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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Snow White and Rose Red

There is an old Grimm Brothers fairy tale about two sisters- Snow White and Rose Red.  When my older sister Martha-Jean and I were young, my mother told us that we were like the sisters in the story.  Martha-Jean was long, lean and willowy, with darker skin and dark curly hair.  I was shorter and curvy, with fair skin and straight blond hair.  She was brave, competitive and athletic.  She climbed trees, skimmed over the ice in boys’ hockey skates, and could hit a softball out of the field across the street.  I got dizzy when I looked down from a tree’s lowest limb, tripped over my figure skates’ toe picks, and got nauseated when it was my time at bat. 

Martha-Jean was my security.  I followed her lead and trusted her to watch out for me, and wanted to be just like her.  When she was in fourth grade and I in first, she hid me in the “big girls” section of St. Anne’s playground because I cried without her.   When we did the dishes, she washed and I dried.  When we cooked dinner for the family, she made the entrée.  I made dessert.  When we played Tarzan down by the river, she was Tarzan.  I was Jane.  

I wanted to be like my big sister so badly that I once ate a handful of dirt from the front yard in order to prove to her that I was worthy to join the neighborhood club “Cowboys of America”.   I choked down the acid soil and then wondered why the older girls were not impressed that I had sworn my allegiance to them.  Still, I idolized Martha-Jean.  One evening when were setting the table for dinner, I noticed her budding breasts underneath her sweater.  I ran to our bedroom and stuffed tissues into my shirt, sure my disguise would fool everyone into thinking I had miraculously matured in a matter of hours.  I got a scornful look from my mother and my sister, mortified, told me in no uncertain terms that she was not stuffing her shirt and to please get away from her.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that Martha-Jean had her own path to follow and so did I.  I stopped trying to imitate her and found my own footing.   As adults, our differences are no less obvious than when we were kids.  She has a huge family- I have three kids.  She lives in a large country farmhouse and I have an apartment in the city.   She grows amazing flowers and plants.  I have one peace lily that I regularly bring to the brink of death by forgetting to water it.   She is still tall and willowy.  I am still not. 

I’m okay with the differences, but old habits die hard and in my heart of hearts, I still longed for her approval.  A couple of weeks ago, I was visiting her house and she showed me a portable hard drive she uses to add storage to her computer.  She suggested I use one for my writing and I agreed it would be a good idea as a back- up, but the budget did not allow for it right now.  We went on with our visit and I didn’t give it another thought until a week later, a package arrived in the mail.  In it was a hard drive like the one she showed me and a card.  The card read:

“Write, baby , write!  I’m so proud of you.”

My eyes filled with tears.  My older sister is proud of me. 

Me.  The one who got into trouble when we visited the little girl who lived across the street because I was too loud and boisterous.  The one who couldn’t run as fast, or keep up on her bike, or gracefully dance with our father.  The one who cried too easily and got too nervous to try out for the high school basketball team, and needed her big sister pulled out of the fourth grade because I wouldn’t stop crying.    She’s proud of me.

Snow White and Rose Red weren’t jealous of each other. They didn’t try to be like each other. They knew that differences between people add balance and symmetry to life.  They protected each other. They helped each other.  They served each other.  Most of all, they loved each other.

Perhaps it is time to reread the story. 

  • The beautiful illustration on this post is by Ruth Sanderson, a childhood friend who also lived in our neighborhood and was one of the founders of “Cowboys of America.”

Brothers and Sisters

I am very fortunate to have seven siblings.   Having siblings was important when I was a child.  Without siblings, who would tell me that I was stupid to wear lipstick to the beach, or that I threw a baseball like a girl, or that it was my turn to dry the dishes?  Without siblings I would have relied upon the guarded answers from friends when I asked if they thought I was smart enough to go to college, or if my boyfriend was cheating on me, or if my prom gown was too babyish.  Instead, good or bad, I got a straight shot of honesty no ice, no chaser.

There are many ways in which my siblings and I are alike.  It appears that DNA determines more than facial characteristics, so I suppose it should not surprise me that we share many of the same traits.  For instance, we say “anyways” instead of “anyway.”  I don’t know why we do this, but we do.  Anyways, (see?) we love to eat, especially homemade bread, warm and slathered with creamy butter.  We all love music, from rock to folk to jazz to country, and play it often and loudly– especially in the car.   Most of us have a strong sense of altruism, and many of us thrive on the adrenaline surge that comes with speed, danger, or a combination of both. 

For as many ways as we are alike, we are all different.  It is my belief that some of these differences are gender driven.  There are definite differences in the way that sisters and brothers relate.

Sisters nurture. They comfort broken hearts.  They bring solace and anoint you with soothing murmurs, gentle hugs and chocolate.  Sisters will tactfully tell you that your swim suit has crept up over your butt cheek.  They will whisper that you have a whisker protruding from your chin, or there is a stream of toilet paper caught on your heel.  They save their favorite baby clothes for your first-born.  They feed your children, and they offer coffee and tissues when you’ve had a fight with your husband.  They give advice about diaper rash, cooking, and making third pregnancy maternity clothing look new.  They will offer their teenagers as baby sitters and surprise you with black balloons on your fortieth birthday. 

When my heart ached from a broken marriage, it was my sister Martha-Jean who soothed me.  While tears slid down my cheeks and splashed upon the soil, she and I worked side-by-side to plant flowers in her garden.  The fact that the blooms would perish by the end of the summer made it all the sadder, but the knowledge that we could plant yet again gave me hope.

My sister Robin is forever my confidant.  From our bunk beds we pretended we were cowboys, swapped paper dolls and shared pictures of heart throbs cut from teen magazines. When I was expecting my first child and she her second, we entrusted only to each other how much weight we each had gained.  She never told.  Neither did I.

My sister Teri surprises me with unexpected text messages to my cell phone- just to check in and see how I’m doing.   They come at all hours, for no reason, but it always warms my heart because I know she is thinking of me.

Sisters love you even when you are at your worst.  When I was a teenager and my baby sister Missy was a toddler, I was often charged with the responsibility of giving her a bath.  One day I was mad at my mother for some unremembered reason and took it out on poor Missy, roughly washing her hair and scrubbing her little round face with a wash cloth.  Totally consumed in self-pity, I stood her up to lift her out of the tub.  She stood there, naked and shivering in the cold, teeth chattering.  She looked up at me and tenderly stated, “I love you Garrie.” 

I had never before been anyone’s hero.  To this day, whenever I feel weak, or alone, or insecure, I pull that memory out, dust it off, and gaze at it for a while.  It never fails to remind me that no matter how badly I have behaved, I am still loved.

Brothers are different. Where sisters shroud the truth with tact, brothers barely take time to aim- they shoot straight from the hip.  There is no gray in a brother’s opinion.  If you ask, be prepared for a black or white answer.  “Yes, that’s a great idea” or “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. “   There is little in between. 

Sisters leave the door ajar for you to gracefully exit if the situation becomes uncomfortable.  They present you with a couple of options from which to choose, and allow you an opportunity to decline.  They delicately tip toe around subjects that might cause you to be embarrassed or upset. 

Brothers don’t leave you an out.  When the Atlantic Ocean is so cold it turns my feet numb, my brother Scott coaxes me out of my beach chair and shames me into swimming at his side.   He knows the salt water will ease my aching joints and invigorate my sleepy soul. 

My brother Kevin reminds me that my faith must direct my path, even when the road is difficult.  He stands tall, like a lighthouse, and guides my path with gentle nudges.  He draws me in with his infectious laughter, and before I realize what’s happening, pulls me from the place I was to where I need to go.

When my fears of failure threaten to paralyze me, my brother Eric charges ahead, dragging me in his wake before I can find an excuse to stay behind.  He does not cajole.  He does not negotiate.  He yanks me from my solitude and leads me through unknown territory because he knows it is by doing that I will believe I can.

Some people may not have been born to be part of a large family.  I have heard that in large families there is not enough to go around.  For me, it is different.  Each of my siblings has carved a spot in my heart that nobody else can claim.  Each has enriched my life in a way that no one else has.  They keep me balanced.  They remind me of who I am and who I need to be.  They set me straight when I am on the wrong path and they cheer me on when I am on the right one. They challenge me and try my patience.  They celebrate my joys and they share the burdens of my failures.  Despite the years of hand-me-downs, common bicycles, shared toys and dormitory style bedrooms, I would not trade my loud, idiosyncratic, boisterous big family for anything.   I love them passionately and deeply, and yes, there’s enough to go around, because when it comes to siblings, love doesn’t divide. It multiplies.

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