Last weekend on our way to Pennsylvania, B and I listened to a podcast of interviews with Philip Galanes, who writes the Social Q's column for the New York Times. Since we were going to visit B's family, we focused on the interview about siblings.
The questions involved adult siblings with various problems -- what's your obligation to help out a brother who can't keep a job; how to deal with a sister who doesn't get along with her brother's wife; how does a younger brother stand up to to his older brother who's always bossing him around.
Galanes gives common sense advice, sometimes with a dash of humor, for sometimes awkward but otherwise fairly ordinary problems. He makes a point of saying we should all try to get along with our siblings, because they are our oldest friends, and they know us better than anyone else, right down to our roots.
At that point, B and I looked at each other. Bridge comes from a large family. Her oldest sister is ten years older than she is; her youngest brother is ten years younger. And as she pointed out, she barely knows either one of them. (Her older brother doesn't try to tell her what to do; but he does try to boss the youngest brother around.) She is close to one sister, who is two years older than she is. But the rest of the family -- seven kids in all -- just seemed like a crowd of people to her. They don't know her down to her roots; they know her in only the most superficial ways.
I grew up in a family of four kids -- two older sisters, and an older brother who died when I was in 10th grade. I barely knew my brother. He was five years older, and while I looked up to him, and thought he was just about the coolest kid in town, I didn't really know much about him.
I didn't know my older sister at all. She's six years older. She says she used to babysit for me when I was a toddler. Maybe she did -- I don't remember. She claims I "was a handful" (but I'm sure she's exaggerating!). She went away to school starting in 11th grade, and so she was out of the house by the time I was entering 5th grade. I only knew her as the slightly rebellious older sister who couldn't wait to get away from home and go out into the world.
I didn't see my older sister more than a few times for the next 30 years. We weren't estranged; we just had no reason to keep in touch. Now we see each other once or twice a year, mostly because she lives in Florida, and I stop by her house for a couple of days when I take my winter break in Florida, as I've been doing for the past ten years. I play golf with her husband; we catch up on news of cousins and nieces and nephews. But it's definitely an opportunistic, long-distance relationship.
I was much closer to my other sister, only two years older than I am. We did hang out together as kids. We went to the swimming pool together in the summer; we went on vacation with our parents; we were the two kids still around after my brother died and my older sister went off to college.
But how much does she know me now? Yes, she would recognize my computer passwords -- the name of my first dog, the street address of our house; our telephone number back when we were kids. But other than that, she doesn't know a whole lot about me either. After all, she went off to college; got married; moved out west, and now lives 2000 miles away.
We see each other a few times a year. She's a lawyer who's still working part time, and she occasionally has to fly back east for a job, and then she'll come visit for a few days. We get along; we're still friends, in a way, and we will occasionally get on the phone and share worries about our kids, tell stories about our vacations, or talk a little bit about financial matters or retirement plans.
But the point is, both Bridge and I disagree with Galanes. Sure, if we still live in the same town where we grew up, and so do our siblings, then he's probably right. But who does that anymore? My family is spread out from New York to Florida to Arizona. B's family spans the country from Boston to Seattle. Our siblings know what we were like 40 years ago; but that doesn't have much to do with who we are today.
Maybe you know your siblings down to your roots if you're all involved in a family business, or you still live in the same neighborhood. But for most of us, I think, the people who know us best are not our siblings, but our spouse, our children, our friends. Don't you agree?