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?

Gail Elizabeth Sullivan


Gail on the right and me on the left on our First Communion day

In my last post, I mentioned that I developed some friends during my second grade year, the first school year I spent at Christ the King School in Richland, Washington. One of those friends was Gail Elizabeth Sullivan.

Gail was a bubbly little girl. She was smart (in the A reading group with me). She was not a bad athlete, though she was small (she was the second shortest girl in the class, and I barely topped her at third shortest). She was a cheerful, friendly type, who got along with everyone.

Our last names weren’t close in the alphabet, so we didn’t sit next to each other in class. But when we were lined up by height, as we were for First Communion and other formal class processions, she and I stood next to each other. (The girls, of course, had separate lines from the boys.)

Gail became one of my better friends in the second grade, a good enough friend to make the cut for my 7th birthday party in April 1963. We poked along as friends through the third grade as well. In third grade, the girls became very cliquish, and Gail was one of the few who could defy the chasms between the groups. She got along with everyone.

In the spring of my third grade year, I heard one girl whispering in the girls’ bathroom after recess one day, “Gail isn’t coming to school any more. She has cancer.” The whisper came in that ghoulish tone that kids use when they want to impress their peers with their knowledge of an awful fact.

“She does not,” I said.

It couldn’t be true. Kids didn’t get cancer. I’d never known anyone who had cancer. Gail had been sick a lot that past winter. But lots of kids got colds and bronchitis and such. That’s all Gail had. That’s why she’d been gone so long.

But it was true. Gail had cancer. She missed most of the last couple months of third grade.

And then came summer.

I was absent on the first day of fourth grade, September 8, 1964, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was sick that day, mostly due to nerves over another school year starting.

That was the only day of fourth grade Gail attended. She probably was quite ill, attending class solely for the opportunity to see her friends. And I missed her. Just a few days later, Gail died, on September 17, 1964.

The reason the date of her death sticks in my mind so well is that my sister was born the next day, September 18, 1964. As our family rejoiced, Gail’s family grieved.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD! Job 1:21 (NAB)

I’ve written before about another death I experienced in childhood—that of my infant sister, Susan Elizabeth, who died two days after her birth in 1960. I was too young to understand death then—I was not quite four.

But when Gail Elizabeth Sullivan died, I was eight and a half. I understood, and I mourned the loss of my friend.

I didn’t attend Gail’s funeral a few days later, because our family was preoccupied with a new baby, and my parents didn’t think it appropriate for young children to go to funerals. But every year about this time, I think of Gail. What might she have become? Would we have remained friends? Would she have continued to bridge the divides between our little girl cliques? I think she might have made a difference in the world—at least in my world.

What do you remember as your first experience with death?

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?

On Cats and Cat Pillows

cat pillows 20160519_154022On a chair in my guest room sit two handmade pillows with cats on them. Although I have owned dogs most of my married life, I really consider myself a cat person. But my husband is not. He wants dogs, only dogs.

I embroidered one of the pillows when I was in college. It was the summer that I attended Eastern Washington State College (now Eastern Washington University) in Cheney, Washington. I was there to earn some extra credits so I could graduate from college in three years. The college was mostly a commuter school for Spokane, particularly during the summer session. Few students lived on campus in the summer, only one dorm was open, and food service was limited.

I had four classes in the morning, then was free from noon until bedtime. I could easily complete my class reading and other homework before dinner was served at 4:00pm. I ate, then returned to my room to watch television (I think I got two or three stations on the tiny TV I had borrowed from my parents) and do needlework. I made three pillows during the eight-week summer session. One of them was this cat pillow.

My mother was also a cat person. We had three cats during the time I was growing up—four, if you count the old tabby that my grandparents owned when my mother, brother and I lived with them in the winter of 1957-58, while my dad was in graduate school. The only name this cat ever had was Kitty. She lived from the time my mother was in middle school until I was three or four. So I only knew her as a crabby old cat that hid from me under the sofa.

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Me with Corvallis Kitty

My parents got their first cat when we lived in Corvallis, Oregon. I was in preschool when they acquired this kitten. I don’t know if she had a name—if she did, I don’t remember it. I think I just called her Kitty also. She had a skin problem and had to be fed beef liver regularly. I remember my mother cooking and chopping the slimy red meat for the cat. This cat only lived a year or so before she was killed by a car on a busy street near our house.

About a decade later, we got a Siamese cat that preferred to live outside. We called her Sukiyaki, Suki for short. Suki was my little sister’s pet, though she loved my mother better than anyone else in the family. The rest of us she merely tolerated. Suki would jump into my lap to be petted. She’d purr, but when she was done, she dug her claws into my arms without warning until I put her down. And she clawed the furniture when she wanted outside, which was several times a day.

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My sister with Suki (or maybe it’s Susie)

Suki, too, was hit by a car after a year or so. That happened when I was in high school, at a time when I didn’t want to have much to do with my mother. But my mother and I cried together when we learned what had happened to Suki.

We soon got another Siamese cat to replace Suki. My sister named this cat Susie Q. Susie only liked the indoors. Unfortunately, my sister was diagnosed with cat allergies about this time, and we had to give Susie away not long after we got her.

My father was always allergic to cats also, except for Siamese. (Or was he only allergic to Siamese? My memory on the issue isn’t clear.) My sister’s cat allergy didn’t have any breed limitations.

After Susie Q, my parents switched to from cats to Schnauzers. They got their first Schnauzer shortly after I left for college.

Despite the lack of cats in her life after Susie, my mother continued to love them. When her oldest granddaughter (my daughter) was young, my mother embroidered the other cat pillow I have and gave it to my daughter. This pillow depicts Chessie, the mascot of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. I’ve always thought the Chessie pillow was sweet, and perfect for a little girl’s room.

But like my husband, my daughter is a dog person, and has been since childhood. She didn’t have much use for the Chessie pillow my mother stitched, though I made her keep it on her bed for years. She finally rebelled and stuffed the pillow in her closet. But I wouldn’t let her give the pillow away, because my mother made it.

Now when I pass the guest room and see the chair with the two cat pillows, I think of my mother, of my college days, and of all the cats that have passed through my life.

What reminds you of pets you have had?

Siblings as Targets and as Friends

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My father and his sister, probably not too long after the BB gun days

Both my mother and my father grew up in families consisting of two siblings—an older brother and younger sister. I’ve always wondered if that is part of why they were so compatible, although they each had an uneasy relationship with their sibling for much of their lives. I’ve written before about my mother and her older brother. This post is about my father and his younger sister.

I didn’t know a lot about my father’s childhood, but one family story that I heard frequently was about my father shooting his younger sister with a BB gun. The way I heard the story, she was still in diapers when it happened, though that would make my father (who was just 28 months older) only four or five years old. I cannot imagine giving a four-year-old a gun, even a BB gun. But then, I never lived in the rural Midwest in the late 1930s.

Anyway, as my father later told the story, his sister was sticking her white-covered bottom up in the air, and it was just too tempting a target. So he shot. Bull’s eye.

She cried, but no damage was done, except to her toddler’s pride.

Though if I had been his parent, I would have made sure his bottom hurt more than hers. But their mother, my grandmother, doted on her son, and I don’t think he got punished much as a kid. (Except by his grandparents, who made him toe the line, but those are other stories.)

The family moved from small-town Kansas to Pasadena, California, to Klamath Falls, Oregon. My dad loved the freedom he was allowed in Pasadena. I don’t know if my aunt—younger and a girl—got the same freedom to roam the entire Los Angeles area. My dad was not happy about the move to Klamath Falls. I don’t know what my aunt thought.

Just after my father graduated from high school, his family moved to Seattle, but he only lived at home part-time during his college years. My aunt finished high school in Seattle, got married, and my father and his sister never spent much time together after that. They didn’t have much in common, it seemed, and they went their separate ways in building families.

Their father died in 1975, and their mother in 1990. Still the brother and sister rarely communicated.

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My father and his sister, 2009. I think that’s his hat on her head, so they must have been getting along.

Until sometime after the turn of the century, maybe around the time my parents moved to Port Ludlow, Washington, in 2006. Long after both siblings had raised their children and retired from work, they became reacquainted. They didn’t meet often, but they emailed and phoned. “I’m closer to my sister now than I ever have been,” my father told me at the time.

She had health problems, but her death in January 2013 was sudden and unexpected. And as I have written, he died suddenly almost exactly two years later, in January 2015. But I’ve been glad the two siblings found each other in the last years of their lives.

I wonder if my dad ever apologized for shooting his sister.

What family stories do you know about your parents growing up?

True Confessions: My Sister Peeled Her Peas

My sister in her pea-peeling days

My sister in her pea-peeling days

My sister is now eligible for AARP membership and is an accomplished professional, but I often remember her as a child. She was born when I was eight-and-a-half, and I left home when she turned nine, so our common experiences were limited to those few years.

We were both picky eaters. I’ve written before about my aversion to cooked carrots. My sister’s food nemesis (one of them—she had many) was peas. I could tolerate peas just fine, so I never quite understood the fights she and our mother got into over those tiny green globes.

In fact, I never quite understood how she could fight with our mother. I feared confrontations with Mother above all else. Mother was small, but she could launch into angry diatribes that lasted an hour.

So I sat for an hour after dinner trying to choke down my cooked carrots.

My sister, by contrast, negotiated.

Given a spoonful of peas on her plate—not a very large spoonful, mind you—she would begin: “Do I have to eat them all?”

“Yes,” Mother said. That would have been the end of it for me, if I had managed to get the question out in the first place.

“How about if I eat ten of them?” My sister had no fear.

“All right. Ten.”

“I’m only five. I’ll eat five.”

Big sigh from Mother. “Eat five, then.”

“Can I peel them?”

And Mother agreed to the peeling.

So my sister mashed the peas, leaving skins behind and only eating the soft innards. Of course, half the innards stuck to the skins, so that portion got left behind also.

That’s all she had to eat to get dessert—a half-teaspoon of pea innards. (Well, there was the meat and potatoes also, but neither of us objected to those.)

Obviously, I thought this was unfair. I gagged on my full serving of carrots, while she only had to eat half a teaspoon of peas.

The difference, I think, was that I was the oldest child, and the one my parents practiced on. By the time my sister came along, they were tired. I think she’s the one that wore them out. Or at least wore them down.

This week she celebrates another birthday. We both can look back with amusement on those childhood moments, and perhaps we sometimes wish we were back there again.

It’s been a tough year for my siblings and me because we have lost both our parents. For me, the one good aspect of our loss has been getting to know my younger siblings better as adults. We’ve worked well together as we divided family heirlooms and disposed of the belongings we didn’t want. Our grief has brought us closer, and we can laugh now about the childhood antics and sibling rivalries of the past. At least I can.

What happened in your family that you think was unfair?

Daddy’s Date . . . No, Make that Grandpa’s Date!

The church where my sister was married had a very firm rule that any children who were members of the wedding party had to be at least five. My son, at age six, qualified to be a ring bearer. My daughter, who would turn three just days before the wedding, could not be a flower girl, so the honor went to the groom’s five-year-old sister, who was barely eligible.

My daughter was devastated. I was a bridesmaid, and my son was the ring bearer. What would she be?

We tried to console her by telling her she could be “Daddy’s date” because my husband also had no role in the wedding party. It didn’t work. Even at three, she was intelligent enough to know when she was being patronized.

After many tears and the purchase of a pretty white dress almost as nice as a flower girl’s, we headed across country to the wedding in California. The wedding in an old church in Monterey was lovely. The reception was in a posh resort on the Seventeen Mile Drive. Pictures featured the Pacific Ocean, cypress trees, and rolling green lawns.

My daughter made a fine date for my husband, until he abandoned her at the dinner table. In fact, everyone at our table—including me—abandoned her. She was stuck in her toddler’s booster seat, unable to get down from the table where she sat all alone.

Tears came, until my father noticed her sobbing and rescued her.

My daughter and her grandfather, after he rescued her

My daughter and her grandfather, after he rescued her

I don’t have a picture of my daughter as Daddy’s date. But I do have this picture of her with my father. She stuck close to Grandpa after the rescue. In essence, she became Grandpa’s date, and he was much more attentive to her than my husband had been.

Today, my daughter turns thirty. She can stick up for herself much better now than at age three. At five-foot-nine, she no long needs a booster seat. And she is much more likely to patronize me than the other way around.

What wedding stories can you tell about your family?