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?

Random Photos: Going Home Again . . . A Vacation Remembered

My husband and I didn’t take too many summer vacations at my parents’ home when our kids were growing up. We saved our visits for every third Christmas. In addition, my parents visited us once or twice a year in Kansas City, and we sent our kids out to Washington State without us as soon as the airlines would let them fly by themselves.

But I recently pulled out a random envelope of snapshots my father had taken of one summer vacation we did take in Washington State at my parents’ house.

Kids swimming, one with water wings, and the other with attitude

I can’t recall exactly which summer it was. The pictures were taken at the large house my parents had in the Meadow Springs development of Richland, Washington. They owned this home between the summer of 1986 and about 1991. I know this wasn’t our first visit there—we’d visited them at this house over Christmas 1986. My daughter looks to be about three or four in the pictures, with my son about six or seven, so I’m guessing it was the summer of 1988 or 1989, but it could have been 1990.

Nanny Winnie supervising my daughter

The house had a swimming pool, which our kids loved. My daughter couldn’t swim yet, so had to wear water wings. My son could swim, and most likely lorded his wing-less state over his little sister. My mother’s mother, Nanny Winnie, visited that week also, and she loved to swim. She was always happy to supervise afternoons at the pool.

Mitzi doesn’t know whether to bark at my son or the pool skimmer

My parents had a Schnauzer named Mitzi. Mitzi wanted to be a part of the pool parties, particularly when the pool skimmer was operating. The dog could swim, but she couldn’t get herself out of the pool. Later, my younger brother taught Mitzi to paddle to the stairs so she could climb out, but at the time of our visit, she had not yet learned this escape route. One time during our visit that week, I had to dive in after her and pull her to safety. She didn’t seem too grateful, and scrabbled and scratched to get out of my helpful arms.

Husband and son canoeing on the Wenatchee River

On the weekend we were there, when my father wasn’t working, my husband, son, father and I went canoeing on the Wenatchee River. We drove through the lovely mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, rented canoes from an outfitter, and put in on the river somewhere near Lake Wenatchee. Then we floated downstream through the alpine Wenatchee National Forest for a couple of hours. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, then took out where the outfitter had designated and awaited our pick up.

Lunch on the gravel bar

We had two canoes—my husband and son paddled one, and my father and I had the other. This was the first canoe trip I’d been on where I wasn’t in the same boat as my husband. I was used to relying on his skills to get us through any whitewater, but we decided our son needed a strong paddler more than I did. Our son was young enough that his paddling was more for show than power. (As was mine, though I at least had an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing.)

Me with wet shoes, and son

My father was definitely not as competent at paddling as my husband. Still, he and I didn’t have much difficulty until we reached the take-out point. There, even with both Dad and me paddling as hard as we could, we almost didn’t reach shore. I finally had to step out of the boat to pull us out of the current just as we passed the gravel river access road where we were supposed to meet our ride. Dad may have gotten wet also—there is photographic evidence of my wet shoes, but he was taking the pictures, so there’s nothing to verify his actions.

I was happy to find these pictures and to remember that summer vacation back in my birthplace—Washington State, and Richland in particular. In recent years, I’ve only been to Richland for my parents’ funerals in 2014 and 2015. There’s no one left to bury in Richland, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever go home again.

What do you remember of visits to your hometown?

On Pillboxes and Parents

One of the things I found as I went through my parents’ memorabilia recently was a little white pillbox made of stone. I had a matching blue pillbox already on my dresser.

It wasn’t until I saw the white one that I remembered—my mother gave me the blue version many years ago. It has sat on my dresser ever since, ready to fill with pins or buttons or whatever other tiny items I needed to stash out of sight. At one point, my little pillbox contained one of my children’s baby teeth, but I don’t remember which kid or which tooth. Presumably, I got the tooth after the Tooth Fairy did.

Mother’s white pillbox, after I dissolved the pill

When I opened my mother’s white pillbox a few days ago I was surprised to see that it contained . . . a pill! I don’t know what kind of pill, but it was a white pill and it was stuck to the bottom.

During her last couple of years at home, after Mother was diagnosed with dementia, she resisted taking her pills. She took a lot of medications for a variety of physical and cognitive problems. Every morning my father put her morning doses at her place at the table beside her breakfast. And then she started a little dialogue.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Your pills,” my dad said, or if I was visiting, I’d pick up the routine.

“Do I have to take them?”

“Yes.”

“Which should I take first?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why do I have to take them?”

“Because the doctor said.” We found that was a much easier answer than explaining what each pill was for.

“Should I take the big one first?”

“That sounds fine.”

“Now why do I have to take these pills?”

The conversation would go on for several rounds, but ultimately, after much coaxing, she took her pills. Usually, she began with the two big fish oil pills, which she swallowed together.

At least, most days she ultimately took her pills. Occasionally, we would discover a pill she had secreted in a drawer somewhere. Or perhaps in a little white pillbox.

By the time she moved to the assisted living unit, Mother was more compliant about taking her pills. She took whatever the nurse gave her. And she was taking fewer pills by that time. It didn’t seem worth having her take the huge fish oil pills to help her high cholesterol, nor several other medications for minor ailments.

Later yet, during the last few months she was alive, she had trouble swallowing. She could only take her pills if they were mashed up in applesauce. By then, she was down to taking a blood thinner and a couple of other medications deemed essential.

Then Mother died, and my father died six months later. After his death, I went through my parents’ bathroom to clean out the cabinets and cupboards. Between the two of them, they had amassed quite a collection of prescription and over-the-counter medications. I consulted my physician brother, and we decided which OTC pills he or I could use and which should be discarded. I spent an evening flushing pills down the sink.

I inherited Mother’s tendency toward high cholesterol and triglycerides, so I brought home from that trip in early 2015 four big bottles of fish oil pills. Their expiration dates ranged between 2015 and May 2017. I had just bought two large bottles myself, so once I was home, I had enough to open my own drug store. I lined them up in order of expiration date and took them daily, as prescribed.

Two and a half years later, I am just now finishing the last bottle of my mother’s fish oil pills, the ones with the May 2017 expiration date (I’m sure taking them a month or two past that date won’t kill me). Every time I open the bottle, I think of my parents.

Two pillboxes, side by side

And when I found my mother’s little white pillbox, all these thoughts of parents and pills roamed through my head yet again.

I dissolved the pill that was in her pillbox and placed the little container on my dresser next to the blue one she gave me. They look sweet together.

What little objects do you have that bring odd memories to mind?

Working Across Time and Across Generations

My husband and I recently were fortunate to have visits from our two adult children. Our son came for a few days at the end of April, and our daughter was here over Mother’s Day.

My parents and me on one of my solo visits

I remember my mother telling me one time how nice it was to have her children visit by themselves, without their siblings and without their spouses and children. She said she enjoyed being able to talk with each child by himself or herself. And now that my children are grown, I have the same feeling. It is nice to have a crowd around sometimes—over the holidays, in particular—but the one-on-one time is also special.

On these recent visits, it occurred to me how different my life is now than my children’s. And how different their lives are than my life was when I was their age (in my thirties). Each of them spent most of the weekdays they were here on their laptops working. My daughter has billable hour requirements she has to meet, and my son wanted to minimize the vacation days he had to take. Even when they are in their home cities, my children spend some days working from their homes (my son regularly, and my daughter occasionally), so their time in my house probably didn’t seem unusual to them.

In my thirties, I, too, was focused on my career, even though I had kids at that age and they do not. But it was easier in the 1980s and ’90s to separate work and family time. When I was at work, I worked. I didn’t have social media accounts to check, and I had almost no personal email in those days. When I was at home, I dealt with family and household issues. My thoughts might have sometimes been on what I needed to do at the office, but I didn’t have Internet connections and 24/7 smartphone access tethering me to the job. On vacations, I only checked voice mail occasionally.

I could get away from work, at least for a few days. My children do not have that luxury. They have separate work and home laptops, but they have access to everything everywhere.

And my time now? I no longer work solidly from 8:00am to 6:00pm on weekdays, plus several hours on the weekends. My time is flexible, and that flexibility is the primary reason I retired. But I still consider myself to be working. I work as a writer and blogger. I serve on committees for charitable organizations. I take on occasional paid mediation cases. But for the most part, my time is my own to schedule. When I am too busy, I have only myself to blame.

Moreover, I set annual objectives for myself—how much I will write, what marketing I will do, and what volunteer commitments I will make. I also set objectives for family activities. I mark my progress toward all my objectives twice a month, with a formal review about quarterly.

For example, I try to work on writing about 30 hours a week. But that time seems to dissipate in meetings and webinars and blog posts, instead of getting applied toward my novel. In the past two months, I added about 35,000 words to the novel. Not bad, but I wanted to be finished with this first draft by now, and I still have about 10,000 words to go. I will not meet my objective on my novel this quarter.

The result of all this monitoring is that I’m getting far more performance management than I ever got while employed. Even if now I’m managing myself.

I wrote in a recent journal entry, “Retirement life is harder than I thought.” I have to work to retain the flexibility I want while still feeling that I am productive and growing. “How do I find a sense of balance?” I wrote to myself. “Is it elusive in every life and at every stage of life?”

I suppose the answer to each part of this question is yes.

Still, I am glad I do not have a full-time job anymore. Flexibility in work—as in all things—is a benefit. Whether balance comes with it or not.

How has your life changed over the years?

 

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?

On Strings and Things

I’ve written before about what a picky eater I was. Cooked carrots were my worst nemesis, but I also hated all foods with strings. You’d be surprised how many foods have strings.

Bananas, for one. Kids are supposed to like bananas, and I did like the taste. But before a banana was placed on my plate, I insisted that it be peeled and all of the stringy fibers removed. I preferred them sliced, so any remaining strings were only a quarter inch long.

Corn on the cob, of course, has lots of strings. Seeing corn silks on my plate could make me retch. We usually had canned corn, which I ate no problem, though sometimes an errant string found its way into the can. I made my mother pick the strings off any fresh corn carefully before she cooked it. Even then, I usually did my own second combing to pick off the silks before I would butter the corn. And today, when I’m in charge of cooking corn on the cob, I am still as careful as I wanted my mother to be, though my tolerance has improved a little bit.

Then there are sweet potatoes, a very fibrous food. Mealy, milky mashed potatoes are much better than those orange tubers.

And string beans—they’re even called string beans. Like with corn, the canned ones were acceptable, but when fresh green beans are snapped into bite-size pieces, sometimes the string doesn’t snap cleanly and remains clinging off of one piece. Not going to eat it.

The list goes on.

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Me, wearing one of the jackets I chewed, 1959

My mother never really understood my abhorrence of strings. “Why can’t you eat the fibers, Theresa?” she asked. “You’re always chewing the strings on your jacket.”

And I did.

As a child, the winter coats I played in usually had hoods. The hoods had strings to tie under the chin. The strings frequently came undone and hung down my chest. I put the ties in my mouth and chewed the ends. I chewed them until they were frayed and disgusting. The taste improved the more I chewed.

Why were those strings different than food fibers?

Because I was a kid. I have no better answer.

Other strings didn’t bother me either. For most of my childhood, my parents had one of those white cotton bedspreads with the pulled loops that created a pretty design on the top of the bed. The loops fascinated me.

When I was three years old, I took my naps on my parents’ bed, while my brother slept in his crib. He and I shared a bedroom, and if we were both in our room, neither of us slept during nap time. I was growing out of naps, and many afternoons I couldn’t sleep. I got bored lying on my parents’ bed, and sometimes I pulled the loops on the bedspread. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but they were so tempting.

One weekend afternoon, I pulled a very long loop out of the pattern on the spread, and then another, and another. When nap time was over, my mother came into the room, took one look, and asked if I had pulled the loops.

I shook my head. “No.”

She asked again. Again I lied. I didn’t want to get into trouble.

My father was home, and she sent him into the bedroom. “Your mother says you pulled the loops on the bedspread.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “It’s naughty to pull those loops because it wrecks the bedspread. But it’s worse because you lied about it. You have to tell the truth. Because you lied, I’m going to spank you.”

And he did.

My dad was in graduate school at the time, and my parents had to live with that bedspread for several years. My mother tried to repair it, but they couldn’t spend their scarce money on a new one. And every time I looked at the damaged spread, I remembered the lie. And the spanking.

I won’t say I never lied to my parents again, but I didn’t do it often. And not about matters where I could be so easily caught.

When did you get in trouble as a kid?

The Second Anniversary of Loss

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of my father’s death, which happened just six months after my mother’s death. I find myself in a much better place than I was on the first anniversary. I wrote a year ago today that I was melancholic—past the immediacy of loss, but still mourning. Now, a year further into being an adult orphan, the reminders of loss are far less frequent, and when they hit, the pain is less intense.

I survived another Christmas without my parents. I thought of them often through the holidays, but not with the same level of “I’ll never see them again” grief that I had in the first year. My parents came to mind when I called my sister and brother—I used to call my parents on major holidays (not my siblings), unless my parents called me first. But I didn’t feel loss this year over memories of particular Christmases past that will never be repeated.

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My parents’ empty house

I recently looked through some photos of my parents’ last home while searching for a picture to use on another blog post. I felt a few pangs at seeing these photos. Some pictures were taken when the house was still furnished with all their belongings—now mostly sold or given to charity. Other pictures showed the empty rooms taken after the estate sale while the house was on the market. These later pictures remind me their lives have vanished, except in memory. All their earthly detritus is gone, except for a few mementos my siblings and I kept.

And I can accept the passing of their earthly presence. Most days. The waters have smoothed over my emotions, and the current once more runs far beneath the surface.

Still, every once in awhile something triggers my tears. The sight of one of my mother’s Hummel figurines. A Christmas ornament I gave my parents that I now put on my own tree. “Ave Maria,” a song my father loved.

These triggers will probably always happen. But the sense of overwhelming loss is gone. It’s a few tears, not a breakdown.

Mostly what I’m left with is two boxes of photographs and two boxes of files from my parents’ estates. I need to sort through both. I’ll have to keep some of the files for a few years. The photographs I’ll keep forever . . . or at least until I digitize them or my husband makes me throw them out.

And the memories. I still have the memories. Those, too, will last forever, even if new memories are added and the intensity of the past slips further beneath the surface.

What losses have you suffered that you find diminishing with time?