When my newlywed sister and her husband — both three years younger than I — visited us for the first time, we lived in a little home out in the ‘burbs that had only one bath and a half and one shower. So when time came for us all to start dressing for a meal at a fancy Uptown restaurant, I suggested that he be first up for the facilities. Although I’m fairly sure I was polite, I found out later that he regarded my suggestion as an order and was miffed.
When he had married into our family, the poor guy got something he’d never had and definitely didn’t want: a managerial if not bossy older sister. I got the message and backed way off, but since my husband’s only sibling, a little brother of just 12 when we married, was a complete pig in the house, I couldn’t survive a visit from him without making some demands: “Clean those muddy shoes off before you stick them in the closet!”
He complained to my mother-in-law and she complained to my spouse, but I just said everybody would have to get used to me.
I got to thinking about my two brothers-in-law and our early relationships the other day while reading a New York Times article about adult siblings. It quoted Jeffrey Kluger, author of “The Sibling Effect: Brothers, Sisters and the Bonds that Define Us.” He wrote, “Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people who truly qualify as partners for life.”
I am the oldest of my parents‘ four children. But we grew up as three sisters — the oldest, the middle one and the baby. Our little brother made his appearance later on, and as my mother’s adored darling, essentially was an only child. We girls were typical: I made the best grades in school, my just-younger sister was an affable, lovable child whom everybody liked much better than they did me, and the baby sister was just like baby sisters usually are. You know the type.
Our relationships never did change as we aged. Miss Middle Sister followed me unquestioningly. Sure, we were separated by jobs, marriage and geography, but the dynamic of our bond remains much the same. I could never tell Baby Sister anything, and I stopped trying long ago. Unfortunately, Middle Sister fell victim to a stroke during a migraine some 10 years ago and in the ensuing years has lost much of her mental capacity. She lives with her family in Washington State, and we see each other only about every two years, but at those times and during phone conversations she is warm and loving, and — thank goodness — remembering of me, her oldest friend.
Since Adored Son basically merged into his wife’s family, Baby Sister and I are all we have on a regular basis. And I’m grateful for her, rebel that she always was.
“Sibling strife teaches that even seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved,” reported the NYT article. It has smoothed over the sharpness between Baby and me, and I have witnessed firsthand the changing of a relationship from confrontational to loving between two sisters who are daughters of a good friend of mine. The NYT article reported that siblings fight every 17 minutes, and these little girls must have gotten into it every 10 minutes, the fault resting chiefly on the shoulders of the older one. Their squabbles grieved their grandmother so much that she mentioned it to me. Now 30-somethings, they are loving friends. I wish that she could see them today.
I hope the same is true of two brothers in their mid-twenties who started a fight years ago in the older one’s garage across the street from my house while I was in the yard sweeping leaves. The ruckus got so loud and became so physical that when my neighbor’s wife came out, headed for her car, I mentioned it. “Oh, that’s just Wally and his brother,” she said dismissively, casting a glance over her shoulder. The 17 minutes had run out.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living Section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.