1st January, 2001#

Signature Songs

Sisters. Friends or not, like other family relationships, our lives are entwined for a lifetime. Those lives are punctuated by ritual, we gather at birthdays, Christmas, funerals. These sisters were invited to a different ritual, a creative project by the youngest. They began to narrate their own lives. Conversation was recorded, photography and video captured the moment, and these have formed the basis for Dianne’s story of herself, her mother and her sisters. A portrait in a sense, of women who have each played a part in the lives of the others.

Dianne, like others in her generation, have been driven to explore this relationship. The last decade has seen several anthologies on the theme published. Feminism has shown the relationship between sisters to have been an overlooked, perhaps threatening relationship ‘ [which] like that between mothers and daughters, comes to us shrouded in silence and ignorance.’ 1 In the great novels of Jane Austen, for example, marriage-brokerage has been considered the primary narrative dynamic, but equally the novel is one about the bonds between sisters. It almost provides a case study to the claim that ‘…siblings go out of their way to be different because it is in their Darwinian interests to do so. Diversity reduces competition for scarce resources.’ 2 Despite the shared gene pool, (designer-baby dealers beware!) each sister demonstrates different feminine attributes. Competition, and collusion, is enacted in every scene and each has her own kind of victory.

But what happens when ‘real sisters’ become a story?

Soundtrack for real life

Being with our sisters there is permission to revert to childhood patterns – some comforting, some confounding. In the snippets of family storytelling the past surfaces in the shared laughter and the rehearsed punch line of a favourite anecdote. However, memory, if often triggered by, is not like a photograph.

Memory is tricky. Memory changes. First there is the incident, the snapshot, the feelings at the time. Add the extra flesh that comes with superimposed retellings. Scrap the details that don’t support your recall in the now. Memory is a paradox because, although false from the moment of inception, it does have an essential truth at its centre. 3

Dianne searches amongst the images and words for the essential truth. But this will not be singular, as in the literature of the past. It is a composite. It is as much the small objects remembered by the youngest in an all-female household, as the song which now conjures her sister for her. It is this sister’s characteristic expression, as much as the formal photograph of her, the projected self-image of the elusive present. Time shifts, we change, our sisters remember.

Our sisters remember the childhood pages where we rehearsed a signature that would reflect our emerging character. They remember our fumbling teenage trials at casting ourselves in the movie of our choice: that dress, those shoes, the hairspray. We remember the tyranny of hand-me-downs, the times we were told how much we were alike. There will always be a residue of that time, but the grand innocence of it will be lost to all but our siblings.

Dianne’s sisters are the daughters of the transistor radio. Musical taste, like hairstyle, is part of how we construct our persona. Dianne draws from blues to rock to cabaret, and sings each song. The songs then form another, more poetic text, in which submerged messages appear. As we gaze at the faces, pondering on the mundane attributes, we hear each sister, hear her soundtrack.

Same song, different tempo

I went to visit my four sisters, carrying a tape recorder and my imagined map of the family. It was unsettling to learn that each sister has her own quite individual map of that territory: the mountains and the rivers are in different places, the borders are differently constituted and guarded, the history and politics and justice system of the country are different according to who’s talking. 4

The Gene Pool takes a gentler metaphor than the hard terrain of landscape. Water by its nature accommodates difference. Each sister may slip into the pool, and her shape will be embraced. Certainly, the rest of the pool will be altered, as we are by our sisters. There may even be turbulence, but the politics are of negotiation. Dianne went to visit her sisters with a tape recorder. She also carried her printing tools, and her recording studio. It is she who speaks of her sisters, and it would be a different story if told by another. Like one-point perspective, the image will change, but we’re looking at the same thing.

Love is like blood.

Merryn Gates, 2001

1 The Sister Bond: a Feminist View of a Timeless Connection, ed. Toni A.H. McNaron (UK: Pergamon Press, 1985), p. 5.
2 ‘Born to Rebel’ by Frank Sulloway in Brothers & Sisters: Intimate Portraits of Sibling Relationships, Joan Sauers, (Random House, 1997).
3 ‘Rene’, Cherries on a Plate: New Zealand Writers Talk About Their Sisters, ed. Marilyn Duckworth (NZ: Random House, 1996), p. 251.
4 Helen Garner, “A Scrapbook, An Album’, ed. Drusilla Modjeska, Sisters, quoted in Sauers.

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