“He’s breathing my air”


‘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”.

Gramma (right) with one of her two sisters, Aunt Net. She also had a brother, Uncle Warren, who “made it”. Well, except for the arm he lost in a farming accident

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.

My Mom, top right, captured not fighting with her bros and sis

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.

Sharing a soak with Aunt Susie and Cousin Jimmy-with-all-the-toys, who was the only Only Child I knew for many years

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.

“Get in the back seat if you want to wiggle your behind”. At Gramma’s house, arrayed around the Ford. I must have been in the car, sulking

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.)

Only Sister Laura and I sharing a bench (actually, I think it’s a cooler) on a family vaca involving not only a car, but a Nimrod camper towed behind it

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.)

Even though I was the oldest, I still didn’t escape hand-me-downs. Some were from older cousins. This gown, oddly enough, was handed down by a friend of my mom who had a rather glam daughter

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


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20 thoughts on ““He’s breathing my air”

  1. mariellethinks

    I have only one sibling, my sister. I shared a room with her until I graduated university. Luckily I was able to have a room of my own when I continued further studies. It was definitely a strange feeling to be on my own but it was such a great learning experience 🙂

    • Yes, it can feel strange not sharing a room. There are definite upsides — nobody stealing the covers — but I sort of missed the whispering and giggling! Thanks for reading and commenting, Marielle!

  2. What beautiful memories 🙂 You’re right, my mum has/had like 10 siblings. It always seems so boisterous and fun when we gather. Wish my generation had the same big families, but there would be no money to feed them all in today’s society!

    • Thank you! You are so right about kids being $$$! I only had one, and she didn’t even eat all that much, but still. Expensive. But looking back on all the frenzied fun we sibs used to have, well, sometimes money isn’t everything!

  3. Oh, man. I relate to this so hard. We live in Nevada, but my grandma’s cabin is on Coeur’d’Alene Lake in nothern Idaho. It was 800 miles of recycled backseat breath air for 800 flipping miles there and back every summer. But, it was totally worth it because we’d soon be at the lake and we got to fight over who had more than one Shasta in a day. Good times, man.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more, my dear! I honestly feel sorry for those poor only children (mine included) who will never know the pleasures of sharing with a sibling — the icky stuff as well as the good. Because, come to think of it, even the icky stuff turns good over time!

  4. josypheen

    Hand me downs from cousins were the best!! It meant they’d only been owned once, not twice through two older sisters!! 🙂

    I can relate to a lot of this…although I don’t remember us getting mad about breathing each others air! 😀

    • Hah! I hadn’t thought of the cousins’ hand-me-downs only being worn once! Except when The Child was an actual child, she wore her cousin’s stuff. But not only had they been worn by two cousins — they were both boys! I got so I didn’t even bother correcting well-meaning folks who said “what a cute little boy!”

      • josypheen

        Well, it’s pretty weird that people need to know what gender babies are tbh! I mean it doesn’t make any difference at that age (apart from how people react to them!) I bet she was a total cutie in cousin’s clothes.

        p.s. I’m not sure if I told you this before, but once mum made three identical dresses for my sisters and I. I had that same dress for yeeears. Once I’d grown out of mine, I had to wear my middle sisters version, then after that I finally grew into my oldest sisters dress. It was a good dress, but blooming ‘eck I was wearing that style for ages!!

        • Wow! What a story about those dresses. I only have one sister, almost ten years younger, so the Clothes Thing wasn’t all that an issue. But the same thing happened to my three brothers. My Mom made three little plaid sports jackets. It will come to no surprise to you to hear that these jackets appear amazingly frequently in photos of my brothers taken on ‘formal’ occasions (Easter, pretty much). And yes, you are right about the sex of babies. I never bothered to correct people. A baby’s a baby, was my feeling at the time! Also, I kind of liked the fact that since no one realized she was a girl, there was less gushing over her appearance!!!

  5. OMG – hand me downs. Being #7 of 8, boy howdy did we get hand me downs. My mother bought a bolt of woolen herringbone material one year and made 4 coats – depending on who the coat got handed down to, you either had buttons on the ‘right’ side or on the ‘wrong’ side…

    • Wow. I totally heart the detail about the buttons on the “wrong” or “right” side! My mother made all our clothes, too, except — and including! — the ones that got handed down. It was a real prize to get a “store-bought” hand-me-down like that ball gown in the picture.

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