Monday, September 16, 2013

Sibling revelry

One of the downsides of being an only child, and there are a few, is the lack of sibling rivalry. While this may be an upside sometimes to spoiled only children like Earbaby, it's a downside in learning how to negotiate, retaliate, conspire and the fine art of tattling.

EB has heard the word "no" probably a lot fewer times than she should. She sometimes will admit she's spoiled, but a second or two later, will complain about the struggle she has with being an only child, what with not always getting such necessities as iTunes cards on demand, or being told that going to Starbucks nearly every day is turning her into a crack baby, addiction-wise.

My husband and I both are middle children of three. There is no substitution for the shared history of family, both good and bad. If you're lucky, and we both are, you actually like your siblings and as you become middle-aged orphans (we've each lost a parent), that shared history and shared grief can help you through the worst times of your life.

I worry that EB won't have that. She's the youngest grandchild on my side of the family tree and the second youngest on her dad's. Her cousins on his side are closer in age and she used to see them more often, before life got in the way. Now we're pretty much limited to holidays, but when they were younger, and she spent more time with her cousins she is closest to in age, she got a taste of the sibling stuff. The three girls could get along for a good 3-5 minutes before the bickering began. Sleepovers were nightmares for the hosting parent. Yet they love each other and beg to spend time together every family gathering. Now that they're older, I may even relent from my previous ban of sleepovers at my house on my watch.

EB would fight with these two sisters the way she never would with friends. The two sisters would argue about everything, par for the course for sisters about three years apart. EB is exactly 1 1/2 years younger than one and 1 1/2 years older than the other. Just enough of a space for the three to try, and many times fail, to get along for any extended length of time.

Now, on the other side of the family, she is nine years younger than her cousins closest in age. When she was a baby, she was their baby when we saw them, which was only once or twice a year. But as she, and they, grew up, she was able to relate to them not as a cute little plaything, but as a fully formed human being.

This summer I got a glimpse of her getting a chance at being the younger sister. First, Zoe came to visit. Her friend Noelle was getting married and Zoe was in the wedding party. After the festivities, Zoe came to stay with us for a few days before heading back home. And EB, whose baseline demeanor many days is sullen, reveled in her visit.

Her cousin is easily one of the most loving, caring and all-around best people on earth. She has the unique position of being both an only child and a child with siblings. She is her mother's (my sister's) only child, but has older siblings from her father's previous wife. The closest one to her age was a teenager when she was born, and there was a prickly period during her formative years, with her teenage sister having natural feelings of jealousy (how would you like to have been the baby for 15 years and then suddenly "replaced"?), yet now that Zoe is a grown woman herself, their relationship has become closer. Zoe was an aunt at a very young age and her oldest niece is only a year older than her youngest cousin.

Zoe came to her second home here in Boston and swept EB out of her teenaged funk. She could talk to her and tease her (she told EB she was a troll and EB responded she would spit in her food) and EB could give as good as she got, one skill only learned by having and being a sibling.

When she and I went to visit my mother before school started, she spent time with another cousin, Leila, and again got the little sister treatment. And also in a good way. Leila is the last cousin left in the city. Zoe went to teach in South Korea, where Leila's sister Lana is already teaching, and Leila's twin brother Joseph, moved down under.

So for a couple of short days, Leila, herself a little sister, got to be a big sister. The two girls holed up in a bedroom, talking, sharing music, hair tips and facial masks.

EB gets the best from her cousins, if only for a short while. I treasure these relationships with her extended family. She won't have the shared history with siblings that her dad and I had. But with any luck at all, she'll be close enough with her cousins, all of them, to know that even when she becomes a middle-aged orphan, she'll never be alone.

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