As I took the first ornament down off the Christmas tree, our 6-year-old son stuck his head up between my arms, looked at me, and said, “What are you doing?” When I stated the obvious (because, apparently, the four giant tissue paper-filled Rubbermaid containers hadn’t tipped him off), he insisted on a final family photo in front of the rapidly disintegrating Frasier Fir.
I sighed, relented, and made the super popular mom move of yelling for everyone to drop their “it’s the weekend and we’re lounging with electronics and Netflix” activities to come to the living room. He explained what he wanted to his siblings and they begrudgingly plopped onto the needle-covered wood floors. And we took the picture.
I Instagrammed it and uploaded it to Facebook, this snapshot in time where the scowling 11-year-old is the only one looking at the camera, and the baby is playing with an old iPhone, and the 2-year-old has her bottle of milk tipped back sky high, and the 5-year-old is smiling at the 6-year-old who started the whole thing. Brothers and sisters. A cluster of big, distinct personalities whose only connection is that my husband, Brad, and I created and forced them together under a single, relatively tiny roof.
I’ve thought about that photo a hundred times over the last several days. As an only child, the thing I’ve always found most interesting about these kids (and probably one of the reasons we continued to have more of them when three…and then four…were, in the moment, enough) is their relationships with each another. It fascinates me, watching them. I wonder what it must be like, to have people close to your age who live in your house and share your mom and dad and have never known the world, in any significant way, without you.
People who share your story.
For most of my life, I never minded not having siblings. My parents, for all of their flaws as a couple, were, when things were good, active and fun. Growing up, it was the three of us in the car and spending the day running errands and going out to dinner. When I was bored, I’d drag a friend along, but much of the time I was fine with just them. Though I didn’t necessarily realize it in the moment, we had the kind of inside jokes and memories that, as much as I’m capable of understanding, parallel those you have from spending hours on a road trip with your brother or nights across the supper table from your sister. Stuff that only the three of us could recollect and corroborate and debate the details about.
When they divorced after 30 years, that triangle—of which I had, it finally occurred to me, been the base and connecting point for much of their marriage—cracked. Suddenly there were a lot of stories nobody was comfortable telling anymore, things they no longer saw the humor in. Brad had been witness to just enough over a decade to be able to nod and smile and occasionally play my parents’ role in whatever memories randomly popped in my head, making it a little less lonely, but never the same.
Once mom became sick and died a short time later, 1/3 of whatever broken pieces of our family remained were gone for good, and without her recollections, much of the stuff I thought I knew from my childhood started to feel like a dream.
And, so, at age 34, for the first time in my life, I wished I had a sibling, someone to turn to and say, “Hey, remember when…?” and have them laugh and roll their eyes and give a “Yeah, what the hell was that all about?” look in response.
I’m jealous of our five, in that respect. They’ll have each other to turn to. They’ll never forget or question or wonder. They’ll remember the big stuff, of course (the cross-country drive through the steaming desert in June, the basement flooding so often that dad started to twitch every April, the year the Christmas tree fell over and mom blamed the dog) but, more importantly, they’ll remember the everyday stuff.
They’ll remember that dad constantly lost his keys (and his phone…and his wallet) and it drove mom crazy that dad constantly lost his keys (and his phone…and his wallet).
They’ll remember the chaos of shoving seven people in a kitchen made for two.
They’ll remember that there were always gummy bears in the van and strong coffee in the coffee pot and Coke (next to the beer) in the fridge.
They’ll remember every single idiosyncrasy every single one of them had and, God willing, remind them of it until they’re 80.
They’ll always have the good fortune of sharing a lifelong story with people who are a little bit of mom and dad and a little bit of each other and the only ones in the whole world who could ever understand what it meant to grow up around this place (and, why, quite possibly, you’re in therapy).
I wouldn’t trade my childhood, not for a second. But I know what I know. And I know that if my children believing nothing else I have to say, I hope they believe this: You are each other’s historians, part of an exclusive tribe, and incredibly lucky. Stick together, kids. You’ll never regret it.