California Literary Review

About My Sisters – by Debra Ginsberg

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April 10th, 2007 at 8:05 am

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About My Sisters
by Debra Ginsberg
HarperCollins Publishers, 320 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

The Ties That Bind

I can remember a time before I was a mother. And, with some difficulty, I can picture a future when I am no longer a daughter. But I can neither remember nor imagine my life without sisters.

So writes Debra Ginsberg in her latest memoir, About My Sisters. Ginsberg, now 40, and the eldest of five children – “four of them girls and one of them our only brother” – pens this family portrait as a homage to her sisters and the unique ties that bind them. The memoir, which at times reads almost like a novel, spans the course of a year with each chapter reflecting one month in the lives and loves of her tight-knit, somewhat off-kilter family which includes her brother, her parents, her 15-year-old son, Blaze, as well as her sisters and their various friends and boyfriends.

Ginsberg writes in vivid fly-on-the-wall detail about the complex relationships she has with each of her sisters. At no point does she shy away from revealing the tensions and strains that accompany all sibling relationships, but nor does she hold back on the extraordinarily close bonds and the love she shares with them. Or as she writes, “I can’t imagine my life without any one of them. Nor do I want to try.” Ginsberg’s musings are almost a form of therapy as she attempts to understand the dynamic of her and her sisters’ birth order and what role she plays in relation to each of them in a family of siblings born in different generations.

Ginsberg slowly draws the reader into her family’s celebrations, tragedies, and get-togethers. Each incident – be it fractious or heartfelt – quickly leads to childhood reminiscences, flashbacks to shared memories, and an insight into the Ginsberg family – a family that is anything but ordinary.

Today Ginsberg’s entire family live in San Diego, California, barely 10 minutes from each other. All are vegetarians and none of the siblings is married. Ginsberg shares her home with her son, Blaze, and her sister Maya, a professional violinist. It’s that close relationship between Ginsberg and Maya that in fact opens the book. With only two years and nine months separating them, Ginsberg writes, “For all practical purposes, there was never a time before I had a sister.” She sums up the unique bond the two of them share by stating simply, “I never even put ‘sister’ before her name when I talk about her. She is the part of me who is Maya.”

Referring to herself and Maya as the “starter children” the young Ginsberg sisters spent their formative years in the early 1960s, criss-crossing the globe from England to South Africa to America in the tow of their free-spirited, hippie parents. As the book progresses, Ginsberg focuses on how the family dynamics constantly shift and change with the birth of each subsequent child. Nine years separates Ginsberg from her second youngest sister, Lavander – a Real Estate sales agent – with whom she has a tense relationship. “I know that Lavander can push my buttons more effectively than anyone else I know. She alone is able to send me into an ugly rage and rage is not a state I enter into easily, with my sisters or anyone else.” But with only two years difference between Lavander and their brother Bo, Ginsberg reflects on how Lavander and Bo share a relationship similar to the one she has with Maya. And as the feted only son, Ginsberg talks of Bo being “the prince of our family before he was born… My brother was born into a house that was full of awe-struck females just waiting to lavish him with adoration.”

Finally, there is Ginsberg’s “baby” sister, Deja, the actress, for whom Ginsberg has always taken on a motherly role. “When Deja came home…almost immediately, as if there had been some sort of tacit agreement between the two of us, my mother handed her over to me…It was as if I had become a satellite and Deja was the shared link between the mother ship and me.” Each of the sisters has her own place in the family, and as Ginsberg is quick to point out, “The four of us are hardly ever in unanimous agreement and our very different personalities prevent us from ever thinking with one mind. Yet, each one of us carries some part of her sisters with her.”

Despite the Ginsberg surname and the fact that the two eldest children are named Debra and Maya, Ginsberg, in relating the family’s somewhat eclectic annual Christmas get-together reveals, “Both my parents are Jewish. My mother was brought up in a religiously observant household. My father’s upbringing was culturally observant…My parents, however, rejected organized religion altogether by the time I was born. I have been in a synagogue exactly once and that was for my brother’s Miami Vice-style bar mitzvah.”

This is not Ginsberg’s first memoir. Her two previous books are Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress and Raising Blaze: Bringing Up an Extraordinary Son in an Ordinary World. Having honed her craft with her first two books, Ginsberg writes with a free-flowing lyrical style that is equal parts honesty and eloquence. As such, she manages to avoid sappiness and sentimentality. This is no Brady Bunch-style family. It’s a family that fights and bickers and lashes out, holds grudges and is fiercely competitive. Nevertheless, you cannot help but wish you had a brood as loving and supportive as Ginsberg’s. Or as Ginsberg reveals towards the end of the book, it’s the “baby” sister Deja who states, ‘You’re all just so beautiful. I have the most beautiful sisters in the world.’ To which Ginsberg muses, “We all share this feeling but only Deja could give it voice. In anyone else’s mouth, these words would sound syrupy and insincere. Deja manages to convey their real meaning.”

You don’t have to be or have a sister to read About My Sisters. But after reading this book, you may just wish you did.

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