I sat in my sister’s living room, so frustrated my heart pounded. I’d traveled to Arizona to spend time with her and her two kids. She was in her third hour of getting ready in front of a bathroom mirror.
In Arizona, an early walk is the only way to go, before the heat. Now it was mid-morning, closer to noon. No more cool, crisp air. No more slightly dewy feel to the atmosphere. Just stinking hot.
The kids, nine and eleven, were in their bedrooms. One was watching TV, the other playing computer games. My sister had, at this point, dried her hair, strand by strand. Smoothing on serum. Using a straightener.
Her makeup was being meticulously applied. Foundation, blush, under-eye goop to hide dark circles, mascara, and eye shadow. You name it, it was going on. And who was this for?
The imaginary audience is a term used to describe teenagers’ feelings that they are closely observed, watched, and judged. It might make the teen self-conscious, nervous to talk, and anxious that their appearance will be scrutinized. When I was doing my graduate degree in education, this was a term we learned about in a human development course.
My sister has always been incredibly aware of her audience. Every decade of her life. Yes, adults too can fret about an imaginary audience.
While she’s more confident as an adult, she won’t appear in public without three hours worth of work on her face and hair. It’s exhausting for family members to wait around. She gets a lot of attention as she’s a beautiful woman, but in my world, who needs that attention at the pizza parlor, at the supermarket, or on a hiking trail? When others are waiting to go to a meal, or a park, or on a hike?
Once in Hawaii, my dad and I were trying to get her to go snorkeling, and she began her make-up routine.
“Oh, no!” I said, “We’re snorkeling. Your makeup is going to run all over your face.” For a change, she agreed. We grabbed sunscreen and towels, and we were out the door.
We had the best time. No three-hour beauty process holding everyone up. We jumped in the convertible with our snorkel gear and had fun.
But not now, in sunny Arizona. Our hiking trip to the Grand Canyon was off the table.
Beauty priorities pushed the fun plans into the abyss — there was no time left.
Fox News with the idiot talking heads blared in the background of the suburban home. My spirit sank, and I felt absolutely trapped. My entire being was filled with sadness and anger. This wasn’t a visit. This was torture in suburbia. I hadn’t yet cottoned on to getting my own rental car and a hotel. That would happen later.
I sat on the couch, looking at my legs. I hadn’t shaved them for two days. I was clean, having showered that morning. Ten-minute shower, a quick blow-dry on my hair, and brushed teeth. I was healthy, tan, and ready to go places.
In the meantime, Farrah Fawcett was getting all ready to make her debut on a hot trail somewhere — except we were out of time now.
Years earlier, on the day of my wedding, I wore a lace dress with a moss-green slip underneath.
Four inches of green lace hung from the bottom. It was an enchanting dress, and I wore moonstone earrings. My long hair was curled and pinned half-up and half-down with a pearled barrette. My arms were bare and brown, and I felt beautiful. I was having an outdoor wedding, surrounded by cedar trees, our family pond, and blue skies.
Then my sister came into the bathroom.
“I think you should put on some nail polish,” she said, staring at me. “And you should pluck your eyebrows.”
“No,” I said, smiling, “I’m not going to do those things.”
“Don’t you want to be beautiful?” she asked, her face serious.
I said, “Don’t you think I’m beautiful right now? Because this is how I look, today, on my wedding day. I’m sad you think I’m not pretty enough.”
She left the bathroom, hurt that I hadn’t taken her advice. It didn’t occur to her my feelings were bruised.
For most of our lives, we’ve been at odds. I figured out a long time ago we were so different we’d never truly be close. We have what I’d call a closeness born of zero options. She’s my only living sibling. Our parents died more than a decade ago.
And I love her, despite some memories of difficult times.
I’ve found over the last decade the best way to get along with her is to meet her where she is.
That means I have to change my reactions to her habits. It’s taken me years to work things out, but I no longer try to change her.
Now, when I go to Arizona for a visit, I stay at a hotel and let her know I’ll pick her up when she’s ready. That way I don’t have to sit around a house listening to the whir of a hair dryer on low for a solid hour.
She’s not upset because I’m begging her to leave the house without the full beauty regime.
I’m not upset because I’m spending my time as I like, not sitting and waiting for someone engaged in preening.
We sometimes go for shorter day hikes in the heat of the day, and call it good.
I’ll say this: life’s short, and trying to change another person rarely works. Especially when that person is my older sister. I’ve learned a lot of patience waiting for her.
That’s a silver lining right there.
Debra G. Harman is a memoirist and author. A publisher on Medium, she enjoys working with a team of writers. She’s a retired English teacher and a world traveler.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.