Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Does Your Sibling Know You Best?

     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?

22 comments:

DJan said...

Yes, I certainly agree. There are twenty years between the oldest sibling (me) and my youngest sister. We hardly know each other, but when we get together at family gatherings, we know we are sisters, but that's about it. My sister who is two years younger than I am, as well as my only brother, know me pretty well, although we live far apart. Because of video chat, we talk often and keep in touch. But you're right: my husband knows me and my wishes much better than my siblings, other than the one, that is. She knows me in ways my husband never will. :-)

Mac n' Janet said...

I agree with you. My older sister married when I was 14 and we hadn't been particularly close before that. I married at 18 and never lived near home again. I'm actually closer to my younger sister, she's 3 years younger, but that's a very superficial relationship. Her I talk to, the other sister only calls me when she needs money.

Olga Hebert said...

I certainly agree with this. I have two brothers and a sister and we were all born within a five year time span. We get along just great, but we constantly surprise each other, even with our "memories" of the exact same events. Mike's youngest sibling was 15 years younger. He thought Mike was just a neighbor guy who stopped at the house from time to time.

Barbara - said...

My experience is just the opposite. I lived across a country and then an ocean of years but my family members are all close and we know each other well. And my kids are ten years apart and still tell each other things they would never share with anyone else.

Barbara - said...

My experience is just the opposite. I lived across a country and then an ocean of years but my family members are all close and we know each other well. And my kids are ten years apart and still tell each other things they would never share with anyone else.

Linda Myers said...

I am seven years older than my one sister. We were never close until after our mother died in 2008. Now she lives with her husband in their motorhome on our property and we have a strong friendship.

Stephen Hayes said...

Yes, I agree completely. My older brother never liked me (or our parents) and we haven't spoken in decades. I last saw him at our father's funeral. He snuck out before the service ended without speaking to anyone.

schmidleysscribblins.com said...

My sister and I have little in common. We each develped in different ways, followed different paths. My sister is a very religious Catholic from Louisiana, and a conservative. I am not. My brother dropped out during the 1960s, then married three times and left each wife with kids. I haven't spoken with him in decades. He might think he knows me, but I think he needs help, whereever he is.

Tabor said...

It depends on the family and how children were raised. Some families are very close...maybe too close...and get into each other's business. Some have lived far away for so long. I am kind of in-between both. I was the oldest, but know my siblings somewhat. Not their deepest darkest, most certainly.

Wisewebwoman said...

6 siblings I'm the eldest, a girl, 4 boys between and then a sister nearly 14 years younger than me. I refer to us as "dysfunction junction" much of the time as when we get together there are always two on the "outs" and the "outs" changes flavour regularly. I used to think we are close but after the latest explosion I'd say that was all an illusion.

Like the afore mentioned article.

XO
WWW

Vagabonde said...

I agree with you completely. I don’t have any siblings so cannot tell but my husband has a brother and a sister. His brother never calls, writes or gets in touch, and his sister does not like me because I am a “foreigner.” I send his family Christmas cards and they never answer. Of course it makes a difference if you live in another country too, ½ of my family lives in France (or did, most are dead now) and the other half are all across the world (they are Armenians dispersed everywhere.) I always look at the large Italian families with envy…

JudyC said...

I had one brother 5 years old.. never close. My husband was youngest of 6 (oldest 20 years older then he). They and their children and grandchildren spread out over the country. All remained extremely close. They email, call, visit, travel to get together. Several circulate newsy emails regularly with family news. A few siblings are gone now but we keep up with their children. In a couple of weeks we will travel to his home town to visit with family from 7 different states. It is unusual, I guess, but I love it and am so happy to be a part of it.

#1Nana said...

Even though I only see my brother a few times a year, when we get together it is very comfortable. We share common values. I can say anything and he's understanding. Because of our long relationship he gives me the benefit of the doubt. We're very close in age and were always fighting when we were kids. I'm blessed to get along so well with both he and his wife.

Mona McGinnis said...

I have a friend (with whom I'm closer to than my siblings) who says, "What? Just because you shared a womb, you're supposed to be best friends?"

Anonymous said...

This was a timely post for me. I've been feeling lost lately because neither my husband or I have a close family. My one sister to whom I was close passed away and I have a brother that I seldom talk with, although we're not upset with each other. Same for my husband's family. Had to come to the realization that we're not a close family, and he and I need to make our own life together. Everyone lives everywhere across the country, and I think that enables a lack of close family ties. But, I read in another blog that one's primary responsibility is to their spouse not their childhood family. Time to move on.

gigihawaii said...

Here in Hawaii, I have many siblings and cousins, a very large extended family. Since we live on an island, we see each other often.

Snowbrush said...

Peggy is close to her two sisters, but I’m completely estranged from one sister, never knew my half-bother, and am a penpal with my half-sister.

Anonymous said...

I am an only child. My husband has 3 siblings who all live 2000 miles away. They talk a few times a year on the phone and we visit every 2 years. The difference I notice is that he has many more memories of his childhood because that is what they mainly talk about. There are things he has forgotten until a remark by one of them jogs his memory. I don't have that so I remember quite a bit but it would be fun to have someone who could add more pieces to my history.

Douglas said...

I am estranged from my siblings and, basically, have always been. My sister passed on last year so I guess we aren't technically estranged anymore... My brother is still alive and is in poor health. I don't see him, talk to him, or even exchange emails with him. I couldn't wait to get away from either of them in my youth. My sister was the "lesser of two evils" in my mind and that is only because she stood up for me once(!) when I was being bullied by an older boy. They never knew me very well, though I am sure they thought they did, and my brother only knows that I want nothing to do with him. My mother once said we were the three mistakes in her perfectly planned family.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

I generally agree with you, Tom. Certainly, day to day my husband knows me and what's going on with me much better than my faraway siblings and I certainly know him better than his brother -- with whom he has been semi-estranged for 25 years.

That said, I feel a closeness with my sibs that's unlike any other relationship. Perhaps it's because we shared a very bizarre childhood together. My sister is ten years younger than I am and we weren't close growing up because of the age difference. She was only 8 years old when I left home to go to college 2,000 miles away. My brother, who is three years younger, has always been much closer to me although he and my sister are semi-estranged. My sister is a nurse in Seattle and is having some serious health problems. We've probably become closer in the last year than before. She understands me pretty well and I understand her -- most of the time -- though we're very different people. My brother is a doctor in Bangkok, Thailand. When we get together, it's like we saw each other yesterday. We are totally in sync. But we aren't part of each other's lives much day to day.

So my sibling relationships are intimate and caring but not close on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

I never ever see any of my siblings they are all criminals to me save one brother born in dec.1946 and I am may 1948..the rest a bunch of crminials and bullshit..My youngest half sister gives séances to scam people out of money and time..she is a big time criminal and will pay with it her Karma..She has always gotten money from unsuspecting people, her dad not my dad at all, so I was happy to hear it, my husband the oldest of 8 kids 1 never lived and his Mother never mothered her kids at all and the dad was a yahoo who produced them but never supported them, they all took different courses, drugs, alcohol and bullshit, one brother picks mentally ill or physically ill women to live and marry it doesn't work out at all..we never see any of them at all, we have each other and an only child now an adult who is unmarried and happy, I have friends closer to me and my hubs than any blood relatives..I think it is better that way in life those that choose you and you choose them!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Linda P. said...

I have been married 45 years, so it's safe to say that my husband knows me rather well. Yet, my siblings have known me almost from my entry into this world. I'm the oldest of four, so they weren't all on the scene until I was eight. There are things we just get about each other because we grew up together. We are all quite different: two of us very liberal, and the other two lean completely the other direction. I've been married to the same man for 45 years, one of my brothers has been married so many times that we have all lost track of how many times, and another brother is gay. Yet we can talk to each other with respect, and we can anticipate what the other one will be feeling. I recently brought my ultra-conservative, gun-toting brother to a just-happens-to-be liberals only book club meeting, knowing he'd get along just fine and might enjoy the book. We do have times--months, sometimes--when relationships are more strained than usual, but there's always another sib who can calm the waters just by understanding. I've been sorry I had only two daughters because they don't have the joy of having multiple siblings.