“A sibling in full spate is always frightening, their anger a surprising powerful defense, their deeper impotence equally powerful, absurd.”― Will Eaves, Murmur
It’s been over six years since I last saw my older half-sister Vicky in the townhouse that I inherited and briefly owned after our mother, Beatriz Diaz-Granados, died. I really did not want her there on that hot, muggy day in late July of 2015. Vicky had not dropped by to see how I was doing or to offer me a ride to Winn Dixie to get groceries. Instead, she and her cousin Andres Pereira were there to grab Mom’s fine set of china from the china cabinet we had in the dining room and whatever else they could grab. (Including, as I discovered later, my grandmother’s china, which Vicky claimed she did not want but took anyway.)
My father, who had died in a plane crash near Miami International Airport a half-century earlier, had bought that set of dinnerware when he took Mom to Europe on one of the several trips they took before they moved to Miami in 1961, where Dad and his business partner, Jorge Garcez, were trying to start their own Florida-based air-freight company. That particular set of fine china was from Limoge, France, and it was 100% complete and intact even after a house fire, two back-n-forth overseas moves to Colombia and back, and one final move from one house in Westchester to the townhouse in East Wind Lake Village.
Vicky fell in love with that china set long before Mom was frail and old enough for any of us to even conceive that one day, inevitably, she would die. Many years before our estrangement, and on several occasions, she would point to Mom’s china cabinet and say matter-of-factly, “When Mami dies, that is going to be mine.”
When I was younger, say, 15, 16, or 17, I did not question Vicky’s right to claim the china set. At the time, I figured that by the time our mom was gone I would be a successful writer, married, and have a house of my own with my own set of fine porcelain dinnerware. I was bothered by the possibility of losing my mother, even though – having already lost my dad, one cousin, both paternal grandparents and one of my maternal ones, as well as some of my contemporaries from school – I was already all too familiar with death and loss. But to me, the Limoge china set was not a bone of contention vis a vis my on-again, off-again relationship with Vicky.
On that hot, muggy, and utterly depressing day in July of 2015, the china set was still not the “hill I was going to die on” as far as Vicky was concerned, even though by then I resented the fact that my half-sister never considered that I should inherit it. After all, it was my dad who gave it to Mom and not her father Manuel. I figured that fighting over the Limoge dinnerware at this late stage – considering that Vicky had been lusting after it like a pirate queen seeking Blackbeard’s lost treasure since she was young – would just make my life more difficult than it already was.
Besides, Vicky was stripped of what she had wanted the most – half-ownership of Mom’s old townhouse and half of Mom’s ridiculously modest estate – when Mom had a new last will and testament made out not long before undergoing back surgery to repair her spine in early June of 2010.
You see, in 2001, when Mom was 77 and still in relatively good health, Vicky convinced her to go to the office of a lawyer my half-sister had chosen to craft a last will and testament which, according to Vicky, was a fair division of Mom’s assets between the two benefactors. But because Vicky is so shady, she did not tell me that she was taking our mother to see a lawyer, much less that Mom was going to make out a last will and testament until she arrived at the townhouse to take Mom to the appointment. She did not ask me to go, nor did she ask me if there was anything special that I wanted to keep after Mom died.
And on the rare occasions when the subject of Mom’s failing health and her inevitable demise did come up in conversation. Vicky always said, “Don’t worry, Alex. The will Mom made out is perfectly fair. In fact, you will be the majority owner of the house, 60% to my 40%.”
Vicky cited this 60-40 split not once but three times between 2010 – she was unaware that the new will existed because Mom did not want her to know until we went to probate – and 2015. She always tried to assuage my fears that she would want to move in and take over the house, an eventuality that I dreaded not just because we did not get along, but also because she is notorious for paying her bills late. She would always say, “The only reason I asked Mom for 40% of the house is so that no one can take advantage of you and take it away from you.”
Of course, Vicky was lying about the whole 60%-40% distribution of the house and Mom’s meager financial assets. When I received the court papers for the hearing at the probate court in the spring of 2016, Vicky’s lawyer sent me a copy of Mom’s 2001 will as part of the whole legal package. And although I only saw it once – I couldn’t bear to look at it again afterward – I still remember that Vicky wanted:
- 50% of Mom’s townhouse, bank account contents, and other items, including family pictures
- All of Mom’s nice furniture and artwork from the townhouse
- Mom’s 1997 Mitsubishi Mirage, which she had bought in 2001 when our neighbors Rolf and Annette returned to Switzerland and sold or gave away what they could not take to Europe
In short, the will favored Vicky far more than it did me. So much for the 60-40 split that supposedly tipped the balance of fairness on my side.
Why “Letting It Go” is Not an Option
Vicky and I never got along well as adults. I don’t think we got along well when I was a teenager, either. Vicky moved out of our Westchester house – our penultimate home in Miami – when I was 12 after two-and-a-half years’ worth of angst and squabbling. Some of the family drama was the usual (and ultimately manageable) arguing over one sibling taking too much time in the bathroom (that house only had one-and-a-half bathrooms) or who could watch the color TV in Mom’s room (we had our own black-and-white sets, but sometimes Mom would go out with friends or go to work when she had a job, and Vicky and I would fight over what to watch on the color set). But most of the Sturm und Drang centered on the tempestuous relationship Vicky had with Mom throughout both their lives.
Now, the whole Mom-Vicky conflict was part of my everyday life both in Bogota and in Miami for as long as I can remember. But when I was younger (say, between ages 6 and 9), I did not pay attention to it, nor did it involve me – directly or indirectly. Mostly, it centered on mother-daughter issues such as Vicky’s obsession with fad diets, her dating choices, and her penchant for fibbing or leaving her room a mess so that the live-in maids that we had in Bogota spent more time in Vicky’s room than Mom thought was necessary to tidy it up.
And, of course, because there’s an almost 13 year age difference between us, in Bogota, Vicky and I rarely interacted much beyond eating dinner with Mom at the regularly scheduled time (9 PM, European style). I was a young elementary school age boy and attended Colegio El Nogal from kindergarten to third grade, while Vicky was in her early 20s and had her more grown-up concerns and led a lifestyle that matched them. So, naturally, this was our “honeymoon” period because, really, we had nothing to argue about. She respected my space, I respected hers, and we seemed to get along well.
That changed – dramatically – in early 1972, when I had a cerebral hemorrhage that landed me in the pediatric ward of Bogota’s Hospital Militar for over a month. I received superb medical treatment and recovered, but some of the doctors there told Mom that even though Colombia’s medical community was making strides in caring for children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, they thought it might be best if we moved back to my hometown of Miami, Florida. They believed I would fare better in the U.S. in the long run, and since Mom had a green card and I was a U.S. citizen, the amount of red tape involved in the move would be minimal.
Mom and I looked at this as a positive development; my mother was actually happier in Miami because the lifestyle in Bogota did not suit her personality although she loved our relatives immensely. I, of course, saw the move back to Miami as an adventure, even though I fretted about learning English as a second language and not seeing my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and many cousins anymore.
Unfortunately, my older half-sister did not see things so positively. In fact, when Mom and I flew to Miami on an Aerocondor Lockheed 188 Electra turboprop airliner, she swore she would stay in Bogota on her own. Vicky did not like the United States and had hoped to live in Colombia permanently, and since her father, my mom’s first husband, had left her an apartment and a small trust fund (or something), her plan was to live alone and lead an independent life.
I don’t know how Mom felt about that beyond a certain amount of resignation. I do know, however, that my grandparents, especially my grandmother, and both of my mother’s siblings were adamantly opposed.
Even though it was 1972 and Colombia tended to follow the trends of the cultural and social changes that were going on beyond its borders, my mother’s family was extremely conservative and always mindful of Que pensara la gente? (What will other people think?) if Vicky, then 22 and already notorious for her bold, too-modern attitudes about sex and relationships, lived alone in Bogota.
Before Mom died, she told me several times that after several failed attempts to convince Vicky to accompany us to Miami, a compromise was reached. Vicky could stay in Bogota permanently if she wanted, but she would have to live, at least for a time, with an older relative.
The problem was, though, that most of the big decisionmakers, that is to say, my grandparents, my Aunt Martha, and my Uncle Octavio, could not or would not be Vicky’s “hosts.” Either they had had prior experiences taking care of a rebellious and obstinate Vicky, or – in the case of my mom’s brother Octavio – had their hands full raising their own large families and could not handle another responsibility. Only one of the Old Family Guard, my great-aunt Gabriela, agreed to take Vicky into her large apartment, provided that my half-sister abided by the house rules.
Alas, that did not work out. Whilst Mom and I rebuilt our lives in sunny, sultry, subtropical South Florida, Vicky was carrying on with an older man who was a renowned TV personality. Worse, the man was married, and even though this was happening in the midst of the Sexual Revolution, my family could not – and did not – simply look the other way and say “C’est la vie.” So my grandmother, who was a devout Catholic and quite Victorian in her manners, called Mom via long-distance – an expensive proposition back then – and told her that one way or another, Vicky had to move to Miami.
Since then, Vicky has seen me as the root of all her misfortunes, even though I had nothing to do with what she had done or our family’s reaction to her short-lived but scandalous affair with that TV personality. I suppose that in her mind, had I not had a cerebral hemorrhage in March of 1972, the move to Miami would not have occurred, and we would still be living in Colombia till we did the “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” thing.
For many years, unaware – at least on a conscious level – of Vicky’s deep-seated resentment toward Mom, the “grands,” and especially me, I worshipped the ground my older half-sister walked on. Before she moved out of the Westchester house in 1975, I didn’t feel anything but brotherly affection for Vicky. Yes, we had arguments over who could watch the nice color TV in Mom’s room when she wasn’t there or when she locked herself in the bathroom for hours and made me wait till she came out so I could take a shower, but I did not see her as the enemy.
As I got older, though, I was chagrined by the constant bickering between Vicky and Mom, often over trivial things, especially when it escalated to loud arguments and recriminations which usually ended with my older half-sibling storming out in a fury and Mom weeping in the kitchen or in the living room.
And it was even more upsetting when Vicky would suddenly let fly the classic line, “Oh, sure, Mami. I am always the ‘bad one.’ It’s never Alex who is the ‘bad one.’ Just me, and it’s because I am the daughter of Manuel Pineros!”
And even when I did notice that Vicky was not exactly someone I wanted to emulate – she lied constantly about even the most trivial things, or tended to brag in grandiose terms about her nursing job in various Miami-area hospitals, or was stuck in a cycle of making friends with one person, usually a woman around Mom’s age, becoming possessive of that person, then having a vitriolic, hate-filled falling out – I did not want to be on unfriendly terms with the only close relative I had besides my mother in the United States. That is, until I was 24 and in college.
Some of my relatives in Colombia – mainly my cousins in their late 50s and early 60s who have not had the opportunity to know us well since we live 1500 miles apart, separated by the Andes Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, and have only seen each other sporadically over the past 49 years – think I should reconcile with Vicky. Basically, without using the phrase itself, I should “let it go” and forgive and forget.
As I mentioned earlier, Mom, Vicky, and I lived in Miami for 43 years, far apart from most of our family in Colombia. As a result, most of my cousins only knew me from when we lived in Bogota. (I was three when we moved to South America; we returned Stateside a few months after my ninth birthday.) After 1972, I only saw my cousins (either my Uncle Octavio’s kids or my Aunt Martha’s) when they flew to Miami on infrequent vacations or on the even rarer occasions when I went to Colombia to visit them. (I went once by myself – at age 11 – for the summer of 1974, and returned, with my mom this time, for a Christmas holiday visit in the winter of 1993/94).
It is not a stretch to say that after 1972, my cousins in Colombia never really knew their “American branch” of the family all that well. I, for one, never had the time (or inclination) to write to the “Colombian branch” except to my grandparents. I was too busy with school, learning English as though I were an immigrant (even though I was born in Miami!), and, you know, doing kid stuff. For their part, my older cousins were busy with grown up stuff, and the ones in my generational group were also doing kid stuff down in Bogota.
The upshot of this is this: My relatives in Bogota don’t know what everyday life was like for their Miami-residing Aunt Beatriz and cousins Alex and Vicky. If I saw my cousins at all, it was on rare occasions – once or twice every five years or so from 1972 to 1997 when they went to Miami for brief vacations. And because my Aunt Martha and Uncle Octavio had made larger families with their respective spouses, I did not see most of my living cousins in the same city until 1993, and that’s because I was on THEIR home turf. And since everybody on both sides of the fence is so bad at the keeping-in-touch thing, we are all strangers to each other.
I mention all this because shortly after I moved to New Hometown, I got a Facebook instant message from my cousin Ana Maria, one of my Uncle Octavio’s daughters, chastising me for a blog post I wrote about my struggles with Vicky on my original blog in Blogger.
Whether Ana Maria speaks/reads English or uses Google Translate, I have no clue. What I do know is that she was majorly pissed because I was “unfairly attacking” Vicky online, on a forum where my Internet-hating half-sister could not defend herself.
I replied something like “Well, if I write something about Vicky on my blog (which for all intents and purposes is a public forum), I make sure that what I say is factual.”
My cousin retorted that it was still not cool, since Vicky does not have an Internet account and that even if what I wrote was true (which, annoyingly, she did not think it was), it was not proper for me to talk about “your loving sister that way.”
“Ana Maria,” I said, “you and the rest of the family don’t know Vicky the way that Mom and I did. You only see the side of Vicky that she wants you to see when you guys come to Miami. which is hardly ever, or when she goes to visit you.” Then, remembering that Vicky flew to Colombia in October of 2015 to get away from Miami for a while after Mom died, I said, “I bet that you folks didn’t say ‘Don’t talk about Alex behind his back!’ when Vicky went to Bogota recently”
(Knowing Vicky’s MO, I am willing to bet some of my best Star Wars collectibles that when she went to recuperate from her genuine grief over Mom’s death six falls ago, she told the family a distorted account of how I usurped her position as Mom’s principal caregiver and head of the household in Mom’s townhouse, painting herself as the selfless daughter and sibling who was mistreated by her younger bro, me.)
As I suspected, Ana Maria had no easy comeback for that one, thus confirming my theory that Vicky did talk shit about both Mom and me while she was in Colombia. Her only comeback was telling, “Well, IF Vicky did bad things to you in the past, you should let it go.”
(She wrote this in Spanish, and I am pretty certain that she did not say “let it go” like that, but that was the basic gist.)
I am smart enough (or I’d like to think I am) to know that forgiveness and equanimity are the best way to deal with interpersonal conflict. Not just for the sake of the person you are at odds with, but for yours, too. And in cases where the offending party is not narcissistic or suffers from borderline personality disorder and is genuinely willing to make amends, forgiveness – or “letting it go” – is the healthier way to go.
Vicky, however, is not the kind of person who can be forgiven. And trust me, I tried to forgive her – as our mother surely did many, many times – for quite a few shady and unnecessarily painful things that she did to me way before Mom’s health declined sharply a decade ago. Forgiveness only works when the recipient acknowledges the injury he or she caused and makes amends. Vicky refuses to admit any wrongdoing or accept any responsibility for things she knows she did but blames others for them.
Nope. Sometimes you can’t just “let it go.”
 Mom sold that car in 2009 because she could no longer drive as a result of dizzy spells caused by poor blood flow to her brain.