I was chatting with four women at a party. As we talked, we gradually sat down, then drew our chairs into a circle. The other party guests looked on with curiosity or envy as our tight little group erupted in laughter or rippled with a wave of knowing nods. I had brought up the topic of sisters. Laxmi, a woman visiting from India, was extolling hers. "When we meet we can't get enough of each other," she said. "When we ride in a car together, my husband threatens, 'I'm taking another car! You two never stop talking and laughing!' She's my lifeline. I'm her lifeline. If I say one word, she knows what I'm going to say. We've made a pact that we'll take a vacation together at least once a year." Another woman in our group remarked sadly, "That's why I always wished I had a sister." I wanted to learn more about this wonderful sister relationship, so before the party ended I arranged to interview Laxmi one on one.

The following week, Laxmi and I sat down in private. The first thing she told me was that she had recently gone through a year during which she refused to speak to her sister. When their parents died, she explained, she and her sister had together inherited a building composed of two apartments; each sister owned one. Laxmi wanted to sell her apartment, but she realized that the value of her sister's would go down if she sold hers separately; they would both get a better price if they put the entire building on the market. But her sister wasn't ready to sell, so Laxmi tabled the idea and went away for an extended visit to her daughter, who lived abroad. When she returned, she discovered that her sister had changed her mind about selling her apartment—and had gone ahead and sold it. Now it was Laxmi whose apartment had plummeted in value. As difficult as this financial loss was for her, what Laxmi couldn't forgive was that her sister had robbed Laxmi's children of part of their inheritance, since the profit from selling Laxmi's apartment would eventually go to them. Her anger and hurt were so great, she could not bear to speak to her sister. But after a year she decided to let it go. She had only one sister and did not want to lose her.

Hearing this story, I wished I could go back to the party and tell the woman who longed for a sister that the ideal she'd heard Laxmi describe—someone to talk to and laugh with, who knows exactly what you mean and what you are going to say, a lifeline—was real, but it wasn't the whole story. A sister is someone who owns part of what you own: a house, perhaps, or a less tangible legacy, like memories of your childhood and the experience of your family. The way she manages that shared inheritance can either raise or lower its value for you—or call its value into question.

Excerpted from You Were Always Mom's Favorite! Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives by Deborah Tannen. Copyright © 2009 by Deborah Tannen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.


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