Because We Are Siblings

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” ~Robert Frost

Over the course of the last week I have had several conversations with friends and family about the importance of sibling relationships.   One of these conversations was with a coworker, who sent me this picture and expressed how pleased he was that his two young children are beginning to bond with each other.  Another was with an only child who expressed how she wishes she had siblings.  The third was my youngest sister Missy, who has a blended family of six children.

In each conversation, I talked about how glad I am that my children have such close relationships with their siblings.  Nothing warms my heart more than watching my kids laughing together, supporting each other, defending each other.  The fact that they have close sibling relationships should not surprise me.  It is the way I was brought up.

I am the second of eight children.  Because our family was so large, our parents were always financially challenged, and there was little money left after the bare essentials were bought.  Our yard was small, our furniture worn, and our house in disrepair. We shared beds and toys and hand-me-down clothing.

At school I often felt like a misfit, but inside the door of 30 Green Street, love reigned.  My parents insisted that our home be a safe haven, a place of acceptance and of support.  They instilled a sense of stewardship toward each other that ruled how we carried out our lives.  We were taught to stand with our siblings as a mighty force against the wars that waged outside the safety of our home.  “You can fight all you want with each other at home,” my mother instructed, “But don’t you let anyone hurt your brothers and sisters outside these walls.”

When I was in second grade, I had two cotton dresses. One was red plaid and the other was grey with a white collar.  My mother washed and ironed every night so I had a fresh dress to wear to school the next day.  Small towns can be great places in which to grow up, but the limited number of children in a school can make for a difficult social circle.  The popular girls in my class wore pastel dresses with crinoline petticoats and patent leather Mary Janes.  They had pretty, feminine names like Debbie, Susan and Linda.  My cotton dresses and masculine first name branded me, and I rarely felt as if I fit in.

One spring day the playground discussion turned to the latest Chatty Cathy doll.  Chatty Cathy had plastic discs that were inserted into her back and when her string was pulled, she talked.  One of the girls told the group that she was getting one for her birthday.  At the time my youngest three siblings were all under the age of three, and I fed and diapered real babies more often than I did dolls.  Besides, Chatty Cathy was too expensive a doll to even wish for.

“My new baby brother is a lot more fun than a stupid doll with a whiney adult voice,” I piped up, hoping to sound sophisticated. The inner circle fell silent. The other girls exchanged eye rolls and then walked away, leaving me staring at my scuffed saddle shoes and squeezing my eyes shut to keep the burning tears from escaping.

The day was worsened when we were given tetanus booster shots by the school nurse.  That afternoon I despondently trudged home from the bus stop, arm and head aching.  I tearfully told my mother about my day and she hugged me close, kissed my forehead and then asked if my arm ached too much to give my baby brother his bottle.  I sat on the couch, my tender arm propped on a pillow and held Ricky in my arms, his hazel eyes staring at me while he hungrily replaced the formula in his glass bottle with air bubbles.  His wispy blond hair gently curled around his ears and he occasionally stopped sucking long enough to grin at me.  I understood then that all the crinoline petticoats in the world couldn’t hold a candle to that smile.  He was my baby brother, and our sibling bond would last much longer than any playground acceptance.

Sometimes I ache to go back to the house at 30 Green Street.  I long for the echo of my childhood, of sharing bedrooms and secrets and squishing together on the couch to watch television.  I long for the safety that I felt inside the walls of our house, where I didn’t have to prove anything- where I was loved just because I was.   It saddens me that we so rarely are able to get everyone together at once, and that our parents are no longer here to share the laughter when we do.

But like it or not, I am an adult.  A mother.  On the flip side of fifty.  I am responsible and self reliant. And strong…most of the time.  Still, when the storms of life threaten my footing, when my confidence is shaken, when my sleepless nights are filled with fear, I have my siblings. We don’t always agree.  Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves.  Sometimes we even argue.  But in the end, there is love. Because we are siblings.

Piece of Cake

Last Monday evening when I got home from work, Elizabeth was sitting on the couch.  “I messed up your cake,” she said with a frown. 

I glanced at the stove and saw a chocolate cake sitting in a quiche pan.  It looked fine, except it had a rather large divot in the middle.

“Looks fine to me,” I lied.  “Just needs some frosting.”

Elizabeth grinned, walked to the kitchen and slapped a spoonful of frosting into the divot.  A few minutes later we were laughing together as we stuffed gobs of German chocolate into our mouths.

I wasn’t always so cavalier about cooking mistakes. Most of my friends let their children cook and bake with them, but I cringed to let my kids measure, stir and pour.  This is still an enigma to me.  When I was growing up, my mother encouraged us to experiment with gastronomy.  If we asked for cookies, she would hand us a stained copy of Betty Crocker, point us to the kitchen and remind us to clean up after ourselves.  As a result, I could cook dinner for ten people by the time I was in fifth grade. I thought nothing of whipping up a white sauce, or baking a three-egg cake, or turning out popovers for the family’s supper.

Unlike the stainless steel and granite kitchens of HGTV, the kitchen I grew up with had no counters.  A free standing double sink and the top of the clothes washer were the only work areas besides the kitchen table.  There was a gas stove whose pilot lights didn’t work.  I would timidly turn the dial and toss a lit match in the direction of the pilot, while simultaneously jumping to the other side of the kitchen in fear of my hair catching fire with the “Whoosh!” of the flame.  It is a miracle I didn’t blow up the entire house.

My favorite thing to make was cake.  Betty Crocker had pages and pages of delightfully named cake recipes, and I tried them all, from “Silver White Cake” to “Brown Betty Butter Cake.”  One day, despite my mother’s admonishment, I used a coin silver serving spoon to mix the batter instead of a wooden one.  Scraping the side of the glass mixing bowl, I lost my grip and the spoon got sucked in with the creamy batter, twisting and bending around the moving beaters.  Cheeks burning, I had to tell my mother I had disobeyed her and watch as she disentangled the mangled silver spoon.

I was not the only child in our family to have kitchen disasters.  One afternoon my sister Robin made frosting and deciding to experiment with food coloring, added several drops of each color to the sugar and butter.  The result was akin to something we would find in our baby brother’s diaper.  My father took one look at it, gagged and threw it in the trash.  Another time, my youngest sister Missy made pumpkin pie for the family.  It looked delightful- caramel in color, shiny on the top. When the last person was served we dug in together, anticipating the smooth sweet flavor of pumpkin and spice that would tickle our taste buds.  I looked across the table at Scott, whose bugging eyes and coughing confirmed my suspicion.  Soon everyone was sputtering and laughing, except Missy, whose face slowly turned a deep shade of crimson.  She had forgotten the sugar.

Despite these mishaps, my mother continued to encourage us.  Although none of us is exactly a gourmet, family pot lucks prove that we each have a robust gastronomic repertoire.

If I had it to do over again I would forget about the spills, turn a blind eye to the mess and let my kids measure and chop until they found their own inner chef.  They might have understood fractions sooner.  They might have learned not to open the oven door while a cake is rising. They might have learned to skillfully wield a knife like the folks on Food Network, or truss a turkey like Julia Child. They did not.  Instead they learned to “get-out-of-the-kitchen-while-Mom-makes-dinner.”

In spite of my hang ups, they are learning on their own, as adults.  They may make a few mistakes along the way, but they’re figuring it out.  Abby makes the best butter cream I’ve ever tasted. Gabe made me chicken korma after I had hand surgery.  And Elizabeth baked a delicious German chocolate cake for my birthday.  It might not have looked perfect, but it was made with love.  Besides, that little divot made the perfect pool for some extra frosting.

You’re How Old?

This past Monday was my birthday.  I have now lived 696 months. That is 3,027 weeks or 21,184 days old, which comes to 508,429 hours or 30,505,767 minutes or 1,830,346,077 seconds.  Those of you who love to do math have already figured out how many years I’ve lived.  Sorry, but I’m not going to make it easy for the rest of you.

So if I’m so old, how come I don’t feel old?  How come every time I look in the mirror I am surprised to see someone who looks like she should be my mother staring back at me?  It is true that I could have given birth to practically everyone who walks the red carpet, just like it is true that I remember when television was black and white and records were played on a  hi-fi, and the milk man left glass bottles of milk on the back steps.  But I still feel young.  Like somewhere around nineteen.

When I was nineteen I was in college.  I wore the university uniform of blue jeans, body stockings and Earth shoes.  My locks hung past my shoulders and I never wore makeup because I didn’t need it.  I was skinny- less than 120 pounds, even though I am over five feet, eight inches tall.  I could quote Shakespeare and Chaucer, eat pizza at midnight without getting heartburn, and sing notes as high as Joni Mitchell.

When I was nineteen, I sang with my friend Mary.  I would weave silver threads of harmony around her strong golden melodies and together we would entertain long-haired audiences who filled the local bars and coffee houses.   Our music was simple- acoustic and eclectic- and we would cover tunes by The Beatles, Donovan and Judy Collins.  We practiced in lobby of our dorm, our notes tripping down the steel stairwells, and echoing against the cement walls.  We sang for beers and tips and the thrill of hearing the crowd grow quiet when the guitar strummed the opening chords.  We sang because with a few notes, we could wear our hearts on our sleeves.  With a few notes, we could tell a story that would bring a laugh, or bring a tear.  With a few notes, we shared our diaries with those who listened, and by listening, they shared theirs with us.  With a few notes, term papers and tuition were forgotten and the world was as one- just for a few moments.

But I am not nineteen any longer. Although I still wear jeans, I have not owned Earth shoes or a body stocking since 1978.  My fingers are too arthritic to hold down the strings on a guitar, and my throat strains to hit the high notes. These days, I don’t sing in bars and coffee houses.  I sing with the radio in my car and although I can still layer harmonies over melodies, I know my days of singing before an audience are over.  But I still have a need to reach others- to bind us together with those things we all hold in common; love, fear, joy, sorrow.  Words on pages have replaced lyrics set to music.  Instead of sharing songs about lives I have never lived, I write about years I remember.  Days I have endured.  Moments I have cherished.  People I have loved.

Lest you think this story is a sad one, let me remind you that there are perks associated with aging.   Now, when I do something foolish, people hug me and call me “cute” instead of pretending they don’t know me.  If I try to carry anything heavy, or climb on top of a chair to change a light bulb, my kids freak out and take over the task for me.   I like this so much, I may start groaning whenever I have to clean the toilet or empty the trash, in hopes that they’ll take over those chores for me as well.

Younger people think I am old, but older people (and yes, there are people who are older than I) still think I am young.  In fact this morning on the elevator, a white-haired gentleman called me “young lady.”  Perhaps he is right.  After all, I’m only a little over eight years old… in dog years.

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