I was visiting with my son, we were debriefing after the successful birthday party for his daughter, who turned one the prior weekend. He mentioned an observation his wife shared after the party. She said she never met siblings who were more different from each other than my brothers. I got a good laugh from that. She is so right.
Her observation came as no surprise, but I realized that I take it for granted. I don’t think about it; it just is a fact of our family life. Hearing her comment, though, gave me pause. It is hard to explain how two such different people grew up in the same house, from the same set of parents, born only 17 months apart. Mark and Steven are about as different as day and night.
Mark likes to be the center of attention; Steven doesn’t (he certainly doesn’t seek it). Mark is a jokester; Steven enjoys a good laugh, but doesn’t work to get one. I can see Mark’s wheels turning as he figures out a way to tease someone or fit in a humorous story; Steven tends to hang back. Steven gives attention to his appearance, he enjoys wearing stylish shoes and a well cut leather jacket. Mark couldn’t care less – he is pleased if his clothes aren’t stained. Mark is also color-blind; Steven isn’t. Steven is neat and organized; Mark is anything but. Mark is very liberal politically; Steven is a centrist. Other than being about the same height and having the same hairline, they don’t look much alike either. Steve has a dark complexion; Mark is fair-skinned and freckled. I could go on and on. How could they share so much DNA and yet be so different? It is a mystery.
They do share some commonalities. They like sports and are good athletes. Hmmmm. What else? They are dedicated husbands, fathers, brothers and sons (though how they express that dedication is not similar). They are both upstanding citizens – trustworthy and hard-working. Beyond that, it is hard to find adjectives that apply to both. Interestingly, they married sisters! My sister-in-laws are not as dramatically different as my brothers, but enough so that they are a good fit.
It makes me wonder about siblings. I see patterns in the siblings in my extended family and Gary’s, too. Our mothers had an interesting and similar dynamic with their respective sisters. When asked about her childhood, before the war, Paula recalled with warmth and love her father sitting on the edge of the bed she shared with her sister telling them bedtime stories. Sophia, younger by a couple of years, didn’t remember it that way. She insisted that their father directed the story to Paula, Sophia felt neglected. Fifty years after the fact they still disagreed about it. Paula insisted he was entertaining them both; Sophia said no, the stories were for Paula. There is no way to reconcile the difference in perception – they felt what they felt.
It is sad because that perception colored Sophia’s view of the world. Her Holocaust experience added trauma and pain to the baggage she carried. Paula at least had a more positive foundation.
The story of my mother and her sister was not as dramatic, it didn’t play out against the Holocaust, but the theme was similar. If asked to describe the same incident from their childhood, my mother’s version was lighter, more positive. Whether it was because she was extra sensitive or tuned into subtleties, her sister, Simma recalled slights and hurts. They often disagreed about the meaning of the actions of their parents or aunts and uncles. Again, it could be difficult to reconcile their views of the same people.
The pattern isn’t limited to sisters. If you asked Gary and his brother to describe their father, you might think they were depicting two different people.
I wonder how common this is. It would be an interesting experiment: ask siblings to describe their parents and see how much overlap there is in the portrait offered. Maybe the same words would be used, but it might still feel different to each child. I imagine that my brothers and I would agree that our Dad was impatient. But, we each might feel differently about that. It might have rolled off my back because I knew the storm would pass. One brother might have been unnerved by the harsh tone and the other might have been oblivious. It could be that Dad mellowed with age and while I saw his impatience, I may not have experienced the intensity of it. Or maybe as his baby girl, he may have shielded me from the worst expression of his impatience. So many possibilities! Birth order, gender, gaps in age all likely play into it. Is it any wonder that sibling relationships can be so complicated?
Regardless of the differences in perceptions and personalities, my mother and mother-in-law were deeply connected to their sisters; they were not estranged. They argued, but they were present for each other. The message I received growing up was that familial bonds should be valued and respected. Hurts and disappointments could be overcome because you knew you could count on your sibling to be there for you, especially during tough times. You didn’t have to like your brother or sister, that would be a bonus, but you loved them no matter what and they were part of your life forever. Judging by how often families are estranged, not everyone grew up with that message.
I do understand that sometimes relationships are so toxic that they have to be cut. Certainly, where there is abuse, it is appropriate and necessary to dissolve the bond and create a family of choice. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me or my brothers.
Whatever differences in character traits that exist between my siblings or between them and me, we know with certainty that we can rely on each other. I am grateful for that knowledge.
8 thoughts on “Siblings”
Here are two more ways Mark and I differ.
I’m short tempered especially when I was younger and I don’t see Mark that way. Secondly when speaking I generally state my point quickly without embellishment. Mark of course is not like that.
A comment on stylish shoes: Yes indeed I treat my feet very well thank you. Once when I was in my 20’s I showed Dad a new pair of shoes I had just purchased. He said from a clothing perspective your feet are the one place where you should spend extra in getting the right fit and comfort. I should tell you I have 30 pair of various foot wear from shoes – sneakers – sandals. I rarely wear the same foot wear on successive days. Yes I do spend more than the average guy on foot wear.
Yes, Dad was impatient and had a temper, which I inherited (not so much today though). You are right in how we remember parents. For example when I was in 5th or 6th grade I had a Jules Verne paperback book that dad ripped right through the middle from cover to cover in a fit of anger. Boy did that upset me. The anger was not from something I did because I wasn’t even in the room when he destroyed my book. I never found out what set him off. I should state that he never laid a hand on me, so his temper was not violent, at least toward me. I bet he never did something like that to you or Mark.
Great blog. Great idea about getting siblings to articulate their views of their parents.
Dad never ripped one of my books in half, but I totally saw that side of him. I was at the dining room table when he ripped Grandpa’s pocket clear off his shirt because he had cigars in it and had been told not to smoke by the doctor (Grandpa was recovering from cataract surgery). It was a very disturbing moment. Fortunately, for me, that kind of display was very rare.
I love the fact that you have more shoes than I do. I’m glad you took Dad’s advice.
My sister and I couldn’t be more different From food, she could eat the fat and liked her meat rare and bloody, I liked it lean and well done. We remember everything growing up as if we were raised in different homes with different parents. And yet I did love her and she always took care of me, she would drive me to doctors’ appointments and other places. We loved the ballet, and theatre and we agreed politically. Your observation is correct. I saw the glass as more than half full while she saw it empty. She even told me once that she needed to complain But she was always the leader, getting us later bedtimes, going to the movies alone when we were younger. And I was content to just do what I was told. I miss her every day.
I found Steven’s comment interesting because once, when I was also very frustrated, I took out my anger on Daniel’s Jules Verne paperback. For two hours I tore it apart with all my might and in the end, one of the pages was slightly bent.
Seriously, I am so very gratified that while my brother and I are very different people, we have found more of an ability to relate to each other positively. Most of this, no doubt, is because of his effort. But, regardless, the improvement has been going on for some time and our ability to enjoy vacation together was an example of how far things have come.
Great topic and well written blog post. Thank you
Very funny – but anyone who knows you knows that’s not how you show anger. You and your brother are also remarkably different, and you both have made it a priority to close the gap. I admire you both.
My father tore my book from page 1 thru the end of the book. I did not see the actual act, but I did see the after effect. He was a physically strong man but never did I feel threatened by him. He was the provable guy that you would say if you needed some one to be in a fox hole with, he would be the guy. Like your Dad.
I appreciate this blog entry and everyone’s comments, especially Aunt Feige’s comments about Mom. All true. I miss her every day too. Regarding siblings – Mom once said to me when I was a teenager and we were in the middle of a fight that she didn’t care if I liked or loved her, just as long as I liked and loved my brother. She felt he was the only person who would know me practically my whole life and that very special connection should be nurtured. This made a big impression on me. I always wanted to be there for my “little brother “, even before Mom said what she did (many family stories about how I wanted to do everything for Ira when we were toddlers) but her comment made it more of a priority. I also had the example of how Mom cared for Uncle Mike, as well as the fact that my father couldn’t go one day without speaking to his sister. I know in my heart that Ira would be on the next airplane if I needed him. There’s no doubt I would do the same for him. Although Ira and I are very different personalities, we still have much in common (like a love of science fiction movies, tv shows, and books). We don’t always see eye to eye but we communicate frequently. So, mission accomplished Mom. By the way, last Sunday was the three year anniversary of Mom’s passing, so I’m particularly happy to see her mentioned here. Oh, and Steve owns more shoes than me!!!
Thanks for sharing your perspective. Hearing from different people about their memories of our family, and their thoughts on the sibling relationship is enlightening. I also am realizing that siblings are often quite different from each other – my brothers may not be so unusual in that respect. Hard to believe that it has been three years – we think of her often and warmly.