Once upon a time on the twenty-fifth of May, my mom and dad became parents. Not to me, but to my older sister. Please note our nickname for one another is Thister, so that’s how I’ll refer to her here. It’s a term of endearment, and she is ever so dear to me.
She was born in 1969, and had full run of the Simpson Household until just more than three years later when I showed up. Which makes today the anniversary of my parents becoming parents, and the anniversary of Thister’s birth. Just one day in the 15,341 days of her life thus far. Hopefully she has at least that many more ahead of her.
I don’t know how excited Thister was the day our folks brought me home from the hospital. I know it rained, and that must have seemed some sort of omen. Three years is a long time to stir up the dickens, even for a baby or a toddler, and I am certain Thister had a good time wrapping my father and mother and our aunts/uncles/grandparents all around her little finger. Then, I came along and suddenly she had to share all that action whether she wanted to or not.
I have only known life as life with a sibling. How does it feel for the older brothers and sisters? To have a recollection of Life Before The Other One(s) Got Here? To have to adjust to a new entity in a home and dynamic you previously had all to yourself? What’s it like to be an only child? I don’t know. I can only speak from my experience as a second child. And I’d like to tell all you first-borns and only children…it’s not all fun and games. I mean, yes, I know it’s true. Being a 1st must have its specific challenges. Kids who come to a family first are often the guinea pigs for new parents. There are expectations. In many cases, rules are undoubtedly more rigid. There are pressures to behave certain ways physically or mentally. To develop at certain speeds. I’m not criticizing parents. This is just human nature. People in new circumstances have certain pre-conceived notions but basically it’s uncharted waters. You throw a little human in there and…well…good luck! But let me tell ya, for us 2nds that all happens, too, but with the added pressure of…(cue drumroll)… THE FIRST BORN’S EXAMPLE. (cue ominous thunder affect!)
Whether the oldest child is a golden child or a problem child, the following child has A LOT to live up to. To grow up with a bar set…to be or not be like their older sibling…is almost like growing up in an earthquake zone. Or in Tornado Alley. Mounting pressure. Possible pending disaster. Some second borns can be paralyzed by the expectations. Some create an atmosphere of such competition that the first born ends up eclipsed by the second’s achievements. It can all lead to sunny spring afternoons, or volatile later summer thunderstorms. For years. Every family is unique. Every family is complicated.
Relationships of any varietal can be complicated. Of course, they don’t have to be complicated, but we often allow them to become so. I think this is especially true with blood family. We all know (I hope, anyway) that we have a family of parent/sibling/relative/biological contacts, but we also have a family of friends. The complication starts when we begin to suspect–at whatever age this happens for each of us–that membership of one circle doesn’t guarantee membership of the other. At some point, we all realize that the fact someone is our blood, they aren’t necessarily our family. Sometimes, siblings become more nemesis than ally. Sometimes growing up together means pressure, circumstance and competition will stifle any sense of adventure or humor. This is where complication comes in, but it’s just life. It’s what happens as we age and experience and develop our individual selves. Which all makes our Friend Family more important. And our Blood Family more precious. Blood Family is a gift we get when we’re born, simply because we’ve been born. Friend Family is a gift we exchange over the course of living our lives. If you’re lucky, and I mean if you’re really really lucky, you get to a point where you can know some of your Blood Family is also a member of your Friend Family. A gift you were given when you were born that’s been allowed to breath and grow into one you can share on a wholly different level.
Which brings me back to Thister.
I’ve spent my life learning from her. I’ve both followed and willfully rejected her examples in ways big and small since my earliest memories. Each occasion was a lesson learned. She protected me from bullies through public and private grade schools. She let me tag along behind her when she got to middle school and high school. She let me ride her coattails into theatre and marching band and choir. Her friends were nice to me, not because I was me but because she was my big sister. Because she was Queen Bee, I got to be Little Bee. When I needed a ride, she gave it. When I needed an outfit, she let me raid her closet. When she went away to college, I moved into her room because I missed her. She took me to my first real concert (Rush, Roll the Bones, I think in ’88). She gave me my first cigarette (a horrible menthol thing, but, you know, it was the early 90s). She was my sister. And you know that means we did not always get along. Like siblings everywhere we had our knock down drag outs. Shoving and fisticuffs and horrible snark! Stuff you can usually only unload on someone in your Blood Family. All the good stuff. Bruises! Blood! Profanity! Good times!
While we were growing up, I was not always nice to her. Like a lot or most second-borns, I wanted so badly to be her equal I usually ended up being a giant jackass instead. When she left for college I felt I’d stepped into shoes four-sizes too big. And Thister is humble. It would never occur to her that her absence creates a void of presence that can barely be filled. I should have just told her then, but I couldn’t find the words. Instead, I made her a mixed tape back in the early 90s and included Juliana Hatfield’s Sister*. I was so excited when I first heard the song because it seemed the perfect homage for anyone who grew up with an older sister they idealized, but to whom they could never express themselves clearly. It seemed Ms. Hatfield had looked right into my heart and writ down my insecurities and adoration for the person who’d moved on. It turned out, though, that Thister was not all that psyched by opening lyrics. Which just broke my heart, but I will admit they do seem a touch agressive on first listen. And that’s the thing about complicated relationships, isn’t it? Sometimes you have to give them a chance to breathe. You have to let the pressure of expectation subside. You have to take a moment to realize it doesn’t have to be complicated after all. Just respectfully let it be. It may take time, but all the best things in life take time. And if you can do that. If you can realize and exalt in that rare combination of Blood Family + Friend Family…. That’s when you can say your sister is your friend, as well as your blood.
We don’t all get to say that, of course. For some, that exchange hasn’t been completed, and may never. When did Thister and I become friends? Well, speaking for me, it may have been in 2004 after our mother survived a horrific car accident and we found a way to simultaneously hold hands and laugh together in Barnes Hospital emergency waiting room. Or, maybe on stage at Mineral Area College during a 1987 production of The Imaginary Invalid, trying not to break character and laugh through our scenes as downy innocent and wicked stepmother. Or possibly farther back in 1980, jeans rolled up to our knees and wading through Fishpot Creek in St. Louis County, Missouri, searching for fossils? Or, you know, maybe it was in 1976 and ’77 in our old front yard on Alfred Street in St. Louis when she’d grab hold of one of my wrists and one of my ankles and give me airplane spins over and over again until I thought I’d asphyxiate from laughter. I don’t think those were very fun for her, but…she did it for me because I asked. Hmmm.
You know I’m not really sure. My sister has always been in my life. Maybe my friend has, too.
Happy, happy birthday, Thister. I’ll be listening to Juliana Hatfield loud in your honor.
Juliana Hatfield, ladies and gentlemen. Bridging gaps since 1992.
Queen Bee & Little Bee, 1976