I Hide My Chocolate

Midlife observations

Tag: Only Child

Sisters and Brothers

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An Only Child and Her Siblings

I didn’t know April 10th was National Sibling Day until my Facebook feed was peppered with sweet photos of brothers and sisters. Awwww. There were my friends posting past childhood photos with their brother or sister. There were my friends posting current family reunion photos of their middle-aged brothers and sisters. And there were my younger friends posting some wonderful old childhood photos of their parents with their sibling(s). It was lovely and fun and I wanted IN on it! But I don’t have a brother or a sister. And of course there were my friends who do have siblings but didn’t post a photo. Hmmm. Not all sibling relationships are Facebook friendly.

I started combing through photos, looking for my own twist on National Sibling Day. Apparently 21% of us are only children. We can be lonely only’s. (Cue sad story to go here.) Or, we can create our surrogate siblings and find the best of what that relationship can be through nurturing our other relationships.

There is my very best friend in the whole world, truly best friends forever, dear Emily. We met at that fragile age of 11, awkwardly and painfully transitioning from girls to teens to young women to married women to moms to middle-aged women. While she did have a brother, she did not have a sister. And so. Sisters we were and are. I’m quite sure we cut our hands and merged our blood in some profound ceremony of our invention. Blood sisters we were and are. Our paths have long gone in different directions. Our personalities are quite distinct. And yet, like “real” sisters, there is a shared history and a shared bond. We know each other’s family secrets. We remember each other’s past. (Yes, that DID happen. No, you’re NOT crazy.) We love each other and support each other, cheering successes and mourning losses.

There is my amazing cousin, dear Elizabeth. The one who was killed at the age of 48 by a drunk driver in 2002. The one I still miss. The only female of my generation in my small family. Older than me, she knew my mother’s family history better than me. Older than me, she offered a window on what being a 20-something woman might be like while I was a sheltered teen in suburbia. I love her and miss her and hold sacred the ties to the others in my small family. She was and is my sister.

When I met my husband, I was fascinated with his siblings and his relationship with them. Like all of ours, his was a dysfunctional family. When his parents divorced, the three siblings relied on each other in a way I have rarely seen. Somewhat poor, somewhat neglected, they had each other. They regale us with their stories of shared adventures, a robbery, a fire (save the bike!), a wayward dog, going to bars for all-you-can-eat, living on one baked potato for a week because they were out of money. (Surely, that is an exaggeration!) The first time I met his brother, I was nervous and wondering if I would recognize him. Of course the second I got off the airplane I realized that the man at the end of the gangway who was the DNA twin of my husband was him. What must it be like to have someone out there who looks like you? They and their dear spouses welcomed me as a sister, which my reserved and lonely only child persona craved. When their parents died, we all gathered to sift through the memories and the artifacts, sharing laughter and tears. It didn’t really matter who got what because there was such closeness between the families. His brother and sister have become my brother and sister. His extended family, my extended family. A tribe with shared memories who would do anything for each other. Who would do anything for each other’s children. Because it is the next generation that consumes us now.

When we married, I knew deep in my soul that I would not have only one child. Two. I had to have two. I imagined that I would have two girls. Two sisters. That seemed the ideal relationship. Two girls to support each other, grow up together, share secrets together. It was the relationship I felt was lacking in my life. So, when the ultrasound indicated that our second child was a boy, I gasped. An alien! I had an alien growing in me! What was I going to do with a boy? What was my daughter going to do with a brother?   From the day he was born, he adored her. “Bia! Bia! Bia!” he cried out for her with excitement. We have picture after picture of him looking up at her with love and awe. She, on the other hand, like a normal big sister, tolerates him and his little brother-ness with a mixture of loving watchfulness, nurturance, and a touch of condescending superiority. There was a time, like around a few years ago until about now, where they barely acknowledged each other. I wonder if and when this will change. I pray it does. My niece and nephew are close, but that closeness seems born out of the shared, sad loss of their father. I guess that is what it takes. Shared history. Shared memories. Shared triumphs, but also shared losses. And that takes time and maturity. It will come. When I determined to have more than one child, it was so that neither would be alone. After we are gone. Perhaps that is naïve and impossible, a mother’s desperate hope that her children will be happier than she. After all, we are all alone and on our own path. We all suffer. But surely, having a sibling, either through “real” family or by creating one, helps. I love the brothers and sisters in my life.

Every 3 Hours, A Drunk-Driving Crash Claims the Life of Someone Who Was Not Driving Drunk

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Elizabeth, My Surrogate Sister

It is the anniversary of my cousin Elizabeth’s death.  She was killed by a drunk and stoned driver in 2002 on Labor Day weekend.  A tragedy that stunned me profoundly.  I think of her regularly, and always on Labor Day, and wonder what might have been had she lived.   What more might we have shared?

She was eight years older than me and did not live geographically near me.  It was not until we were both adults that we became close.  I was an only child, so she was the closest I got to having a sister.  How I wanted a sister!  How I still want a sister!  A sibling is not only a built-in playmate and confidante, they share your family history.   How amazing it would be to have someone to share the burden of aging parents and mid-life questioning.  Did that really happen or am I crazy?   Cousins are also uniquely special.  They share your broader family history, while offering you a chance to experience your family through an expanded lens of memories and perspectives.  A different connection can emerge.

One of my first memories of her as her own person was when she visited us one summer.  She must have been 16 or 17 and I would have been 8 or 9.  She slept late.  That is my main memory.  I wanted a sister and companion!  I didn’t understand the teen clock.  My parents wouldn’t let me wake her up early.  Elizabeth was always a night owl, while I was always a morning person.  My parents threw a party (a rare occurrence) during her visit to introduce her to some people her age.  I remember being jealous that my favorite baby-sitter and she hit it off.  I desperately wanted to be older and didn’t understand why they didn’t want me tagging along.

My parents and I visited Elizabeth in 1980 when I was 17 and she was 25 and living at Twin Oaks, an intentional community.   I always admired her idealism and her desire to live according to her values.  This visit made a big impression on me.  I had very little exposure to other ways of living other than how my small family lived with its controlled and orderly routines.  A community of people and families who lived with limited privacy, ate communally and shared resources was eye-opening and mind-boggling to me.

As adults, we cemented our bond during our times together at family weddings and funerals, sharing confidences that we shared with perhaps no one else.  Her sister-in-law’s too-young death from breast cancer.  Her wedding.  My wedding.  Her niece’s wedding.   My family was so small that I felt compelled to value my relationship with Elizabeth at any cost.  She was extroverted and social, idealistic and spontaneous – quite a counterpoint to my shy and careful reserve.  I adored her.  As any little sister would.

One of our most obvious differences was in our weight and our approach to food.  She was sometimes quite heavy, especially when younger, struggling with overeating and what she considered to be an addiction to sugar.  I was sometimes quite thin, struggling with over-exercising and an overly controlled rules-driven approach to eating.  Our dialog about weight and eating was one of the first truly intimate and honest exchanges about the psychology of eating that I had with anyone.  I came to see our struggles as the flip sides of the same coin.  Heavy or thin, we are all connected in our challenge to balance a healthy enjoyment of eating and a confident sense of self and body image.

She found the perfect career for her personality as a nurse-midwife on the Texas-Mexico border.  Her intelligence and her nurturing empathy endeared her to all.  At her funeral, the church was overflowing with people.  Hundreds of people, from near and far, shocked by her senseless loss, wept and mourned this wonderful woman with so much zest for life.  I learned how to be a friendlier and braver person from her.

Elizabeth left a 10-year-old daughter who will be 21 this month.  She is beautiful, with her own (but similar) personality.  Curious about people and the world, gentle and determined, intelligent and adventurous.  When Elizabeth was killed, I vowed to stay part of her daughter’s life.  Aside from sporadic but heart-felt support of MADD, it was the best way I knew to deal with my shock and my grief.  While our connection ebbs and flows, through emails and occasional visits, our attachment is genuine.  I still cannot fathom why Elizabeth was killed.  I can only hope and trust that my relationship with her daughter will stay strong and serve a purpose.  I can see the essence of Elizabeth shining in her daughter as she grows into her own distinct self builds her life.   Elizabeth would be so proud.

Don’t drink and drive.

Source:  NHTSA 

What Did You Learn From Your Father?

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I Wonder

I hope that my children will like me and my husband, their father, and that they will want to spend time with us when they are grown and we are old.

For me, I choose to spend as little time as possible with my father.  The only way I could become my grown-up self was to leave home.  Whatever love I felt for him could not coexist with the suppressed rage I felt at the life-long expectation that I be obedient.  “Children should be seen and not heard,” was his not-so-joking mantra.  I rarely visit.  I feel guilty that I don’t visit; that I don’t want to visit.  My father’s grip on me is subtle but pervasive and insistent.  I silently stay away, unable to fight his hold, unless I stay away.

For Father’s Day, as we honor our fathers and fatherhood, I am sensitive to the poignant images of loving fathers.  I wonder how many of us long for a relationship with our father that we didn’t have?  I wonder if I can allow my anger and disappointment to recede for the day so that I can acknowledge what my father has given me?  I wonder what his father did to him?

Like me, my father was an only child.  He describes his early childhood as being unsettled.  While his father opted to continue his education because he couldn’t find work, my father and his mother lived with her parents.  He was very close to his mother and describes her as adventurous and very smart and well-educated.  His father was absent, preoccupied, and didn’t really understand my father.  Like me, my father was a sensitive and introspective child.  He discovered the violin around the age of 12 or so and poured all his energy into learning to play.  When his father invited him to spend the summer in New York with him while he had a short-term job there, my father refused.  He wanted to stay home and practice the violin all summer.  What young teen refuses their father and what father accepts such a refusal?  Didn’t the family function as a family or was it a collection of individuals?  At a young age, my father prioritized his own pursuits over family and friends.

Music formed the backdrop of my childhood.  As a young child, I fell asleep to the sound of my father practicing his violin.  On Saturday nights, he played string quartets with a loyal foursome who formed my father’s primary social circle.  My mother and I would watch tv (The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Carol Burnett Show).  When they were done playing, they would have coffee and dessert.  When I was older, I was allowed to join.

I started playing piano when I was about 5.  Endless years of practicing, lessons, and recitals.  It’s amazing I wasn’t a better piano player.  I would complain about practicing, but my father insisted.  When I looked to him for approval after working on a piece, he would say in his undemonstrative way, “Hmmm, it was good,” which seemed the ultimate put-down.  Of course, there was the recital where I forgot the notes, so my teacher brought me the music and I had to start over.  Beyond mortifying.  I found out much later that the reason my father did not become a professional violinist was that he had severe stage-fright.

Around 7, he introduced the violin to me.  What a mistake.  Screechy and my father’s instrument.  I quit.  Then there was the year when I played the flute, around 9.  When my father revealed that violinists don’t like flautists because they compete for the same melodic line, I quit.  Later, around 11, he persuaded me to try the cello.  He explained that I didn’t have to be as much of a virtuoso to get an opportunity to play.  Somewhat of a backhanded rationale, but I complied, as usual.  More practicing, more lessons, more recitals and competitions.  It’s amazing I wasn’t a better cellist.  My mother says I was a very good cello player, that I got a deep and robust sound out of the cello that spoke to her.  My father hangs on to my cello asking periodically if I wouldn’t like to take it back to my grown up home.  Maybe next time.

When my husband and son took up the guitar two years ago, I contemplated joining them, gently strumming the guitar, picking at the notes and paging through the instruction book.  I enjoyed their lessons and usually beat everyone at “Name That Tune.”  No.  I didn’t want to practice an instrument any more.

The only time I saw my father cry (when I was a child) was when he was watching a violinist perform.  “Daddy, why are you crying?”  I exclaimed in confusion and alarm.  I don’t remember that he answered.  My mother explained that he was moved by how beautiful the music was.

I too am moved by music.  (Thank you Dad.)  The sound of a violin or a string quartet brings back the entire aura of my childhood.  But the music that moves me is music that I associate with dance, for that was my world, and not his.  Or pop music from the 70’s.  Other teens rebel by breaking rules and having fights that allow them to bond with their peers.  I rebelled by replacing music lessons with ballet lessons and by replacing classical music with Fleetwood Mac and Aerosmith.  It was the closest I could get to breaking the rules of our family, without leaving home, until I did leave home.

I wonder if his father had been able to be more present, more emotional, more tuned in to him if my father would have been less self-absorbed and more able to allow for differences and dischord to coexist with love within the family.  I wonder if something darker happened to my father to cause him to retreat into his own world, unable to express or share love in a mature way.  How much of my tendency to retreat, to go to a place of depression and anxiety is a habit learned from him and how much is cellular, genetic?  How much of the anxiety gene did I pass on to my children?  They say trauma, and how one reacts to stress, is passed on through the genes.

Now I see an aging man who is frightened of the end of life.  Exhausted at the amount of energy required to take care of his and my mother’s survival.  Unapologetic.  Needing me most just as I am most determined to assert my grown up self and establish severely distinct boundaries.  I wonder if I can allow my anger and disappointment to recede so that I can acknowledge what my father has given me?  I wonder if anger and love can coexist?  He did not show me how they could, being perhaps more conflict-avoidant than me, but it seems important to reconcile these emotions honestly so that I can model a better way of being for my children and theirs.  After all, they will need to leave home and become their grown up selves.  I hope they will want to visit.

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