The Long-Term Effects of Birth Order

Today is my sister’s birthday. Regular readers of this blog can figure out which one, but this post isn’t really about age. It’s about birth order and growing up and distance and—well, maybe it’s a little bit about age.

My sister is eight and a half years younger than I am. In some ways, we grew up in two different families. There was me—the oldest—and a brother just seventeen months younger than me. Then there was a gap of seven years before my sister came, and three more years before our youngest brother.

We first two children had different early experiences than the younger two. I was born just nine months and ten days after my parents were married, and their second child came along before they’d been married three years. Our father went back to graduate school, first to get a Master’s degree, and then his Ph.D., all of which happened by the time I was in the first grade. While he was in graduate school, Dad held several part-time jobs because he refused to have his wife work. Money was tight, and I knew it as a young kid. We weren’t poor, but the extras we had came from doting grandparents. During my early years, we lived in five different houses, plus had a stint with grandparents. I didn’t live in a long-term home until shortly after I entered second grade.

By the time my sister was born, our father had earned his Ph.D. and had been promoted into managerial positions. My parents bought a nice house in a new part of town. It was a long way from our school and there weren’t any other kids in the neighborhood, so my brother and I played by ourselves. We got a second car so my mother could drive us around during the day.

Then there was this new baby in the family. She was a happy infant but became an opinionated toddler. One of her opinions was that babysitters were evil. The only babysitter she tolerated was me. It became my job to watch her whenever our mother was busy. At ten years old, I didn’t enjoy that responsibility. When my parents went out for the evening, they hired a babysitter, but I did everything my sister needed except change the diapers. (I wasn’t getting paid, after all.)

When I turned eleven, my parents quit hiring a babysitter, and I was in charge. When our brother was born later that year, my parents hired a sitter again for a few months for the newborn, but by the time I was twelve, I was in charge again. (By then I was getting paid 50 cents an hour, and I even changed diapers.)

The eight-and-a-half-year gap between my sister and me was never enough to endow me with authority in her mind. I could sometimes bribe her into doing what I wanted, but I often resorted to bullying. (I was not the Good Big Sister of family myth.) So we didn’t get along well. And we were never close.

The only formal portrait of my birth family; I was 19 here.

Fast forward a number of years. I went to law school and married a law school classmate. Then, the younger two kids in the family had some upheavals during their high-school years, when my parents moved across the state. That was only the second home they’d known, but it may be harder to move during high school than preschool. By that time, I was married, so that move didn’t impact me.

Several years later, my sister also went to law school and married a classmate. Then our lives became more parallel. We both had stressful jobs as attorneys. We both had two kids. We developed a lot in common, but through all this time—and she has now been married 29 years—we only saw each other about once a year, for a day or two during my approximately annual visits to our parents. We rarely spent extended times together.

Still, as long as our parents were alive, we knew what was going on in each other’s lives, because we each heard from our parents what the other was doing. When Mother got ill and Dad became her caregiver, we emailed each other to report how we thought our parents were doing.

After our parents died, I stayed at my sister’s house on several trips to the Seattle area to manage their estates. I probably got to know her as well as I ever did.

Now the estate issues are behind us. There are fewer reasons to stay in touch. My sister still works and has little time for herself, let alone for a distant older sister. My life in Kansas City is busy, and I have obligations here that keep me from frequent trips to see her and my youngest brother.

The three siblings who are left, after our father’s funeral

And yet there are also important reasons to stay in touch. Because there is no one else. That brother right behind me has no contact with the rest of us. My sister and youngest brother are the closest family I have left. Even though they have no memories of my childhood years, they go back in time with me longer than anyone else I know. We are each other’s history.

Perhaps we’ll become closer in the years ahead. We have the example of my father and his sister, who rebuilt their relationship in their seventies. That is my hope. If we’re lucky, it won’t take us until our seventies. (Or, as our youngest brother would gladly point out, when I’m seventy, our sister will be in her sixties, and he’ll still be in his fifties.)

Which family relationships would you like to foster?

Broken Bones: Which Ones Were They?

I’ve written before about the two times I broke my left foot (see here and here). Well, I broke another bone in that same foot many years earlier. During the winter of my 8th-grade year, I broke the fourth toe. The odd thing is that within a year, both of my parents broke that same toe in their left feet also.

I don’t recall how my parents broke their toes, but I vividly remember what happened to mine. I went barreling out of my bedroom into the hall on my way to take a shower. I wanted to watch a TV show, and I barely had time to squeeze in the shower before it started. Unfortunately, my baby brother was toddling along past my bedroom door just as I exited. I tripped over him and slammed my foot into the furnace return grate across the hall.

Ouch!

It swelled and turned black, so the next day one of my parents took me to the doctor. (It was usually my mother who had doctor duty, but as I recall, my father took me this time.) There was no treatment, the doctor said. “We could tape it to the other toes, but that won’t really make any difference.”

So I limped for a few weeks until it healed.

Within months, my parents broke their toes. We laughed about the coincidence—though there wasn’t much laughter until all our bones had healed.

The following year, when I was in the 9th grade, I took a Creative Writing class. One assignment was to write a story in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe—something sinister or scary. I decided to try to make something ominous out of three broken toes in one family—was it merely coincidence or was some evil striking that family?

My story wasn’t very good and has been lost to the trash bin. But I do remember drafting it. I took some literary license with the facts to “improve” the story. Writing repeatedly about the “fourth toe on the left foot” or “the piggy that got none” seemed awkward. So I decided the story should be about three broken “left little toes,” which had more alliteration, even if it didn’t match the facts exactly.

But memory is a tricky thing. Over the years, I often forgot whether my parents and I had all broken our left little toes or our fourth toes. My fictional story confused my reality.

It was only as I grew older and that fourth left toe began to ache that I could re-ground myself in the truth. If I walk too long in uncomfortable shoes, or if the weather is damp for days on end, I remember—it is my fourth toe that hurts. This past month has been rainy and dreary in Kansas City, and I have had it drummed into me that I broke my fourth left toe. The piggy that got none gets even these days.

What pains do you have now that make you remember earlier events in your life?

Infrastructure, circa 1962

Troutdale - Dodson 1957 Columbia River HwyThere’s been a lot in the news in recent years about infrastructure. Which projects are “shovel ready”? Which will create more jobs? How do we bring our aging roads and bridges into the twenty-first century?

When I hear about infrastructure, I think of the development of the interstate highway system in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I was a child living in the Pacific Northwest in those years, and my family traveled regularly between our home in Eastern Washington and the larger cities of Seattle and Portland. The old highway to Seattle meandered through the Cascade Mountains, and the Portland route took us through the Columbia River Gorge. Both routes were under construction for my entire childhood, it seemed, as I-80 to Seattle and I-84 to Portland replaced the older roads.

My earliest memories of these trips are of the two-lane highways that crept through one small town after another. We only stopped in those towns if the car needed gas. My father’s philosophy was that our bladders needed to be as big as the gas tank. We left home before dawn and arrived at our destination by early afternoon—no need to pay for a meal on the road.

The routes to both Seattle and Portland were scenic, though those pre-interstate roads included some hazards. The mountain highway twisted and turned as it climbed to the passes, with huge drop-offs next to flimsy guardrails. Every so often, a guardrail would be missing, and I would wonder what had happened. Rushing mountain streams ran at the bottom of those drop-offs. We might see patchy snow any month of the year, but in the winter when the roads were covered with snow and ice, we had to stop at a turn-off near the pass so my father could put chains on the tires.

The river route couldn’t deviate far from the Columbia because of high bluffs rising near the banks, but this road offered views of dams and tunnels and waterfalls. My brother and I used to count the waterfalls—in spring there were well over thirty cataracts spewing over the high cliffs down toward the road. Some were mere trickles, but some were real gushers. We agreed not to count the spots where the cliffs were simply wet and no water flowed.

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Between Ellensburg and Cle Elum in Washington. Postcard from the 1940s, but not much changed by  1960.

When the interstate construction began, the length of our trips doubled. Every few miles, we stopped in interminably long lines of cars. Our family sedan was not air-conditioned, and in the summer we baked in the heat, with dust from the jackhammers wafting into the vehicle through open windows. My brother and I sat in the back, bored and cranky. I tried not to fight with him, but what was I supposed to do when he encroached on my half of the bench seat? I couldn’t read in the car without getting nauseated, but during those tedious waits, I pulled out my book. Then we would start up again, and I’d have to put it away.

When we finally reached the head of the line and passed the construction worker with the flag, my father gave a jaunty salute, and the man in the hard hat nodded.

Only as I neared my teens was the interstate completed, and the trip became easier. The scenery was still lovely—we still counted waterfalls and held our breath through tunnels. And we still had to put on chains in the winter. But no more long lines of cars.

Now, fifty years later, so many of our roads need repairs. I live in Missouri now, and the state of I-70 is a frequent topic of conversation. I agree we need another infrastructure push, but I don’t look forward to the jackhammers and delays.

What do you remember about childhood road trips?

My Earliest Thanksgiving Memories

I’ve written before (see here and here) about how glad I am that my children spent so much time with their cousins growing up, because I didn’t have that experience as a kid. But I do remember one Thanksgiving my family spent with my cousins. It’s the earliest Thanksgiving I remember—1958, when I was two-and-a-half years old.

My paternal grandparents lived in Seattle at the time, and Daddy, Mommy, my year-old brother, and I went to visit them. We stayed at their house for a few days over the Thanksgiving holiday.

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My younger brother and me, Christmas 1958, just a few weeks after this Thanksgiving story

My father’s sister and her family lived in the Seattle area also. My aunt had three children at the time—two girls who were four and two, and a baby boy who wasn’t even a year old yet. Although my brother had celebrated his first birthday and was walking, I thought he was almost as much a baby as my boy cousin.

I have two vivid memories of that Thanksgiving holiday. Both took place in the bathroom.

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Santa brought me my own ironing board that Christmas

My brother, who had only started walking a couple of months earlier, had burned his hand a week or so before Thanksgiving. While he was toddling around our house, he pulled Mommy’s iron off the ironing board. It hit his palm on the way to the floor. It may have burned him elsewhere, but the hand was his worst injury.

I was with him when it happened. I was petrified when he started screaming. Mommy was not there—she’d gone to answer the telephone, leaving the iron on the board. (Bad Mommy, but these things happen.)

What was I supposed to do? Mommy had told me not to bother her when she was on the phone. But my baby brother was sobbing. I sat there, worrying about whether to go get her. Thankfully, Mommy came running right away, so my dilemma was quickly resolved.

On Thanksgiving, my brother’s hand was still bandaged. He wasn’t supposed to get it wet. He was in the bathtub before the holiday dinner. My two girl cousins and I were all in the bathroom watching. The cousins were asking questions—“Why is his hand all wrapped up?” “Why can’t he get it wet?” “When will it be better?” And on and on.

Mommy patiently answered their questions, and soon his bath was over. We all dressed in our finery for the Thanksgiving dinner. I had a pretty party dress to wear, and everyone said I looked beautiful. They probably told my girl cousins the same thing, but I don’t remember that.

Later in the afternoon, I had to use the potty. I was well along in potty training at two-and-a-half. I knew what to do and when to do it. But I used a potty chair at home. There was a potty chair in the bathroom at my grandparents’ home, but I wanted no part of it that day.

My four-year-old cousin didn’t use a potty chair, and I wasn’t going to either. I wanted to use the real toilet. I wanted to be grown-up like her.

So what if my two-year-old cousin still used the potty chair? She was littler than me. By two whole months. I was certain I could do what the four-year-old did.

So I tried. And promptly fell in. And got my pretty party dress all wet.

All the grown-ups laughed at me. I had to change into another dress, and was humiliated for the rest of the day.

Most of the people present that day have died. The cousins are still around, but I hope they have long forgotten my embarrassment.

Happy Thanksgiving to readers everywhere! Be grateful for family.

Little Brother as Mother’s Escort

My husband and I will celebrate our thirty-ninth wedding anniversary soon. We were married just days after my youngest brother turned ten. His role during our wedding was to escort my mother into the church. He wore a tuxedo and looked so cute, as little boys usually do when they wash up, comb their hair, and dress nicely.

Here is one of my favorite pictures from our wedding day, of my mother and my brother walking up the side aisle to their seats. It’s not the best picture of my mother, but I love how solemnly my brother took his responsibility.

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My brother escorting our mother on my wedding day

This ten-year-old grew up to be a pediatrician. Our mother always said that it was because he liked the doctors he went to when he was about this ten-year-old size. They took the time to talk with him and he decided he wanted to be like them.

He’s also a great husband and dad now, and he’s always been a great brother. (And he’s been taller than our mother—and me—since he was about twelve.)

Happy Birthday, little brother!

Memories: A Creative Blend of Fact and Fiction

Many of the posts on this blog are about my memories. My theme, after all, is “one writer’s journey through life and time.” And what is our journey, if not a collection of memories?

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “The Value of a Flawed Memory,” by Sue Shellenberger. The thrust of the article was that even inaccurate memories help shape who we are.

Ms. Shellenberger writes:

“A growing number of researchers say memories are not just a storehouse for facts but also a creative blend of fact and fiction that helps people tell meaningful stories about their lives, set goals and envision the future in a realistic way.

“It is commonly believed that storing a memory is like making a video, but long-term memories are never literal replays. They’re mental constructions of facts, inferences and imagined details that people patch together after the fact.”

A creative blend of fact and fiction. A mental construct patched together of facts, inferences, and imagined details. It sounds so amorphous. Yet this is who we are—this weaving of what really happened, what we think happened, and perhaps even what we wish had happened.

As a lawyer, I saw many examples where two credible witnesses swore that opposite events had occurred—the light was red, no it was green. I have experienced this in my own memories as well, where one family member recalls something one way, and another recalls it completely in reverse.

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Me at 17 months, and my newborn brother

I have memories that probably are not really memories. For example, my younger brother was born when I was just seventeen months old. It’s doubtful I have any real memory of when he was born. Yet I can feel myself sitting in the chair with him when he was just days old—the shiny chintz of the fabric cover, the soft flannel of his pale blue blanket. And I hear my grandmother telling me what a good big sister I am.

Could this be real? Or did I construct it later from the picture and from the constant retellings of the story by my parents and grandparents?

Does it matter? The Shellenberger article is quite clear—it doesn’t matter. Whether our memories are accurate or inaccurate, real or imagined, psychologists say they shape us. They form our self-identity. They help us set our goals in life. They create cohesion in our lives and help us make sense of the world around us.

So whether I remember my brother’s birth or not, the story became that I was a good big sister.

I write novels (fiction) and memoir (non-fiction). But I keep my novels historically accurate and I embellish my memories in this blog to tell a story. As I wrote in one early post, the French use the same word “histoire” for both fiction and history. Similarly, “mémoire” in French can mean memory or report.

The line between fact and fiction is blurry. Sometimes the blurring just happens. Sometimes we blur it on purpose.

When have your memories turned out to be false? Does it matter?

Flags and Foreboding

US flag toyFor the Fourth of July when I was seven, someone gave my brother (who was almost six) and me U.S. flags—one for each of us. Each flag was about 12 inches by 18 inches, and it was stapled to a thin dowel about two feet long. The dowel had a pointed tip at the top above the flag, and the tip was painted gold.

My brother and I waved those flags around the house, marching as we waved like we were in a parade, to the consternation of our mother. We had moved into a new house the preceding October, and many things in the house still seemed brand new.

“Keep those things out of the living room,” Mother said. “I don’t want you knocking over a lamp.” She had a firm rule against any roughhousing in the living room.

So we moved our game to my bedroom, which was bigger than my brother’s room and had more floor space. I had new twin beds in the room, with new blue and white checked bedspreads that fell in ruffles from the top of the mattress to the floor. And matching custom-made curtains on the two windows. It was the first room I’d ever had to myself (well, the first since my brother was born, and I didn’t remember a time before he was around). He and I had shared a bedroom until we moved into this house.

We waved the flags and marched around my room until that got boring. Then the flags became spears. I don’t know whose idea the spears were, probably my brother’s, because he was more bellicose than I was.

We didn’t poke each other with the flag-spears, which is an amazing thing, given that we got into regular physical fights as kids. Those fights lasted until he got to be as big as me, when I rationally decided that punching and kicking didn’t make any sense if I couldn’t count on winning. But on this day in July, after a few half-hearted jabs at each other, we realized someone might get hurt by the pointed tips.

So we jabbed the bed, starting with the bed I slept in.

And my new bedspread tore. The tip went right through the cotton into side of the soft mattress, creating a rent about two inches long. It was deep in the ruffles and couldn’t be seen at first glance, but I was sure Mother would find it when she changed my sheets.

We stood stunned, flags in hand, staring at the bedspread. “Don’t tell,” I said.

My brother looked at me with wide eyes. “I won’t,” he said.

After a few minutes of chastened silence, we were back to jabbing—at the other bed this time.

And, of course, the same thing happened—the flag tip went through the other bedspread and created an almost identical tear.

“I don’t want to do this any more,” I said.

My brother shrugged, took his flag, and went off to his own room, leaving me with the evidence.

And I waited day after day, week after week, for my mother to find the rips in the bedspreads. Every wash day I cringed, sure that that would be the day she would start shrieking at the destruction we had wrought.

I couldn’t eat out of worry. I picked at meal after meal. I couldn’t even eat my dad’s pancakes.

My parents grew worried. “Eat,” they urged.

“I don’t feel good,” I whined.

Finally, one Sunday morning, I retched at the sight of pancakes, left the breakfast table in tears, and ran into my bedroom.

My dad followed me. “What’s wrong, Theresa?”

And I sobbed as I confessed that my brother and I had torn holes in the bedspreads. I showed him first one rip and then the other. He didn’t seem too bothered.

He called my mother in, and I had to tell the tale all over again. I think she was mostly disgusted that I’d made such a big deal about it. “Well, you’ll have to live with it,” she said. “We aren’t getting new ones.”

I hiccuped and nodded.

“But we can switch the spreads so the tears are against the walls.”

And that’s what she did. Those bedspreads lasted for years—until well after my younger sister, not even born at the time, inherited that bedroom and its furnishings.

When did you overreact to a problem as a child?