A Room of Our Own

by Mary Shipp Bartlett

I was an only child—for a year. That was when my slightly older sister, Catherine, went off to college while I finished my last year of high school. We had shared quarters for the past 17 years in our hometown of Glendale, California. In my suddenly single room, I didn’t miss her; in fact, I relished afternoons lying on one of the room’s twin beds yakking with friends on the phone without unsolicited comments from an all-knowing sibling. I claimed half of her abandoned closet for my Pendleton skirts and Peter Pan-collared blouses and took lengthy baths uninterrupted by pounding demands to “get out now!” Bliss.

Perhaps more important, I was no longer in competition with a person who had naturally done things earlier than I had, especially talk. She had claimed the role of the “good” daughter in our family, so early on I played the rough and tumble tomboy to gain attention. She collected dolls and read incessantly; I collected comic books and climbed trees. Later, in high school, we both focused on journalism. In the same year, she edited the yearbook and I edited the school newspaper, the Purple Press. Then, we both chose the same college. Comparisons were inevitable.

So what was I thinking when I invited my sister to once again share a room with me, this time on a Scripps trip to Tuscany last October? Over nine days, she would be in close contact with many alumnae and several of my colleagues, not to mention Scripps’ president—people I try to “con” on a daily basis into thinking positively about me. Would she once more be the “good” sister, the one who made me feel tongue-tied and inadequate by comparison? Even though I now consider her a confidante and love her dearly, was I ready to be in competition with her again?

Close to half a century of growing up makes a difference in how one reacts to people and experiences.What once seemed so important—my own room, my own bathtub, my own ego—was less important than a chance to be with my sister for an extended time away from work and family demands, to have fun and learn together.

We were two of about 45 travelers who stayed at a hilltop villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany. My old friends became hers, and we each made new ones. We explored small medieval towns such as Colle Val d’Elsa and San Gimignano; on one of our free-time days in Florence, while others viewed David at the Academy or toured the Pitti Palace, the two of us studied the Gothic and early Renaissance art of the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, including Masaccio’s magnificent Trinity, and the complex and vibrant 14th century frescoes by Andrea Bonaiuti in the Spanish Chapel (thank you, Scripps professor Juliet Koss, for the trip’s art history lectures) before stopping for pistachio gelato near the Ponte Vecchio. In the evenings, we all regrouped in the villa’s dining hall and shared stories of our day. Rather than sit at a separate table, I found mealtimes more enjoyable and entertaining with Catherine there.

Was she a more amusing dinner companion, a better storyteller than I? Perhaps. Did I feel diminished or in competition with her? Nope. I couldn’t have been more proud to show her off as my sister.

Full disclosure: The first evening, we were thrilled to find a small sitting room attached to our shared bedroom.We encountered a little difficulty moving one of the twin beds into that room, but we angled it and did the job. Bliss.

 

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