The sisters (l-r): Marianne, Patty, Joanne, Diane, Janet, Carolyn and Nancy.
As a regular viewer of Maury, I’m always shocked by much stock people put in family resemblance.
People look at a photo of a newborn baby and determine paternity based on facial features, skin coloring or oddball features like weird toes or extra thumbs. They’re often dead wrong, sending the embarrassed mother running off stage in tears.
Physical features are a great tool for identifying relatives in some families – my cousin Joe’s daughter is the spitting image of my Aunt Joan. But it never was in ours. As one of seven daughters of an Irish American mother and Italian American father, people were constantly trying to figure out which parent we favored, or which sisters look alike.
My mother, who gave birth to us within 11 years, said people used to marvel that we all looked so different. This began in the delivery room: some of us were born with thin faces and lots of hair and others with round faces and no hair. When I came out with a large purple birthmark on my right thigh, my paternal great aunt blamed my mother, noting no one in my father’s family had such defects.
Family resemblance and assigning physical attributes to relatives are great, except when they’re not. As the mom of two adopted kids, I used to dread occasions where families gathered and people crooned over how much kids looked like their parents. I wanted to scoop up my kids and run for the hills because we don’t share the same genes, and were decidedly left out of the conversation.
It’s a natural thing to do at gatherings, particularly when children get a little older and start to resemble parents. But it’s not something you expect or do as an adoptive parent. The comments underscored the lack of biology between me and my kids. It was the only time I was keenly aware that we lacked a biological connection that most parents and children share.
I didn’t realize people put so much stock in family resemblance because my sisters and I don’t look alike. No one told any of us that we looked like either parent or each other because we didn’t. As my mother says, “You all look like yourselves.”
Anyone who knows us will tell you there are similarities: a tendency to tilt our heads when being photographed, and gesturing wildly with our hands, which the Curmudgeon enjoys imitating to no end. But physically? Not really.
It’s incredible how strong genes are in some families. You can spot the Kennedys from a mile away by their toothy grins and wholesome good looks. Some children look like clones of their parents or a perfect melding of two gene pools: the nose of the mom, the build and athletic prowess of the dad. But more often than not, it’s complicated, with some children favoring the mom, others the dad, and some no one at all.
This came up last weekend at my niece Nicki’s high school graduation party. With all seven of us and my mom gathered at my sister Patty’s house, guests tried to identify siblings. One woman told my older sister Joanne she could tell she was related to Patty because she had the same lips and chin. Another woman asked us and my mother to sit together so she could figure things out.
“There are definitely two different kinds of noses,” she said. “And a lot of you have the same eyes.”
“You look most like your mother,” someone said. “Oh great!” I joked. “I look like an 85 year old woman.” “I’m only 84,” my mother said. I never thought I favored my mother, but what do I know? I may be too close to the situation to judge.
My sister Diane and I at my wedding in 1983.
Growing up I thought I most resembled my sister Diane, who is 16 months younger than I am. We both have brown eyes, freckles and athletic builds, but Diane was graced with my father’s black naturally curly hair while I got straight brown hair.
Diane’s hair is thick and lustrous, but like many curly tops, she hated it and was always trying to straighten it. While Diane was straightening her hair with Coke can curlers, I was getting smelly perms to get some bounce and body into my mane. This was the ’70s, after all, and I wanted Farrah Fawcett hair like everyone else.
As No. 2 and 3 in a large family, Diane and I were tight. She tagged along with my friends Lizzie and Robin on play dates, which weren’t called play dates back then, and we learned to play tennis, golf, ski and roller skate together. We worked the same summer jobs at a packaging plant, department store and banquet facility, and even went to the same college, Wheaton in Norton, MA.
As her older sister, I was naturally protective. She came to keg parties with me in high school, but I kept an eye on her. I helped her find a date for the junior prom. I let her have a bender in the basement when my parents were out, serving as bouncer when things got out of hand. I covered her expenses when someone broke into our rental car and stole her wallet on our trip to Florida.
I thought we looked alike, maybe because that’s what happens when you spend so much time with someone. You assume a resemblance because of that sisterly bond and constant state of togetherness. Isn’t that what they say about people who’ve been married a long time – they begin to resemble each other?
Diane reminded me that I used to ask people in high school if we looked alike, and they’d say no. So I guess I’ve been mistaken on this point for years. Silly me.
Janet, left, and Diane, right. Maybe the do look like each other after all.
I was a little taken back when Patty’s friend announced that Diane looks like Janet, the second to the youngest. “You have the same noses and dark hair,” she said. Both of them seemed very happy with the pronouncement, making those of us who weren’t identified as lookalikes question why they were so relieved.
I never really thought about it, but I guess they do look alike. I was assuming a resemblance based on feelings, proximity, shared experiences and our place in the birth order. More than sisters, we were best buds.
As teen-agers, we stayed up all night on our last day of vacation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and walked the beach at dawn, snapping a photo of the glorious sunrise. I blew up two 8 X 10 prints and framed them, giving one to D and keeping one in my dorm room through college. We talked about life and eternity and then had to stop – it was too mind-boggling, but I remember it to this day.
She was my maid of honor and I was her matron of honor. She called me after she was released from the hospital after giving birth at age 26 to her son Eric. What on earth was she supposed to do with this little baby? she asked. I showed her how to change him on a round coffee table in the living room of her apartment. I was thrilled when she asked us to be his godparents, and she let us borrow him and his younger brother Greg on weekends.
It’s a sisterly bond that transcends physical appearance, although I think when you feel so close to someone you assume you look alike. Maybe it’s part of human nature to want an outward physical connection, like sports teams wearing the same uniform, fans donning team shirts and baseball caps, or tribesmen smearing themselves in paint to show unity. As the heart of it, humans want to know where people stand, and we judge a lot by outward appearance.
People assume a lot, seeing what they want to see. At the graduation party, someone remarked how much my son looks like my husband. She was taken aback when she learned that he was adopted. She insisted there is a family resemblance, but I don’t see it.
There is a family bond, yes, but it’s well below the surface, deep inside the heart and unbreakable. It’s proof that biology is one thing, love is quite another. And at the end of the day, that’s all any family needs.