My daughter’s journey into writing as part of her master’s in fine arts degree program led to her asking me to share with her a bit about what it was like having three siblings. I could tell her about a family of six sharing one bathroom. I could tell her about eating lots and lots of chicken and rice or rice and tomato soup or egg gravy and biscuits. I could tell her about wearing cousins’ hand-me-downs or dresses sewn by my grandmother or mother. I could tell her about battling with brothers in the back seat of a Chevrolet Impala for room on hour-long trips to grandparents’. I could tell her about Christmas or birthday surprises that were rarely a surprise- new pajamas, an outfit, a watch, or some other necessity. There was little money for anything trendy or frivolous. I could tell her about living in drafty old houses and about Daddy getting up early to light the gas heaters in the bathroom and kitchen so we could dress for school and the attic fan that pulled air through open windows in the summer heat. I could tell her about walking with my younger siblings to school and having to wait for them to catch up. I could tell her how they acted like hillbilly hicks at Six Flags and embarrassed me nearly to death with their straw hats and corncob pipes and goofy cackles at my humiliation. I could tell her about fireworks with cousins and family pictures at Easter, and overnight trips to the beach hoping we’d find a room at a cheap motel big enough for all of us. I could tell her about sacks of cheap burgers and all of us pulling tarpaulin fabric to cut and sew until late at night to make peanut trailer/dryer ducts to supplement our family’s income so our parents could keep us in a small local private school instead of riding a bus to the county consolidated system 15 miles away. I could tell her about Sundays walking to church together and sharing a big bowl of popcorn watching westerns on TV. And all of those are vivid memories. The honest truth though involves deeper emotions.
Being the oldest of 4 living siblings was both a blessing and curse. I was often drafted to babysit, to help with cleaning and cooking and other household tasks, to referee fights between my younger brothers, to suffer the indignity of sharing a room with a sister 10 years younger who got into all of my stuff. In some respects, I missed some of the childhood my friends enjoyed by having those responsibilities. Whenever the “girls” had a sleep over, I always had to get up early and go home to do my Saturday work while they slept in late, played and leisurely had chocolate covered mint cookies and potato chips for breakfast. I could tell just the barest details or I could be honest with her, sharing with her the insights that have been hard won through years of my own questions about my childhood.
At 15, my mother got pregnant again with her 5th child. I was angry. How could she do that to me? I didn’t want another sibling to tend to. I began planning my exit. The baby was born prematurely and died after 24 hours. My mother and father were heartbroken. I was filled with guilt and yet relieved at the same time. I hurried through my next few years, going to school in the summers and eager to get to college. I thought for years that I was racing through life toward something and thinking time and time again that I had found it, only to experience disappointment and find myself setting a new goal. I finally figured out just a few years ago that I was not so much running TOWARD something, but more likely AWAY from what I perceived as the constraints of being under the authority of parents who placed me in a role of “junior parent” and my guilt over the death of a baby I didn’t want. It was not until my Father almost died from a stroke in 2001, in my late 40’s, that I truly began to appreciate his role in my life, to acknowledge the grief I felt in Janet Lynn’s death, to begin to resolve my ambivalence over the traditional roles expressed in my family and the burden of responsibility I had felt for my siblings, and the anger at what I perceived to have been the preference that my Father (and perhaps my Mother, too) appeared to have had for my brothers.
I have withdrawn significantly from my family. I no longer feel any responsibility to anyone or for anyone, except perhaps to my younger sister. I love them and I am happy to hear how they are doing. But the death of my Father and remarriage of my Mother liberated me. I felt like an orphan, but I also feel free. It is sad to realize how long it took me to be free from the expectations of my family.