In life, sometimes a person needs a behavior check. Or a mood check. Usually we don’t even realize it. Thank goodness for friends. Or in my case, siblings who don’t wait for friends to speak up.
The first hint of their concern is a gentle tone of voice. Susan and Linda are masters at this. “Am I going around the bend?” I start to wonder. “Am I the last to notice?” My other sisters, Jen, Cindy and Joni, are sympathetic, but have a harder time suppressing their panic. They have no poker faces. Or voices.
Living mostly in different cities, we stay connected with phone calls and yearly reunions. The latter can involve up to thirty-eight people or just a small group of twelve or so, depending on spouses and kids. The feeling shared by all is a slippery combination of anticipation and dread. Individually, we are benign. An opinionated set of individuals with a flair for dramatics and a deeply imbedded sense of family placement. (I’m number two. It’s very hard.)
Together, we are the perfect storm of deep, deep feelings. Two weeks of fun amidst loud and incessant conversation translating into a kind of boot camp therapy, starting with a ‘he said, she said,’ tell all that occasionally ends in tears. (Though usually for just one person.) Strange mutterings may be heard at family dinners. A kind of, ‘Its’ not going to be me breaking down, dammit,’ confession. Sure enough, at the first sign of moodiness, everyone else relaxes, knowing its not going to be them cracking up this particular year.
Some siblings attempt to sneak away from family gatherings, to find a quiet corner in which to read a book or simply enjoy some peace. (We are all readers, thanks to our parent’s fruitless attempts at keeping us quiet.) Alone, we are each friendly, fun loving and sensible. Grouped together, we are a loud, singing, verbose, mighty wind.
Some would say we resemble the mafia, except that every one of us wants to be the Godfather. In terms of siblings, it should be Linda, the eldest. She’s been resisting the role since my brother Billy became baby number four. Hiding in her room, (yes, she had her own!) she would pass the time reading. In high school she shared a room with Susan and me. We became fans of her Gordon Lightfoot collection as well as the many hits of K-Tel, including the ever famous song, “Winchester Cathedral.’ It was fitting, because for certain, we were always bringing her down.
Now that we’re older, Susan, number three, is the real boss of the family. Not that she’s bossy. She’s too subtle for that. But she has a way with words, a kind but firm tone that we all respond to in a mostly positive way. She notices things that the rest of us don’t, being either too distracted or too self indulgent. I can’t throw any stones. I’m the last one to see that the dishes need doing, or the table set. Okay, maybe the second last.
Brother Bill is locked in the middle … three girls older than him, three younger. This position has helped him considerably in his life. He’s learned all kinds of skills, like how to wear tights, how to fight off a wild pack of girls chasing him down for a kiss. That kind of thing. He’s a guy who could build a shopping mall with a nail file and some lego, or escape from a prison camp in the middle of the wilderness. I know the last is true because I was one of his jailers. It’s one reason why you hardly ever see him without his tool belt.
Cindy came out of the womb knowing exactly what she wanted. She was a ‘mama’s little helper,’ type of kid with hair that was really hard to brush. I remember because somehow it ended up being my job. She treated school work like someone was paying her a million dollars to do well.
Joni was everyone’s darling, and over the years, nothing has really changed. If you ever travel with her, be prepared to hug strangers in an airport because she knows everyone in the world. Everyone. I’m not even kidding.
Jennifer, as number seven, had to fight hard to be heard. As a child, she had an extremely loud voice which she somehow managed to translate into a successful career. It all came down to survival. As the baby, we had to take care of her. And it was her job to make sure that we did it in the most fun way. Even when it was very inconvenient. Picture a Saturday morning, possibly 7 am. Jennifer is three, and very precocious for her age. I am eighteen, and possibly hung over. She would climb the ladder to my bunk with a large bag of books, slapping them down on my legs and reading them directly into my ear. Things have not changed a whole lot, though now she brings witty conversation and interesting drink recipes.
I’m not sure who I am in this crazy mix-up of a family. But what I do know is this. There is a secure fortress surrounding me at all times; a wall of people who have my back. It is made up of love, history, and the steely resolve of children who could crack the most stoic parent.
So you can take me or leave me, like or despise me. Just don’t mess with me. Because you’re going to have to answer to them. And it won’t be pretty. We are family, with a capital F.
Mario Puzzo said in his book, ‘The Godfather,’ “The world is so hard a man must have two fathers.” I say, for extra protection, have siblings.