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Big Love: in Memoriam*

April 14, 2011

A shout-out to the show that is no more. For those of you who knew it, you may feel the ache of its quirky absence. No more attractive people in wholesome landscapes beset by perpetual anguish and occasional bittersweet joy. No more grotesque and shady characters to torment and remind them of the darker, more violent aspects of polygamous life. Not that I’m acquainted, but I saw the show.

For those of you who didn’t or on whose nerves it played, you may still enjoy the story:

Like most people, I was a stranger to the term ‘sisterwife’ until I heard it on Big Love, an HBO drama about a polygamous family living on the outskirts of Salt Lake City.

Now, as Big Love enters its second season on Monday, the sister-wife concept has taken root on my own cul-de-sac in southwest Michigan.

We sister-wives of Lynwood Drive use the term and live the life —  without the shared husband.

As with most well written dramas concerning the private lives of marginal groups, Big Love had a way of creating a new normal. The premise that first seemed outrageous — a man with anywhere from a closet-full to a backyard full of wives — soon became mundane. Not that we would do it, but we could understand how the characters would.

We found ourselves confessing that plural marriage didn’t look so terrible, even in a drama filled with suffering and intrigue.

It was kind of like the Waltons, what with the big family and the red-state setting. One always had company. There was help with the children. And though the three or more women married to one man didn’t seem so great, it seemed a small point.

Within a few episodes, it dawned on my friends and me: We were envious.

We liked the way the sister-wives’ doors opened onto a common patio, how they wandered in and out of each other’s living rooms, how they dined at one giant table. Alone in her part of the house, a single wife looked lonely. In the kitchen together, even in moments of high tension, they looked cozy.

Halfway into the Big Love season, we discussed whether we could be sister-wives, though we did not share a husband and had no intention of making that part of the bargain.

The conversation went well. It seemed like that’s how we were living already anyway, without a name for it. Our children roam from one house to another and are fed wherever they appear, and the space between our houses feels more like a patio than a street.

Besides, what woman couldn’t use a little more help without having to pay for it? What woman doesn’t occasionally long for a larger family without having to give birth? What woman doesn’t get bored doing the same essential chores alone at home? Who couldn’t use a little more company?

My friends and I first used the word as a joke, then as a term of affection, and finally as a salutation, as in, “Hey sisterwife, how about dinner tonight?” It felt thrilling to speak it aloud. The word spread through the cul-de-sac like fire on a Western prairie.

It was a declaration, a call to solidarity. We took it into the public sphere: the playgrounds, the waiting room at the dance academy, the checkout line at Target. We were testing the market.

We knew that at the very least, this worked for us. Being a sisterwife was kind of like belonging to a women’s union. If you were there for them, they were there for you. But that wasn’t all.

One evening over dinner we wondered aloud what made a sisterwife. What made the term stick?

We liked the medieval ring of it — but was there more? We parsed the term. ‘Sister’ wasn’t enough. A sister (real or figurative) could be fickle. ‘Wife’ — with our platonic twist — suggested fidelity.

A sisterwife is one who cares about your life, children and appliances almost as much as you do. She will not drop your baby. She will make your child a sandwich he will like.

We took stock of our daily lives. Like our mothers before us we feed, comfort and scold one another’s children. We are the baby-sitters when there is no baby-sitter. We give each other clothes. We gaze unself-consciously into each other’s refrigerators when ours no longer look interesting.

More often than not we eat together, and the more we’re at it, the more seamlessly it works. Instead of buying six ears of corn, we buy two dozen. We call up our neighbors and, voila: The corn gets shucked and the corn gets eaten. Sickness, health, richer, poorer, we’re there for all of it. The absent sexual component notwithstanding, we feel as if we are married.

I have five sister-wives now, four in my neighborhood and one married to my brother. So far, so good. When Big Love starts up again, we will renew our vows. And we’ll remind each other that as long as we each shall live in this neighborhood, we are — as our forebears put it — sealed for all eternity.

*”The Sisterwives of Lynwood Drive,” reprinted from the Chicago Tribune, June 11 2007

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jan Baiden permalink
    April 18, 2011 4:23 am

    Brilliant – I love your observations (as do my sister wives).

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