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Published April 12 2014

Swift: ‘Sister Code’ unspoken list of rules among siblings

It’s called the Sister Code.

It is that unspoken, undocumented list of rules silently adopted by siblings who grew up under the same roof, fought over the same Foreigner records and raided each other’s closets.

Nowadays, my sisters and I only see each other two or three times a year, but when we do, it’s amazing how subconsciously we slip into “Sister Code” mode.

If you weren’t raised with a gaggle of females, you likely have no idea what I’m talking about. Fortunately, I am here to enlighten you. A few hallmarks of the Sister Code follow:

• Don’t post unflattering pictures.

You can always tell when women didn’t have sisters or struggle with relationships with other women. They will always post the photo that make you look like Jabba the Hutt’s anemic grandmother. Sisters know better.

My sister, Bertha, hasn’t had her eyes open in a photo since 1973. Even so, we know how sensitive she is about this, so we always try to find the shot in which her eyes aren’t sealed shut like those of a newborn baby kitten.

• Always ask if they’ve lost weight.

It doesn’t matter if I’ve been eating like a pre-hibernation Kodiak bear and have to jump off a dresser to fit into my jeans. Lie to me. Tell me I look fabulous and ask if I’ve been working out. I may not be firm, but I still need to be affirmed. Dive in, sister. Let us swim in the Pool of Delusion together, then dry off with the Towel of Vanity.

• Don’t tell Mom.

When you all live together, you learn the art of Momspin early. Don’t tell Mom that you got in a fight on the bus. Don’t admit that you let two feral cats in the house while she was gone and you had to smear hamburger on the floor to get them to come down off the curtain rods. Don’t let her know there was drinking at that party. Don’t say “Why are you kicking me under the table?” when you’re the dumb little sister and you accidentally tell Mom that your sisters were at a kegger.

As you get older, this rule still applies. You agree not to tell Mom things that might unduly upset her. You may even continue to “protect” her from some of your past activity, such as the time in college when you loaded 11 people into your Pinto and drove to Grand Forks in the middle of a snowstorm. We simply refer to those incidents as “Stories That Mom Isn’t Old Enough to Hear Yet.”

• Help with chores.

I don’t know if it’s shared DNA or the fact we were programmed like domestic robots in our formative years. But when the family gets back together, we all automatically get up after meals and wash dishes with a military precision.

Everyone automatically clicks into their own roles. Sister Verbena always washes. Sisters Mabel and Bertha wipe down counters, stack the dishwasher and put away food. Sister Tammy carries the butter dish to the kitchen, then excuses herself to go to the bathroom and spend a half hour practicing “Flashdance” moves.

• Return clothes.

As an irresponsible last-born, it took me a while to learn this one. I would borrow a cute sweater or skirt, only to find that it magically fell into my own suitcase and wound up in my own wardrobe. (It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to realize this wasn’t adorable little-sister behavior and technically qualified as “stealing.”) My sisters got to the point where they would wrap their luggage in razor wire so I couldn’t go near it.

These days, I’ve become hyper-vigilant about borrowing things. I will launder it, fold it neatly and loudly point out to anyone who will listen, “NOW I AM RETURNING YOUR SHIRT!” If I could scrape off borrowed makeup or deodorant and return it, I totally would.

In May, we’ll all be gathering together again for my godchild’s graduation. You can bet we’ll be busy flattering each other, protecting my mother from the truth and doing the dishes.

I’d better brush up on my “Flashdance” routine.


Tammy Swift writes a lifestyle column every Sunday in Variety. Readers can reach her at tswiftsletten@gmail.com