Lead Me Not Into Temptation

I took a recent trip to the Bay Area to visit my mom during a school break, stopping along the way to drop off our exchange student at a BART station in a rather frightening section of a large city. His eyes were wide as I pulled up the curb and discovered no nearby parking. Ticket be damned, I thought. I’m staying at this curb until his sister arrives. No way am I leaving this kid here, alone. To me, cities are the new Babylon.

I pressed on toward my mom's house, dealing with hours of traffic and freeway mayhem, realizing that some time in the last 13 years, I have become a country girl. Well, not a 'girl' per se, but rather a country woman, of a certain age.

Arriving at mom’s house, we laugh, smile, hug, and sit down to some of the best pizza the Bay has to offer from the favorite pie-slinger of my youth. My sister is at the table, eating with us. She's lived “temporarily” at mom’s house for the last seven years. I’m not going to sugar-coat this: she annoys me. 

Her life has been one tumultuous episode after another, and I’ve become so accustomed to it that I just move around the topic in our interactions, unconsciously adjusting how I speak and interact with her to create as few waves as possible. I'm a hostage in my own life, and I believe other family members feel the same way. Facebook is my sister-free refuge. I unfriended her because she spent so much time stalking me on social media, wasting hours making weird comments on my posts. She spends a great deal of her time on social media, instead of doing the things she keeps promising our mom she’ll do – such as cleaning out the hoarder’s den she’s set up in the garage.

Stuffed full of pizza, I noticed she’s got two cell phones on the table in front of her. For a person who hasn’t been paying rent to mom for years, it gives me pause. I asked, “Do you have two cell phones?” She gives me that half smirk that silently acknowledges her guilt; this the only such way she ever does so. A few questions later, I find that she not only has three cell phones, and two phone lines, but has no logical explanation why she needs them. I changed the subject to her pending settlement for a work injury that’s left her partially disabled. I gave some suggestions for settling some of her medical debt. Mom listened intently, and cheerfully suggested I should call the creditors and pretend to be my sister, so I can take care of it for her. No way, mom.

This is the perfect example of an unconscious adjustment that we, as a family, make. Don't ask too many questions, and don't require any real accountability. If we push my sister, she’ll spin up in a cycle of self-pity, abasing herself so that we are coerced into offering reassurances that everything is OK, she’s a good person, and she’s fine. She’s not fine, but we tell her she is. She has a good heart, we say, nodding in agreement.

God help me, I am so angry at this woman. And it came to a head over a couple of tablespoons of half-and-half. No joke.

The next day, I drove mom to favorite places, such as the neighborhood in which we used to live. She’s 92 and stressed by my sister living with her, and I wanted her to enjoy good memories that day. She’s worked so hard her entire life, she’s physically uncomfortable, and she really misses Dad and two of my brothers. Naturally, I asked my sister if she wanted to come along.

In our wandering, we stoped at the bakery at which our dad used to by petit fours on payday, after he got off the train from San Francisco. The bakery is now a combination Thai restaurant and bakery. To my delight, they had petit fours! The lady asked me how many I wanted, and I say, “All of them!" Her questioning look prompted me to repeat, "All.” Twelve little bites of sweet nostalgia for four people to savor didn't seem unreasonable to me.

Of course, my sister wanted a croissant, as well as a Chai latte. The server left both of those items off the order, and not paying attention to the conversation my sister had with her, I can't say for certain what happened. But I do know that if there's a problem, it's usually with something my sister has ordered. Mom and I each insist we are going to pay for the treat; at an impasse, we split it 50/50. My sister makes no move to chip in, as usual. Life is expensive with several smart phones and we’ve been paying for her meals out for as long as I can remember. One time, we went out for my birthday and she ordered. After the meal arrived, she exclaimed, "Isn't it funny how we're out for your birthday, and you're buying me dinner?" Yes, it's hilarious, especially given I never said I was going to buy her dinner.

My coffee was placed on the table in the Thai bakery, as does my son's croissant. My sister stood by the table awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for her latte. Mom glanced at me, in silent communication. I sighed, and stood up.

"Oh, forget it. I really don't need my latte and I probably shouldn't eat a croissant. I just don't know why it was so hard for them to get it right."

Experience has taught me that she doesn't really mean what she said. I went to the counter to see why her items hadn't arrived so I can resolve the problem. For a sixty-six year old sister. Because it’s too difficult to ask the server, and if it escalates it will be embarrassing.The nostalgic joy is gone.

Emotional prison.

I hope you’ve gotten the picture, because it would take too long to list every single event like this for the remainder of my visit to mom's house. Rest assured, each evening ends with her blaring a TV, lights ablaze until the wee hours of the morning, in the room next to mine. It never occured to her that the noise would disturb someone's sleep. I accommodated by putting my earbuds and listened to music so I could fall asleep.

A few days in, my sister has started to spin up at some trigger, passionately declaring that she’s obese. She goes on and on about this, then threw herself into sorting through the hoarded possessions stacked in the garage. Perhaps the trigger was me telling her that she really needed to get her medical bills in order before she met with her attorney later in the week. How can you know what to ask for, if you don't know what you owe?

Personal responsibility is hard for her. It’s easier to obsess over some ridiculous notion than to exercise the self-discipline it takes to sort through paperwork.

The garage has been a mess for years, and her possessions have an uncanny ability to multiply. There are only half as many boxes now because I had once threatened to rent a truck and haul everything that wasn't boxed and labeled to a donation center. She responded by renting a storage unit.
After a pause, my sister slid open the screen door, juggling a few pairs of shoes, and dropping one on her foot as she asked me if I wanted them. She's apparently forgotten that we’re two sizes different, as has been remarked at least 50 times in our adult lifetimes. I thank her and decline, suggesting that sorting shoes isn’t really the task most pressing. Oh boy.

Spin, spin, spin…she doesn’t like being redirected. She headed back to the garage.

Mom went inside the house for a moment, and receives another tirade about obesity for her trouble, served with a side of complaint about not being capable enough to get ANY of her cell phones working.

My sister has effectively been cut off from Facebook, which puts us all at DEFCON 1. My mom started to cry, and begged me to take her to the wireless store to get the phone problem straightened out. She knows without a distraction, life with my sister will become unbearable. I don’t want to taker her to the store, but for mom's sake I agreed to do so the next day.

That evening, my quiet dinner with friends blossomed into a family dinner of 13, plus friends.  Naturally, I’m obligated to include the Tyrant. At least I get to see my brother and sister-in-law. The bill is going to be huge and mom is going to try to pay for it all, so I threw in the money for all my friends. Mom tried to refuse, so I insisted the money I handed her was "their portion." Plus some, but she won't do the math.
The following day turned into four hours of wireless store hell and my sister burned through four technicians, who were each remarkably patient. She had definitely been there before, and I saw the light of recognition (fear) in their eyes when she walked in. Indignant, she insisted she had paid off all her phones, despite the receipts that proved the contrary. The employees were very understanding, and accepted the newest phone as a return, plus all the accessories. The returns and contract amendments took two hours to process. She also got credit for the second-newest phone, which she used toward the purchase of a $900 phone.

That’s a lotta latte’s and dinners, my friend.

While her mountain of data was being transferred to the new phone, I brought lunch to my kids at mom's house. Eating, we jokingly placed bets about how many days it would take for her to complain about the new phone she was getting. I said 4 days, but my boys each gave it less than a day.


I told my mom that I after today, I will have fulfilled all my good deeds, and would like to have a nice dinner out with just her and the boys, at our favorite Mexican restaurant. She agrees. After an hour of waiting at the house, I ran one of my sons to the store to buy some much-needed shorts, as was originally on the day's schedule.

My sister was was ready for pick-up from the wireless store as my son and I stood in the check-out line, so the timing was refreshingly perfect. All smiles, the three of us drove home. I challenged my son to drive us back to my mom's house without any guidance from me. He missed the turn, but that's part of learning. I reoriented him.

From the back seat, I heard, “I was thinking I would take out a loan for it, and then pay it off when I get my settlement.”

This was one of those Don’t Make Eye Contact moments, for me. If I asked what the missing noun from that sentence was, I would have to talk about it. I don’t want to, because it already sounds like a bad idea. She always gets mad if we don't agree with her ideas. Shhhhhhhh. Just look straight ahead.

“Well, what do you think?” Darn it. The jig is up.

“About what?” I asked.

“About me taking a loan out for it? And paying it back when I get my settlement.”

Sigh. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what ‘it’ is referring to.”

“A car!” She’s getting annoyed. So am I. My son is employing my trick of staring out the window in silence, engaged with the task of driving, which I see as I turn to face the back seat and reply. “Well, you never said the word car, so I couldn’t have known what you were talking about.”

“Yes I did.”

I could have stopped there. But this stuff drives me crazy.

“No. Alex, did you hear the word car?” He shakes his head, no.

“You didn’t say 'car',” I said. You’re always so convinced you’re right, I think. Those conversations start in your head, and finish out of your mouth, and you never admit it. Jerk.

She’s exasperated, and with an exaggerated sigh she replies, “I SAID what if I take a loan out for a new car, and then pay it off with my settlement.” Let the record show that she has no appreciable income, and no actual ETA, or amount, of said settlement.

“It’s a bad idea.” I'm curt because I don’t want to argue. Experience has taught me there’s no point. Another adjustment. We arrived home in stony silence.

How long do you suppose it took for her to start complaining about her phone not doing what it’s supposed to? A couple of hours. I congratulate my younger son, and promise to bake him a batch of cookies as payment for our wager.

Shortly after our return, it was time for dinner. I asked mom and the boys to get ready to leave. My sister was aware that something was afoot. She stood in the middle of her room, waiting to be asked to dinner. I didn’t oblige. Instead, I told her that we were going to dinner, and that she should remain behind to finish getting her paperwork in order for her meeting the next day. Our brother was planning to call her to discuss the best approach to the meeting.Work first, then play.

Our brother is a saint for helping with the meeting. We all knew that if she went alone, it would be all screwed up. I was originally on-deck to attend, but I needed to attend a board meeting  that day, and it was three hours away.

We got a call from my sister before we even got to the restaurant. She had searched the house, looking for mom. I reassure her - mom's with us. I didn't think I forgot to mention that detail, but perhaps I had.

Mom, the boys, and I enjoyed a relaxing dinner and went home. My sister queried my mom upon arrival. A saccharine, “Did you have a nice dinner with Julie? Did you eat at her favorite Mexican restaurant? That’s nice. I’m so glad you had that time together.”

Mentally, I called BS. She was passive-aggressive pissed. But, her paperwork is done, the important call took place. I went to sleep on the living room couch after telling everyone good-night. Tucked in, falling asleep, I’m awakened by a light coming on in the kitchen, and rustling around. No biggie…it’s only 9:30. I drift off again. “Good night, Julie.” It wakes me up again. Whatever. Back to sleep.

Now, here’s where it got really interesting.

We have our routines. Mine is a simple cup of coffee in the morning. In mom's fridge, there’s usually fat-free, lactose-free milk, or almond milk, plus a bevy of flavor-infused creamers. Not my thing; just give me some half-and-half, and I’m good. It's well-known and a source of jesting. If I refuse the flavored stuff, my sister says, “Fine, be that way,” as a half-hearted joke. Mom laughs, “You’re such a snob. Just use the lactose-free, fat-free milk. It’s not the same, Mom. It’s white-water, and just as scandalous in nature.

When I visit, I purchase a container of half and half at the store, and leave it in the fridge. Once, my sister used it up for her coffee. That was annoying.

This visit I had half a container left, as of the night before. In the morning, it was gone. I searched the fridge a few times, thinking it was hidden behind something. Three times, I searched. And then, I decided to look in the recycle bin for the container.


Yes, I asked her if she had used it and she flatly denied it, saying she NEVER uses half and half. When I pressed her, she said she used her own half and half (almond milk style) and had thrown the container in the recycle bin.

I retrieved the empty container, showing her the edges where I had fumbled the opening and had made a ragged tear. She rolled her eyes and explained slowly that she was referring to her OWN container of half and half, which was identical. It wasn't. Her almond milk half-n-half had come in a plastic bowling-pin-shaped container. She never admitted what she had done. I snarked that we had a ghost who preferred cream, and was nice enough to recycle. She snarked back. It was time to leave.

I couldn’t wait to go home. My sister followed me out to the car as I was busy packing items. Snark was replaced with saccharine. “Julie, thank you so much for all your help while you were here. I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I know how complicated the phone situation was.”

“Yep,” I reply.

On the way home, a wave of remorse hit me. Maybe one of my kids used the cream, and I now owed my sister an apology.

I should have known better. They didn’t.

Oh! Maybe when our cousin Betty was visiting, she was served coffee, and asked half and half!

Again. I should have known better. I called my mom to ask her about it, and was mad all over again. I was out innocent explanations.

My sister either dumped out, or used, the cream on purpose, knowing it would irritate me. It was probably retribution for not taking her out to dinner. Even though I had brought dinner, cooked dinner, or had her come to dinner each night I had visited. Even thought I had invited her everywhere I went, and devoted most of a day to helping her straighten out her mess with the phone company. Even though I had held my tongue and made the hundreds of tiny adjustments it takes to keep life peaceful.

My mom can’t understand why I’m so upset about half and half. For a moment, I didn’t understand it myself. 

And that’s when it hit me.

My sister has pulled stunts like this my entire life. From birth, she insisted I looked like a monkey and was ugly. She lit the backyard on fire, smoking, then stood by while our dad whipped me - sixteen years her junior - with a belt because she told them I was playing with matches. She tried to abandon me in Disneyland when I told her that her boys were being brats by throwing containers of soda at each other while she laughed – and had splattered a very large and angry-looking man in the process. My navigation skills are better, and I beat her to the car. On that same trip, she abandoned me at age 18 in the hotel room, with an unpaid bill. She was angry because I didn't offer to pay for the room as 1/4th of the total occupants. At the time, she had gotten financial control of her ex-hubby’s $90k retirement fund, and was withdrawing $300 per day until the account was drained. She was broke for the day, and the bill was due. 

Years later, her kids showed up at my doorstep, saying mom was beating them. I brought them back home and threatened to beat her myself if it ever happened again. It would have been like Tyson vs. Shaggy, so I think she took it seriously.

I took in her oldest son when he was 15, having not attended a single day of high school. He was in some sort of institution, as a result of her abhorrent parenting. I was only 23, but I got him enrolled in school and supported him financially. He started out great. Then, she started calling and he would stay out of earshot while talking with her. She was asking him if he was happy. Didn’t he think I was being too strict? Too controlling? Didn’t he prefer to come home to her? He started going truant, and I had to repeatedly take time off work to deal with him. I lost my job, I was late on rent, and lost my car just one year short of paying it off.

She accuses me of setting her up to fail frequently. She acts out when there’s anything good going on in my life and rejoices in each little mistake, rubbing it in as long as she can. When I got engaged, she sent me a congratulations card, but made sure to tell me that she hasn’t always approved of my life choices. Nevertheless, she’s happy for me. This back-handed congratulations came from the recovering drug-addict, recovering alcoholic, child-abusing mom who couldn't hold a job, was continually under threat of eviction, had married a pedophile then bankrupted him, and has almost never had pot of her own to pee in, and stayed on Section 8 housing until the youngest child moved out - landing at my mom's house where she can't seem to pay rent, but sure has a great iPhone.

Yes, clearly I have gone astray. Shame on me.

Flooded with emotions, I was still furious when I got home, and vented to my hubby. What the hell have I ever done to make this person hate me so profoundly? “She’s envious,” he simply said.

I didn’t want to remain angry over cream, dammit. How petty! I mean, her life really and truly stinks. Mine is a dream come true, compared to hers. I prayed, asking, “Why? Why does she hate me?”
I heard one word from God: Uriah. 


Do you know of him? He's the guy King David sent to the front lines of battle, so he could keep that hottie, Mrs. Uriah, a.k.a. Bathsheeba, for himself?

Seriously, God? You’re telling me that after years of being a least a very decent sister, I’m the one who took something from her? No way. I tried to get to a state of compassion and pity, mentally listing all the ways my life is better than my sister’s. Health, job skills, long-term friends, nice house, comfortable life, husband, kids…

KIDS. I began to understand.

Her kids have been my Bathsheeba. I’m pretty sure at least two of them like me better than they like their own mother. In filling in where she failed, I had unintentionally stolen her kids. God told me exactly what I needed to learn in one little word. If I were in her shoes, and I'm compelled to remind you that they are two sizes larger than mine, I would be devastated to know that my children liked my younger sister more than me. I don't feel guilty, but I can feel compassion over that.

Now what?

I’ve looked into Air BNB’s for my next visit to Mom. I’ve decided that there will be an offer of a “family dinner” at Mom’s with take-out food, and a totally separate night with friends at a restaurant – with no sister. I’m taking these steps because I want to keep myself from the temptation of being furious and responding in anger to her, and I don’t want to stress my mom out over this. I recognize that I am not strong enough emotionally to stay there, and keep calm. Lead me not into temptation, Father, but deliver me from evil. Ultimately, the only thing that I need to answer for is my response.

I have let go of my sister. I don’t consider her family, frankly. As adoptees, we’re not related by blood. Because she’s so much older than I, we didn’t really grow up together, so she’s not a sister in that regard, either. We have only parents and siblings in common, and 50% of them are already gone. We have the same maiden name.

For so many years, I have been told to try to be more understanding. I have been reminded that we’re family. But, the accommodations have always been made in favor of my emotionally manipulative sister. No more, my dear. This toxic relationship has colored so many other relationships in my life. Enough.

My birth mother has a daughter who is a pretty decent person, but spoiled – indulged because she has a tantrum or tear-fest when things don’t go her way. Would you like to guess at how badly that pushed my buttons? And our birth mother would say, Poor Sarah. She never gets treated fairly. Her life is hard. You have so much, and she has so little.

I exited that relationship in a panic, without even knowing why I was doing it. Now I do. I have such deep trust-issues with women, it’s tragic. Thankfully, I do have a number of long-term friends who are absolutely worth every bit of trust I place in them.

What I gained during this visit has been worth so much more than the stupid few ounces of half and half I lost. I’ve learned I have a Grand Canyon sized wound that has been festering for decades. I’ve learned that my sister, though damaged-goods, is probably also hurting. When she was young, already desperate for attention, she was told that she was special because she was the "only girl."

And then I was adopted. Our sisterhood was destined to fail from the start.

I’ve learned to let hopes of sisterhood go, and to stop using the word family as an excuse for a damaging relationship. It’s going to have to be OK to tell Mom no, when she asks me to help my sister, again, because I just can’t take hearing another episode of Here's What Julie Did To Me This Time.

I’ve learned that sometimes we need to prepare for exposure to temptation and to mitigate that as much as we are able. In the end, my sinful anger is my own and I will be the one who answers for it. I'm not strong enough to stop getting angry, so I'll just have to reduce the possibility of it happening with some distance.

For now, I will congratulate myself on not leaving my toothbrush unattended in the common bathroom at Mom’s house. I think my instincts were correct.