‘An ode to siblings and their rivalry’
When I was a kid there was this show on TV called ‘The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour’. It was a pretty groundbreaking show at the time. But not so groundbreaking that my parents didn’t absolutely adore it. Their favorite part was when Tommy would say to his brother Dick “Mom always loved you best.”
I’m thinking they dug this because they both had plenty of siblings, and thus could relate. Of course, having plenty of siblings was the rule rather than the exception in those days. At least where my family was from, parents needed lots of little ones to help out on the farm with chores. And (gasp) there was always the risk that some of them wouldn’t (ahem) “make it”. So you had to have a few “spares”. You know, “just in case”. I can remember my Gramma P talking about her little un-siblings Pearl and Edward. Bless ’em, they “failed to thrive”.
So. Anyway. Irk. Enough of that. Dad was the fourth of eight. And Mom was the second of five. And these were not even considered exceptionally large broods.
And in my generation, I honestly can’t remember any families that didn’t have at least two kids, mostly more. I’m not sure whether that was just the way things were back then, family-wise, or if there were other forces at work. (My father’s side of the family and practically my whole hometown was, um, Catholic. So there was that.)
Regardless of the reason(s), we all had brothers and sisters, which meant we all shared some common experiences — experiences that Only Children might miss out on.
Most of these shared experiences involved actual sharing. We kids shared almost everything. Big things, like bedrooms. I like to say that it was only when I got divorced when I finally got my own room. (I was — gasp –married, though briefly, Before The Dude, which you can read about in ‘My Polio-Shot Marriage’, if you’re interested.) When I was little, I shared with my brother Scott. (I stretched a string down the middle of the room to mark “my” side.) Then it was my Only Sister Laura. In college, of course, I had a roommate. And after that, I got married.
We shared smaller things too. Like toys (except for my Cousin Jimmy, who was an only child and an object of toy envy for me and my sibs), and books, even baths. And food. Meat came mostly in “family packs” of eight. Which meant that there was one extra pork chop when our family of seven sat down to dinner. We’d speed-eat our chops (you couldn’t take “seconds” till you were through with your “firsts”), only to have my Dad pull rank and fork the last one onto his plate. And when my mom made a pie, she had to practically use calipers to make sure our pieces were “even”.
A subset of sharing was “taking turns”. We took turns being swung on the swing, being pulled (or pulling) the wagon. Sitting on Mom’s lap. Sitting next to Aunt Marilyn at Christmas.
One of the most coveted “taking turns” experiences was Sitting in The Front Seat of The Car. See, in those days before not only car seats, but seat belts, parents would sort of cram their kids in the car every which way. In our case, with five kids, that meant four in the back, and one very lucky sibling in the front seat between Mom and Dad.
It was really sweaty and sticky and icky being one of the four in the back. (No AC in cars then, either.) We would stake out and jealously guard our little sections of bench-seat territory. I pity my poor parents, having to listen to “His leg is touching my leg” and “He’s looking out my window” and (my favorite and the title of this piece) “He’s breathing my air!” And to think that every single one of our family vacations was taken by car. It’s a wonder that they didn’t just leave us all by the side of the road. (Which The Dude and I actually did with The Child once. A story I have yet to write.)
Another subset of sharing was “hand-me-downs”. This was when you inherited an article of clothing from an older, larger, sibling who had “grown out of” it. My brothers once famously owned muscle shirts which stick in my memory not only because of their unique style (striped as well as sleeveless and “muscle-y”) but because they wore them at the same time. Yes, someone gave them each a muscle shirt instead of gifting just one that then would get handed down. (Yes, I do have a story about these; called “Howie and the Muscle Shirt”. Check it out.)
At the time we would whine and complain about all this turn-taking and handing down, but I honestly think we learned a lot about getting along — and had a pretty good time while we were at it.
These days, even as a Grownup Responsible for her own Child (who is, like most of her peers, an Only, bless her), I’m still sharing with my siblings. Only now, instead of sweaty sticky car seats, it’s memories.
Amagansett, New York. August 2018