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.

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House Plants and Friendship

House plants are needy little things.  You can water them and fertilize them, and pick off the dead leaves and they’ll flourish.  However, if you leave them untended for too long, the leaves go dry, the stems wilt, and pretty soon, all you have is a dish full of dirt.  I should know.  I have the black thumb of all time.

When I was in college, a friend gave me a miniature cactus.  I put it under my desk light and every once in a while threw a glass of water on it.  It seemed to be fine, but one night as I was writing a paper on “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the cactus suddenly gave a pitiful sigh and plopped to its side, falling out of its bowl and onto the desk, roots exposed, and dead as dead could be.

Since that day, I have noticed that most people have several houseplants, and can keep them alive.  My sister Martha-Jean has so many, it takes her an afternoon to water all of them.  They sit on windowsills and bookcases, filling her home with curling vines of emerald and chartreuse filigree.  Not so for me.  Houseplants that enter my home begin as verdant leaves and yellow buds sprouting from a bed of moss.  Within a week, shiny jade leaves acquire an ashen death pallor, and soon turn brown.   Stems bend and crack, and blossoms litter the tablecloth until at last the plant meets its demise.

Friendships are a lot like houseplants.  They require nurturing in order to stay alive.  Some need a great deal of maintenance and others only a kiss and a promise every now and then.  But all need some degree of attention.

I thought about this when my friend Sue called a couple of weeks ago.  She and I met when I was pregnant with my son Gabriel, and after he was born, we’d chat in the church nursery while her Ben and my Abby played at our feet.   During her next pregnancy, she was put on bed rest, and I, a stay-at-home mom, made daily phone calls to check up on her and keep her company.   This was a fairly easy accomplishment, as we lived in a three room apartment that was so small, my phone cord reached from one end to the other.  While Abby and Gabe played in their bedroom, I would dust, do dishes and tidy the rest of the apartment while Sue and I chatted.  We talked about everything- children, marriage, sewing projects and recipes.  We shared a love for God and family, and our conversations were peppered with laughter and encouragement.  By the time her baby Joshua was born, we had cemented a life long friendship.

Sue and I spent the next several years as frequent companions.  Together we re-upolstered my kitchen chairs, canned applesauce, and sewed clothing for our kids.  We babysat each other’s children, team taught Sunday School classes and on hot summer days piled all of our kids into one car to spend a day at the beach.  Our children were almost like siblings, and we were as close as any sisters could be.

The two of us weathered life’s trials-her complicated pregnancies, my complicated marriage.  Her transition to a new part of the country, my transition to a single woman.  Bound by prayer and phone lines, we battled cancer, heart attacks, economic strife, birth and death.  We celebrated graduations and promotions.  We laughed over our kids’ antics and cried over their heartbreaks.  She has taught me much- acceptance, hospitality, forgiveness, patience- all with gentle nudges and encouraging smiles.

When Sue and her husband moved to North Carolina, I thought my heart would break.  But true friendships weather the storm of distance, and every now and then we will share a cup of coffee over a long phone call, catching up on each other’s lives, celebrating successes, praying together over concerns.  Our friendship is like a low maintenance houseplant.

But even low maintenance needs some maintenance, and this week, while Sue was in New Hampshire for the holidays, we were able to steal a couple of hours for face-to-face catch up.  We drove to a small cafe for breakfast and chatter.  The quiche was dry.  The coffee tasted burned.  But the time with my forever friend was absolutely delicious.

How easy, I thought, it is to let friendships fade, like houseplants tucked away in a forgotten corner.  This is a friendship that deserves more than a splash of water and a promise of a new pot for it’s stretching roots.  This friendship needs to be nurtured- dust wiped from its leaves, fresh soil to encourage new growth, sunlight to turn brown to beryl.   This is a friendship to be treasured, for Sue, a woman whose grace and beauty has touched more lives than she’ll ever know, deserves to be treasured.

So plans have been sketched out for a long weekend at the beach this spring where there is time to catch up, time to rehash and time to plan ahead.  We will tend to the garden we have planted together.  A garden of friendship.  And who knows what will come next?  Perhaps I’ll even learn to keep an African violet alive.

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