My daughter longs for a few things. More days at the beach, less days (i.e. no days) doing school, no hair brushing ever again for the rest of her life. A Ninjago Lego set. A horse, in her room, preferably. A My Little Pony, come to life. A tiny hippo. A sister. As of today, a sister with allergies. (Because she watched a movie about a boy … with a sister … with allergies.) Some of her desires more realistic than others. I guess she’s no different than anyone else.
Her birthday wish this year was to go to a baby shower and a wedding. Read into it what you will. I expected it to come from the above mentioned list. Just goes to show, there are other things on her mind. I imagine that, in the same way it sometimes feels to me that the whole world is sporting a swollen belly (in the summer, to be scientific,) it must seem to her that every other child has a built in playmate. Someone to hide from mom and dad with, someone who gets the jokes that mom and dad don’t. Now, to be fair, we know lots o’ ladies that aren’t pregnant, and quite a few only children, so neither of these are full scale tragedies. And I get that. But much as I’d like to address it like I do her requests for a phone or i-pad, because “everybody else has one,” for once, I am sympathetic.
I don’t believe in only children. I wouldn’t have picked “singleness” for mine, if I had a choice. If you have never read Anna Quindlin’s lovely essay on siblings, you ought to. I would quote her here, but my copy is in deep storage. (And it only costs $2. bucks on Amazon for your own copy:). To summarize, she says something to the effect that a sibling is the best gift you ever give your kid.
Now, I have a sibling. And I know kids don’t always see it that way. A large percentage would happily trade their sibling for an i-pad. Because they don’t understand the appreciating value of a sibling. Especially a sibling who is close in age. Yes, there is a little circle of mommy hell reserved for women who have multiples under the age of 3. (I haven’t tried it personally, of course. But even poking it with a stick from far away, that’s a whole lot of mommy mommy mommy and sleep deprivation. And diapers. And fingerprints on the walls.)
But bless those mommies, because they are giving their children the incredible gift of collective memory. There is no one else in the world who is going to know the ridiculous phrase your dad made you (I mean us, of course) repeat when asking for “official permission to enter the quonset hut, sir,” and how it made you giggle. Who will reminisce with you about fighting over the toilet seat and the heating vent, when that luxurious warm air was growling out with a little sigh, and how it blew your nightgowns up like hot air balloons. There is no one else who will know what you mean when you laugh about how you used to burn your heiny on the heater that was as big as the world’s first computer, warming up out of a shower on a winter morning. Or make fun of you for decades for driving against the proper lane of traffic when you crossed that bridge, until you got wedged in wonkywise. And one of you had to climb out a window.
Now, I must interrupt this ode to the pleasure of collective sibling memory by acknowledging that yes, you’re correct, maybe someone else will. If you are lucky enough to have an incredibly intimate childhood friend that sticks around through adolescence and adulthood. And cousins can be pretty good stand ins. Let’s call them second siblings. They’ll know some of it, I concede. But not all the ins and outs of mom and dad’s “isms,” not the weird rules like no unicorns allowed, no watching “Gimme a Break,” millet in the cookies and nothing good to trade at lunchtime, because mom was onto rice crackers waaaaay before Portland “got weird.”
And here’s the other benefit of collective memory. It is the tensile fiber that holds you together with people that you would probably never pick or fall in with as friends. It teaches children to be loyal for loyalty’s sake. Not because you both love Johnny Depp or Mumford and Sons, but because you belong to each other. You get to use titles between yourselves no one else can claim. I used to dress like a bag lady, before Nirvana made that cool. (Okay, sometimes I still do, on weekends) My sister was a prom princess and accidental cheerleader, and got picked to be the lead in plays. You’d be hard pressed to guess we lived together, but somehow she always made me, the book obsessed bag lady, feel like the bomb. Once I got over resenting her golden existence, (I did show my mom the door the day she brought her home) I discovered she was my favorite person. In spite of myself. Probably because she was so good at making me feel like her favorite person. Definitely because she is cheeky and sensitive, thoughtful and sometimes chatty, sometimes solitary, with a man’s communication patterns and in need of no one else’s affirmation. She has secret dance moves you just wouldn’t believe, and dispenses hug therapy where it’s needed. Did I mention how she laughs? I know that’s like saying someone has beautiful eyes, but seriously. If I had to pick one thing to hear before I die, it would be Sister laughing. Than I know I’d meet God laughing too.
How do all those good things make themselves at home in one person? And did I mention, MY person. You may be her friend, but you’ll never be her sister. Sorry, but it’s true. Sisterhood is primitive. Which is why only children long for it. Just as barren women long for babies. Some part of us knows we were made for it. And the good news, if you have no sisters, is they can be made. Adoption isn’t just for babies. It’s for anyone who cares enough to make you their own, Velveteen Rabbit style. It won’t be pretty, and it will hurt. But it will be real.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Children, with their funky breath and wonky toes (you say pinkies?) and friends are precious because we claim them, and love them until their fur rubs off. Not because of who they are, contrary to the culture of child idealization. We love our kids because of all the nights they kept us up holding their hair back while they puked, or checking their temperature 32 times, or worrying over them on the playground. They can be ugly, or stinky, weird or hyper hypos. But if they’re ours, we’re gonna love them. And if you have a friend who will hold your hair back or stay up all night with you, who genuinely worries over you, you’re gonna love them too. If you put in the time.
I once made a psychology student redo a report she had made about our family, in which she consistently referred to our daughter’s father and myself as her “adoptive” parents. She was young, and just learning her profession, and was not yet aware of nursery magic. “Adoption isn’t a chronic disease” I explained to her. “It is a fact of origin. But our family is not defined this way. We are her REAL parents. Not substitutes or stand ins. She is our REAL daughter. We don’t need subtitles.” The nursery magic happened. Our child does not idealize us. She sees the fur that’s been rubbed off and the loose stitching, just as we see hers. We are her real to each other. And the more we pay to be a family, the harder it is, the realer we become.
If there is power in disowning someone, it is only because there is greater power in owning. I’m not talking about pimps or control freaks here. I’m talking about the chord that wraps itself between any two people when at least one devotes themselves to the other. It’s why people still get married. It’s why some sibling relationships are more intimate than marriage. It’s why Samwise Gamgee followed Frodo Baggins to Mordor. Love isn’t born out of beauty. It grows between the cracks of brokenness and vulnerability. Because our siblings are often the first person to hear us cry in the dark and share a changing room, we trust them with the hairy stuff. We don’t have to prove our lovableness to them. If we’re lucky, we can be that naked with a spouse or a friend.
I know that not every sibling relationship is like ours, but every sibling represents an opportunity for a closeness that cannot be duplicated in any other context. It can be approximated, but the lining of memories from that first golden decade of childhood, with a shadow that stretches longer than any of the subsequent combined, can never be hemmed in after.
I read a funny little article recently about marriage, and how men and women bring different expectations into it. Women want companionship, a life partner, security, and some other warm fuzzies, apparently. According to this article, men generally want two things out of a relationship. Drum roll…1.) sex (yes, I know you knew. Gold star for you:) and 2.) not to be criticized.
Is this realistic? Well, that is not the topic of my little bunny trail, but it does say something about the difference between two of the most intimate relationships you can have. If you’re trying to make a marriage work, you might take this to heart. It certainly explains the origin of many fights. But marriage is like all human relationships in that it won’t satisfy the deep longings of your heart. We yearn to be loved for or in spite of our imperfections. The truth is that our spouses will weary of them, but may be wise enough not to harp on them. But siblings will celebrate them and make fun of them with a familial affection. They will not refrain from criticism, because they have nothing to lose. In the first family unit, siblings are the ones who can best recognize the “you”ness of you. And exactly because they’re not married to it, they will pull no punches. “Remember that time you asked when the Fourth of July was?” “Are you SURE you don’t want a map. I just don’t want you to drive to California on accident.” But when they say it, you can smile. Because it’s not criticism. It’s affection. You do that stuff because YOU do that stuff. Don’t ask my sister directions. She may know the way, she may not. But she’ll punk you into being sure she does, and when you got lost because you listened to her, she’ll deadpan “well, you didn’t have to listen to me.” It’s the her-ness of her. And together, we spend a lot of time analyzing that dad-ness of dad, and the mom-ness of mom. It’s something we can only do with each other. It drives our husbands crazy. But sorry guys-we’re simply turning over the rocks from our home planet and admiring them together. Even if they’re sharp or slimy. They’re native rocks. And we’re ladies. We want the companionship of analyzing. Yes, that’s a real thing.
When we fall in love, we want the affirmation that comes from an alien landing on our planet and admiring it’s unique qualities. Woman in particular want to feel like someone “gets” our planet. Admiring it is not enough. You have to understand it. And sometimes, we’re silly enough to think the alien does get it. But how could he? Or she? They are not from the home planet. The seasons make no sense to them. After some time, the beautiful rocks seem t0o abrasive, the air that once felt cool and refreshing may over time feel cold and inhospitable. And the flowers may become increasingly recognizable as weeds. But siblings, they are from the planet. They will always get it. They may not always like it, but they are citizens too. They can read the hieroglyphs.
I watched a really remarkable film late one night based on a true story about a woman who spends 16 years getting her degree to be a lawyer, just so she can represent her brother who is serving a life sentence for murder. In the process, she loses her husband and both her sons elect to go live with their dad. Her husband doesn’t get her attachment to her brother. He feels displaced. She jumps through many, many hurdles to get her brother released. She passes through many disappointments and injustices. One day, her boys (now older) are play fighting in the car, and one says to the other “I wouldn’t waste my whole life to help you, like mom did for uncle Kenny.” And their mother, instead of being offended at their conclusion that she had “wasted” her life, says “really? You wouldn’t?” A little part of her dying, because she hopes for more. If you read more about this woman, you will see that what is remarkable about her is how unremarkable she is. She loved someone, and she didn’t give up on him. It sounds so simple, but if you’ve ever tried to be faithful for a long time through adversity, you know it is not simple.
It is my personal philosophy that if you marry a dude, you should not expect him to act like a girlfriend. That’s what sisters and friends are for. And if you marry a girlfriend, it should be no surprise when she doesn’t speak dude. That’s what bros are for. Sometimes, we try another person’s planet, and just can’t get the hang of it. And the first impulse is to go back to ours. If you have created an intergalactic species between yourselves, you can create a whole lot of harm following your impulse for home. You may just have to learn to be a stranger in a strange land, waving at your planet as it twinkles in the dark. And taking some comfort, like the little Velveteen rabbit did, that you are real. Because somewhere else, someone loved you enough to make it so. Perhaps the alien you live with will not know every nuance of your species, but that’s okay. Somewhere out there, someone does:) And if they don’t, there’s always time to adopt a sister. Or love your alien until his antennae break and his silver skin grows dull. Just be prepared to get your heart broken a little in the process, and to put in the time. It’s what makes you real.