The Gift of Siblings
The Gift of Siblings
By FRANK BRUNI
Published: May 25, 2013 195 Comments
GIVEN what a mouthy thing I grew up to be, it’s shocking to me that I began talking later than most children do. But I didn’t need words. I had my older brother, Mark.
The way my mother always recounted it, I’d squirm, pout, mewl, bawl or indicate my displeasure in some comparably articulate way, and before she could press me on what I wanted and perhaps coax actual language from me, Mark would rush in to solve the riddle.
“His blanket,” he’d say, and he’d be right.
“Another cookie,” he’d say, and he’d be even righter.
From the tenor of my sob or the twitch of one of my fat little fingers, Mark knew which chair I had designs on, which toy I was ogling. He decoded the signs and procured the goods. Only 17 months older, he was my psychic and my spokesman, my shaman and my Sherpa. With Mark around, I was safe.
This weekend he’s turning 50 — it’s horrifying, trust me — and we’ll all be together, as we were at his 40th and my 40th and seemingly every big milestone: he and I and our younger brother, Harry, and our sister, Adelle, the last one to come along. We marched (or, rather, crawled and toddled) into this crazy world together, and though we had no say in that, it’s by our own volition and determination that we march together still. Among my many blessings, this is the one I’d put at the top.
Two weeks ago, the calendar decreed that we Americans pause to celebrate mothers, as it does every year. Three weeks hence, fathers get their due. But as I await the arrival of my brothers, my sister and their spouses in Manhattan, which is where we’ll sing an off-key “Happy Birthday” to Mark and drink too much, my thoughts turn to siblings, who don’t have a special day but arguably have an even more special meaning to, and influence on, those of us privileged to have them.
“Siblings are the only relatives, and perhaps the only people you’ll ever know, who are with you through the entire arc of your life,” the writer Jeffrey Kluger observed to Salon in 2011, the year his book “The Sibling Effect” was published. “Your parents leave you too soon and your kids and spouse come along late, but your siblings know you when you are in your most inchoate form.”
Of course the “entire arc” part of Kluger’s comments assumes that untimely death doesn’t enter the picture, and that acrimony, geography or mundane laziness doesn’t pull brothers and sisters apart, to a point where they’re no longer primary witnesses to one another’s lives, no longer fellow passengers, just onetime housemates with common heritages.
That happens all too easily, and whenever I ponder why it didn’t happen with Mark, Harry, Adelle and me — each of us so different from the others — I’m convinced that family closeness isn’t a happy accident, a fortuitously smooth blend of personalities.
IT’S a resolve, a priority made and obeyed. Mark and his wife, Lisa, could have stayed this weekend in the Boston area, where they live, and celebrated his 50th with his many nearby college buddies. Harry and his wife, Sylvia, could have taken a pass on a trip to New York: they’re traveling all the way from the Los Angeles area, their home. But we made a decision to be together, and it’s the accretion of such decisions across time that has given us so many overlapping memories, which are in turn our glue.
I’m also convinced that having numerous siblings helps. If you’re let down by one, you can let off steam with another. “There’s always someone else to turn to,” said George Howe Colt, the author of “Brothers,” a 2012 book about brothers through history and about his own three siblings, all male.
“It’s like a treasure chest: you have access to a lot of different personalities,” Colt told me. “With my brothers, I turn to them all. But I turn to them for different things.” That’s how it is in our brood, too.
Perhaps because the four of us belong to the same generation — just over eight years separate Mark and Adelle — each understands the others better than our mother, now gone, could ever understand us, or than our father ever will. And while our parents gave us values, we inadvertently assigned ourselves the roles we play. Popularity came more easily to Mark, so I resolved to be the more diligent student, needing to find my own way to stand out. Because Mark and I made relatively conventional choices, Harry, for a while, made less conventional ones: his claim to a distinct identity.
That’s how it goes in a pack of siblings, and I sometimes wonder, when it comes to the decline in fertility rates in our country and others, whether the economic impact will be any more significant than the intimate one. For better or worse, fewer people will know the challenges and comforts of a sprawling clan.
Those comforts are manifold, at least in my lucky experience. With siblings to help shoulder the burden of your parents’ dreams and expectations, you can flail on a particular front with lower stakes and maybe even less notice. Siblings not only pick up the slack but also act as decoys, providing crucial distraction.
They’re less tailored fits than friends are. But in a family that’s succeeded at closeness, they’re more natural, better harbors. As Colt observed of his siblings, and it’s true of mine as well, they aren’t people he would have likely made an effort to know or spend time with if he’d met them at school, say, or at work. And yet a reunion with them thrills him more than a reunion with friends, who don’t make him feel that he’s “a part of a larger quilt,” he said. His brothers do.
My friend Campbell, who’s as fond of her two sisters as I am of my siblings, put it this way: “With a friend, I have to be more articulate. With my sisters, I can be my most primal self: inarticulate, childishly emotional. I’ll have a fight with my sister and say, ‘O.K., I know we’re in a fight, but I need your advice on something,’ and we can just put the fight on hold. They’re the only people in the world you can be your worst self with and they’ll still accept you.”
My siblings have certainly seen me at my worst, and I’ve seen them at theirs. No one has bolted. It’s as if we signed some contract long ago, before we were even aware of what we were getting into, and over time gained the wisdom to see that we hadn’t been duped. We’d been graced: with a center of gravity; with an audience that never averts its gaze and doesn’t stint on applause. For each of us, a new home, a new relationship or a newborn was never quite real until the rest of us had been ushered in to the front row.
This weekend we clap for Mark, and as I plot his dinner menu and hit the liquor store, I have to decode what he wants. It won’t be difficult. I have decades of history to draw from, along with an instinct I can’t even explain.