I was pondering (I have an tendency to ponder, often too deeply, some might call it over thinking) the other day about the relationships my children have with each other and how much I hope that they have a similar relationship to my sister and I.
I have four children, which means a complex web of sixteen interacting relationships, of sister and sister, sister and brother, brother and brother (and frequently brothers vs Youngest Daughter). Over the years it’s gone from Oldest Daughter (3 ½ when Youngest Daughter was born) being somehow apart from the other three (born within four years of each other), to the four of the being more of a homogenous group. For a long time, the age gap meant Oldest Daughter was sort of separate to the others. This was a time when if I went out the only person Youngest Son would go to was her (he wouldn’t go to E, or anyone other than she and I). If I had to leave the house, I’d make sure he was snuggled up, face against her chest, because I knew he’d scream the house down if I didn’t. She was never really involved in sibling fights (in fact she was frequently the one who told the child that was in the wrong off – much to that child’s irritation), and I think that whilst she was close to her siblings, they never saw her as fair game when it came to fights and rivalries. As the years went on, Oldest Daughter, mature for her age, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes, kept this authority, and I think to this day, whilst they’re still a gang of four, the others look up to her and are a little in awe of her.
Whilst Oldest Daughter remained slightly aloof of their childish quarrels, the younger three fought (relentlessly in the case of Youngest Daughter and Oldest Son – there are only 15 months between them, and the closeness in age, coupled with the fact that they’re as different as chalk and cheese, has made for pretty much twelve years of constant fighting), they played (fortunately, this was fairly constant too – it sort of made up for the fighting), but mostly they squabbled. They argued over everything – from who had the biggest piece of chocolate to how beautiful the sunrise was (I kid you not – this one last all morning). In fact, there was a time when they were younger that I wondered if Oldest Son and Youngest Daughter would ever speak a civil word to each other. In a moment of utter self-defeat, I even grounded them once for too much fighting. They learned a lesson and were more civil to each other – for a few days – but I had to put up with them fighting in the house, for seven days. I never did that again.
When E left, it put a strain on those relationships. In some ways it pitted them against each other. Oldest Son was desperate to see the good in his Dad. Youngest Daughter hated him (cue another of their bitter arguments). Oldest Daughter was hurt and because she was again elevated to the role of adult by her siblings, she was pushed into the role of mediator. Youngest Son was confused and vulnerable and just that bit too little to reach out to his brother and sister. I was worried that what had happened might fracture and permanently damage their relationship – there was even a moment when I would have been grateful for a traditional Youngest Daughter/Oldest Son bust up over who left the milk out of the fridge, rather than hearing them yell at each other about who was right about their Dad, and hearing their pain etched into every word they said to each other.
However, over the last three years, their relationships have strengthened and all four of them now have an unspoken support net, that’s been woven from the shared experience of E leaving and of the fact this has meant they have had to accept and understand where the other one is coming from. Part of this, is of course just part of growing up. But I do think I big part of it is going through something so hurtful together and realising that, whilst they might occasionally really piss each other off, that, in so many ways they’re all they’ve got. They’re the only ones who understand what they’ve been through, and that common experience has united them and brought them closer.
It made me realise that sibling relationships can really be a magical thing. It also made me realise that I have the same unspoken support net from my sister that my kids provide each other. Whenever I talk on here about how grateful I am for my amazing friends and family. I always mean my sister, but I don’t think I’ve ever taken time to actually say how amazing she is. I’ve talked about my Mum, my Dad, E’s family, my kids. But one person who has been there, solid and loyal and utterly behind me, is my sister, and I’ve never really talked about her.
I don’t know why. I’ve always known I wouldn’t be half the person I am without her. Ever since she was born, I have known that she will always be there for me. No matter how insecure things have been, how badly things have gone, how horrible I’ve been, my sister has always been there. I think it’s because she’s such a part of me that I almost don’t notice her – any more than I notice breathing – she’s as vital to me as breathing, but my bond with her is such that it’s just normal, natural, I could no more be without her than I could be without my hands, my eyes. I wouldn’t be me without her.
That’s not to say we are perfect. Like Oldest Son and Youngest Daughter, we had some bitter arguments when we were little. Our Mum would agree that I was a moderately awful big sister when we were little. She was 2 ½ years younger than me, and I was good with words – I’d quietly wind her up, and she would fly at me all red faced, fists flailing and hair pulling. I’d cry and she’d get told off. Being a child of a macabre disposition, when she’d upset me, I’d make ‘poison’ out of the shampoos and soaps in the bathroom and leave them in a toothmug for her to drink (I’d always pour it away before she could actually drink it, but I think your average TV detective would have me tagged as a wrong ‘un within five minutes of an episode starting). We argued about everything when we were kids, but, like my children, we loved each other and there were far more moments of harmony than war between us.
As we grew up, she was fiercely protective of me. She’s become something of a family legend for the day that she found me at school, fuming because another girl had nicked my tennis ball. The red face and the fists came out and she found the girl in question and kicked her hard in the bottom. I’m not sure I ever did anything similar – I’ve always been a little more measured in my responses – but I do know that I would never hear a word against her. It was fine for me to criticise her, but if anybody else so much as said a word against her, I’d rise to her defence. I’m still the same now (as is she – frankly E is living life on the edge right now – his buttocks are at risk of a more than a sharp kick if she ever sees him).
We’re now 47 and 50, and our relationship has seen partners who didn’t particularly like the other sister – E was vile about her, and her ex was never too fond of me – (notably we ditched the men not each other), house moves, children, money troubles and all of the stuff that life throws at people, and she’s still the one person I know I can trust with absolutely anything. As I went through everything with E, her perspective (she went through an equally awful break-up) and her quiet support was everything. This, more than anything, is what I want my children to be to and for each other.
The thing is, I am blessed with the best sister in the world, and I think she deserves some recognition. She’s the most ferociously intelligent person I know. She’s an incredible Mum. She’s principled, and decent and funny and I don’t think she realises just how brilliant she is. Throughout the last three years she has just quietly ‘been there’. She’s never been obtrusive, never interfered, she’s just silently stood by my side. I’ve never been without her support and I can’t imagine how much more difficult my life would have been without her.
So, here’s to my sister – the wind beneath my wings, the puller of my hair and probably the reason I’m still standing. If she’s reading this – I bloody love you (and please don’t ever drink the stuff in the toothmug in the bathroom if you’ve pissed me off).