted in the antics of my own three daughters. To my amusement, I’d overhear them playing, telling each other “let’s pretend we’re sisters.” The mysteries surrounding missing chocolates, broken toys, and undone chores usually went unsolved. The girls exchanged knowing glances but offered no explanations. When a teacher reported that they’d arrived late for school several days in a row, despite having left the house early, none of them confessed that they’d been walking backward, as an experiment.
Luckily for me, my eldest daughter and her own three lovely daughters live nearby, and I spend most Wednesdays with them. I smile as I overhear my granddaughters saying “let’s pretend we’re sisters,” taking me back to that earlier time. I’m awed by their creativity when inventing unique games like “Unicorns Galore” and “Attack Eleven Screams,” which is exactly what its name implies. The games may be different, but the girls are strikingly familiar.
My older sister died in 1985 at age 31, and my younger sister died in 1998 at age 40. Both waged long, courageous battles with cancer. I clutched their hands at the end, dreading the inevitability of letting them go.
I’m 64 now, and my sisters have been gone for decades. Yet, if a new acquaintance asks me how many siblings I have, I always reply, “I have two sisters.” I don’t explain that they died years ago. I still sense them as my bookends, warding off that incomplete, lopsided feeling.
Now I’m Gram, baking my granddaughters’ favorite chocolate chip cookies. “Gram,” they beg, “tell us how you snuck through the hole in the cellar wall with your sisters, to scare your grandmother when you were a girl.” So, I tell the story once again, gratefully passing along all those secrets, once held entre nous.
Monica Driscoll Stuart is a writer in Waltham. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.