On Being a Sister

Three brothers and a sister standing together in a bar, looking out the window, arms linked.

Two years ago, my youngest brother Tony celebrated his thirtieth birthday. For the first time in a long time, my three brothers and I came together to celebrate in the same city at the same time, a rare occurrence these days. 

I was five when Tony arrived in this world, and I remember vividly the beautiful chaos of that week. It was a week of suspense and then excitement: my aunties, uncles, and cousins came to stay (to help my parents and to welcome the new Trimboli to the fold), I did not have to go to bed at the usual time, and when I woke up each morning there was this amazing, weird-little-human-thing to stare at, talk to, and try to convince Mum to let me hold. 

More than that, Tony’s arrival was the first time I can clearly remember understanding that I was a sister. I was a sister already – to two brothers, in fact – but I suppose at five years old I was beginning to intellectually register things in a more cognisant way. Prior to this, I had my big brother Matthew, seven years older (read: seven years cooler) than me, always doing everything I wanted to do – even if I did not understand the things he was doing, I knew absolutely that I wanted to be doing them, too. And I had Domenic, eighteen months or so younger than me and less ‘my brother’ than ‘my Domenic’, simply because it felt like he was already always right there beside me, more or less, a part of my everything, every adventure and mischief, every lie, laugh, smack, and scolding, my best friend and enemy simultaneously, and thus less my brother and more my constant conspirator – you know, my Domenic. So although it is true that I already was a sister before Tony arrived, up until his appearance it felt truer that I merely existed among brothers; the matter of being a sister, of what that felt like, of what that meant, did not really start to gain gravity until that moment.

While sitting beside my brothers at Tony’s thirtieth birthday, laughing hysterically at some ridiculous in-joke no-one else would find funny, it occurred to me that of all the labels I had been given or that I had come to adopt at different times throughout my life, sister is the one I loved always and the most. All other labels and names I have taken on seem to retain some element of discord; I can never fully shake a sense of apprehension about how the label is managing me in some way. But in ‘sister’ there is always comfort. “This is my sister, Daniella,” my brothers will say to introduce me to their friends and acquaintances at social events. The feeling I experience is comfort. 

The comfort is the result of many things, no doubt. The importance that Calabrese culture places on family, together with our unconventional and stressful upbringing, meant that we banded together – a lot – even when we did not necessarily want to … because god damn siblings do not want to be friends sometimes. Indeed, do not get me wrong: sometimes, being a sibling is immense discomfort for me – it is annoyance, anger, frustration, even pain. Sometimes, it is arguing about something for so long you forget what started the argument. Sometimes, it is churlishly hurtling text messages at each other which you know will hit each other’s most sensitive of feelings; still others, it is flying into a rage blackout to protect them when you look across a pub floor and see a DJ holding one of them by the scruff of the neck and coming-to in the middle of a broil of men to the sound of your screeching voice: “DON’T FUCK WITH MY BROTHER!” (Sometimes, it is getting kicked out of a pub with your brother after getting into a melee that – turns out – “was kind of my [your brother’s] fault.”) I guess that is the point though – the discomfort has never been great enough to override the default position, which is, ultimately, comfort, and a dogged commitment to protect the source of that comfort above all else. (This is surely what Anna in Frozen II is getting at when she says to her sister Elsa: “If you don’t want me to run into fire, then don’t run into fire!” If you don’t want me to run into a brawl, then don’t get into a brawl!)

Being a sister creates a place for me, a world-within-the-World, a place I can locate quicker than any other place, a place within which my brothers will always hold space for me. I know this in the same way I know how my usual morning coffee tastes, or how it feels to slide into my oldest, comfiest slippers, where all the unique bends and distortions of my feet meet their homely indents, or any other routine element of my life that I know intimately but subconsciously.

When Tony arrived, being a sister suddenly meant something, it meant having a space, as well as giving a space, and I have carried this meaning around with me in one of my back pockets ever since. At various times over the years, I have taken this meaning out and held it in my hand, the way I hold a smooth rock at the beach sometimes and feel quietly strong. Being a sister is mostly pretty quiet, pretty mundane.

Three years ago, the year before Tony turned thirty, something less mundane happened, something the opposite, something big and shocking, something that caused the ground to give way beneath my feet, but of more concern to me, beneath my three brothers’ feet. The earth rumbled and split. Trauma I had long buried sprang up. I sat across a kitchen table from Domenic, both of us drunkenly finishing off tuna sandwiches (of all things to be eating at 4am?), and I watched the ground crack open between us. For a moment, I did not know if I would ever be a sister again, not in the same way.

But it is no coincidence that we carry something around in our back pocket. We do it because we know that sooner or later we are going to need to pull that thing out, not only to hold in our hands for momentary comfort, but occasionally to throw, far out into the ocean as we let out a yelp, and we are going to do this with a deep faith that it will be thrown back. 

Domenic threw it back. Holding space for one another was not quiet on this night, it was loud, the loudest thing I have ever experienced. It rang at me from across the table, firmly talking to my falling, grief-stricken face: “this is going to be okay. Look at me. This is going to be okay.”

And over time, it was. Earth that has split open re-joins, unbearable loss becomes bearable, siblings return to the mundane rhythm of being siblings.

Three years ago, my three brothers showed up to loudly support me in a way I could never have foreseen and would never have requested. More than that, they faithfully, committedly, stood still for me. First, they made space for me to speak, then they held the ground around me, patiently and silently standing behind me as I attempted to move forward and figure some difficult things out. I needed to be in the lead for this particular navigation, but I never was a leader, not really, because you cannot lead anything if no-one is behind helping you, waiting to catch you, to remind you and to shout at you: “this is going to be okay. Look at me. This is going to be okay.”

Mum sneakily took the featured photo of the four of us at Tony’s thirtieth birthday, the last time we were physically together. It makes me smile looking at it, not least because I know I was seconds away from reporting back to the circle: “shit, Mum’s taking a photo of us, disband.” 

How I adore being a sister to these people, my three brothers, Matthew, Domenic, and Tony. They give me joy, laughter, fortitude, pride. Above all else: they make me a sister. Without them, I do not make sense. Without them, I have one very empty pocket.

Waves: a review, of sorts

Some preliminary thoughts about the sea as a place of epistemological potential, prompted by my weekend, which featured The Honeymoon Suite’s exhibition Waves, Kristina Davidson’s beautiful sculptural work Disconnect, and the first episode of the new BBC documentary series Blue Planet II

(Image: “Waves” by Kristina Davidson; see [1])

Martin Buxbaum’s oft-cited reflection on the sea goes a long way towards describing many people’s affinity with this great body of water: ‘I have seen the sea when it is stormy and wild; when it is quiet and serene; when it is dark and moody. And in all its moods, I see myself.’

Many of us quote this because when we see the ocean we do see our moods, our behaviours, and our attitudes. Sometimes this “we” is singular: today, I am irritated and here is the sea, choppy and murky, just like me. Sometimes this “we” is extrapolated to mean humanness, but a very particular humanness, such as the flippancy afforded to some humans: yesterday, we stepped out hurriedly to grab toilet paper and milk, we forgot our calico bags, and we returned with an assortment of things including bananas, deodorant, and crumpets. We bought the toilet paper but forgot the milk. We shoved the plastic shopping bags inside other plastic shopping bags we keep beneath the kitchen sink. This morning, we grabbed takeaway coffees because we had no milk to make them at home. Later in the day, we went swimming in the bay and we saw at least two plastic coffee lids floating past, and for a moment we hated ourselves.

Momentary guilt is another type of “we.”

Most often, I think about the ocean as a place I long to be, a place I want to dive into so as to experience a different kind of momentary mood: solace. Lately, I’ve been trying to keep at the forefront of my mind the reality of the ocean as a place that others—Others with a capital O—long to be beyond, a place they want to cross, if they must, and then forever leave behind. When the ocean is this place it displaces both moods and moments. Forever is less of a moment and more of a life sentence when you can neither get beyond the sea in front of you nor put it fully behind you. I am sure this is what it must feel like for my father, still afraid of the sea after being forced by his orphanage nuns at age five to venture into a great mass of water foreign to him. He ran away and is still running, as far as I can tell.

The sea is both dependable and menacing: carrier, continuum, and connector/ barrier, blockage, and bully. The sea might engulf us or deliver us; welcome us home on a Pacific liner, or refuse us entry on a small orange boat owned by the Australian Government. We can be flippant, but when we look at the sea we also sense that at any moment it might decide it has had enough of our nonchalance and become flippant, as well. After all, the world is mostly water and our bodies are at least sixty per cent water, too. This water might become so wild on the last stretch of a P&O honeymoon cruise that we vomit all the way to shore, or so calm during a rescue by the Italian Navy that we can hear First Seaman Saverio Rizzi clearly counting the members of our family as he pulls us to safety after a long and treacherous journey from Syria: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six. Welcome!’ [2] The sea is, therefore, nothing but potential, at all moments, and this potential can disrupt our sense of time and the way our bodies feel moving through it.

Last night, my partner and I watched the first episode of Blue Planet II. During the episode, an encounter between false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins was carefully manipulated for us, the viewers. An anticipated bloodshed became, at the last moment, solidarity and togetherness. Two marine species formed an unexpected alliance. Two humans watching felt their mood transition from dread to relief, despair to hope. Buxbaum was right: we see ourselves when we see the sea—but at the last moment we might also see others. Maybe sometimes we even glimpse unexpected ways of being, an alterity that helps us reframe the world. Maybe if we do not see these slippages when we see the sea, we are not looking hard enough.



[1] Kristina Davidson, “Disconnect”, 2017, wire, paper, glue, plastic. Featured as part of Waves exhibition curated by Charlotte Cornish, The Honeymoon Suite, Brunswick VIC.

[2] First Seaman Rizzi was captured on film speaking these words to a Syrian refugee family he helped rescue as part of Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum in 2014. (ABC, “The Italian Solution”, Foreign Correspondent, 14 October 2014, available: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/the-italian-solution/5813806)