I am the youngest of four children. I am five years younger than my oldest sibling-my sister Laurie . My parents were a young, educated couple, and they started out in a very small house in a suburban lake community in Connecticut. I did not have my own room until I was nine years old. I shared a bedroom in increments of six months between my two older sisters, Karen and Laurie. My oldest sister, Laurie was a tomboy. She played sports, liked dirt bikes and wore jeans. Her room was adorned with blue and red paisley wallpaper, corduroy curtains, and red and blue pillows; it was a typical 1970‘s bedroom complete with a baseball glove tossed in the corner. Laurie was and still is to this day a gifted athlete. When I shared a bedroom with her it was during softball season. We discussed playing the sport, and many of her friends coached the softball team I played on. During those six months I aspired to be like Laurie: tough, beautiful, smart and a good softball player. Karen, my other sister and roommate for the second half of a year, was very feminine. Her room was lacy with pinks and purples. The mirrors were engraved with silhouettes of a woman's face and flowers. I like to believe that Karen, now the mother of seven children, had many of her future children's names picked out when she was in the sixth grade. Karen and I talked about boys, clothes and how to be pretty. Today, like then, she is very attractive. Years later she would become an amazing mother. When I enter her front door I am overwhelmed with the calm she imparts within her home. Her children are kind, smart and sensitive. She appears to carry out being a mother so effortlessly; she is so patient, or rather she knows how to disguise her frustrations much better than I do.
My brother, who my sisters and I have over the years referred to as the golden boy, was a quiet kid. He was not very athletically inclined. He was above average in intelligence, but because he was socially awkward, there was concern that he may have a learning disability. My brother was picked on long before the current vigilance against bullying. This was a horrible thing to watch. He was a rail-thin kid with reddish hair and a large mole on the right of his nose. These features provided ammunition to those who would harass him throughout elementary school and middle school. In one summer, my brother Rob, who we then referred to as Bobby, suddenly put on a weight and shot up nearly a foot and a half. He now stands over six feet. Today he is in excellent physical shape, and is a handsome, successful man with three children.
Then there was me, bouncing between the influences of both of my sisters. Today I find that I have a healthy mix of both of them in me. Back then I was always in my own little world, content with simple things and being in the company of my brother and sisters. I was very sentimental, and the historian of the family because I possessed a memory unlike the others. I was also extremely shy. I would be struck with debilitating fear when I had to speak or merely be around others outside of the family. Even today I still have to work through this. Working as a waitress has helped me immensely with my shyness. It has given me a stage where I am required to speak to people, and the more I did, the easier it became. When I was nine years old, however, I had to find other outlets. I played softball at the encouragement of my older sister. In the beginning, I was awful out in left field: picking flowers and daydreaming. I was placed in a fielding position where no young girl would hit the ball. I kept at it and eventually became the pitcher and played first base. The years passed and I found that playing softball helped my self-esteem. I played on the local little league team for over seven years. I discovered my athletic, coordinated side. I had an interest I could share with others, and that in turn made talking with people easier. It would be years later when that athletic, physical part of me would become buried beneath layers of a self-medicating, survivalist persona. As I write this now, I think about how grateful I am that I have rediscovered this part of me.
As children, Rob and I were often together and linked as “the two little ones.” Yet all four of us were certainly a clan in our own right. We organized family meetings when there was stress in the home. This happened often. We collaborated to determine which one of us would confess about a particular thing, and which one would get in the least amount of trouble. Usually, I would be coerced into this role because I was the youngest child. For a dysfunctional family immersed in alcoholism and codependency, we still managed to maintain a certain level of normalcy for at least the first dozen years of my life. We went on family trips, piling into the back of a Ford super-cab truck with the dog and cat in tow. There was a bench seat in the back and I was always in the middle. I can say that I don't think I sat next to a window in that back seat while being driven until I was a teenager. I vividly recall the smell of that truck on a hot summer day, in route to Vermont or Pennsylvania. The vinyl seats stuck to the back of my legs, and my siblings’ elbows were in my sides. The smell of the dog’s breath filled the air. We were a poor family that made the most out of what we had, so once we arrived to our destination we had each other for entertainment. My mother was extremely resourceful in stretching everything out to accommodate the six of us. She did this when we were vacationing or when we were back home with a glass of orange juice or powdered milk. She would make up holidays and give clever names for her culinary inventions. She made white bread with canned tomato soup poured over the top and called it a blushing bunny. This would transform her dishes into something far more enticing for a young child to eat.
We often did things as a family: we played cards and other games, we hiked, and ate dinner together. During mealtime we each had a designated job: one person would husk the corn, someone would cut the lettuce and someone else would set the table. After dinner, we took walks around the neighborhood. Us kids would be in our pajamas. We walked just before dark, together hand in hand.
Then things slowly began to change. They either changed or they grew more tiresome to those involved because they did not change. Also, I became more conscious of the things around me. My parents fought often. This would always lead to a family meeting among the four children. I would often be the most upset about our parents’ fights. I would write letters to my parents asking them to stop fighting. The letters would be filled with pages and pages of “I love you.” My brother and sisters took care of me, especially in those times. We would stack our hands together, piling eight hands high in a promise that we were in it together. During those days, I am certain that my siblings sheltered me from many things. We were seventies kids with feathered-back hair. We had young parents who were caught up in their world. In some ways, it is not dissimilar to the struggles of young married couples of today, though I do think the contemporary institution of marriage has changed since those days, and I think that divorce has changed as well.
On one late summer day when I was fifteen, my parents sat us around the table on our deck. My sisters were closing in on graduating from high school and I was beginning high school. My brother was in a new school, and was doing well and making friends. They presented us with a question I will never forget: “We are getting divorced. Who do you want to live with?” It was a question I refused to hear. It devastated my insides. Yet, even as a young adolescent, it did not come as a surprise. My eyes fixed on a summer fly that had landed on the watermelon we had just eaten for dessert. I welled up with tears. I knew my family as I knew it would never be the same.
My mother informed us that she was moving into a two-bedroom condominium in a nearby town. My father, who had built the house we lived in, would remain there. This was our third house and we referred to as our dream house. We had all helped with the blue prints, helped stain wood every Saturday, and thought we would live there forever. My parents had been married for twenty years, had four children and decided for various reasons to end their marriage. This was not an uncommon thing for married couples in the early eighties: there are many of us who grew up in that time who are products of divorced parents. I believe my parents made the decisions they thought was best. Do I wish that some things were handled with more care? Absolutely; though I do not blame my parents for any of my own poor life choices. On a foggy early morning in fall, a U-Haul truck came to the end of our dirt road, and the reality set in. It would set in motion the anxieties of possession separation, of unwanted tag sales and of the collapse of my family unit. Those stories are for another day. I am writing today about my brother and sisters and about how our four lives once clung together out of love and fear. It was thirty years ago and now I revisit those bonds. Now as I look back and think of the four of us, the relationships we once had, and where we are today, it all takes on new meaning.
After my parents’ divorce, my older sister Laurie stayed with my dad. My father and Laurie always had a close bond, and this would sometimes provoke jealousy in me. My sister Karen moved back with my father after a short stint living with our mother. Karen and Laurie took on the role of spouse, cooking and cleaning for our father. Eventually, Karen moved out. She moved in with the person who would become her future husband and the father of her seven children. The family house began to deteriorate, as did my relationship with my siblings. Perhaps this would have happened anyway as a natural progression of getting older, of each of us finding our own interests and ways of life, and starting families. Yet I think back to the first wedge put between the four of us, and equate our status to being like eggs in a fragile bird’s nest. We were cared for and sheltered from the world, and then suddenly it was as if some pimply, pig-nosed malevolent child shoved a lit firecracker deep in the midst of the sticks and careful building of our nest. Then, just like that, we were all flying through the air in different directions, free-falling into our individualized self-preservation modes.
Years went by. Karen got married. My brother finished school and bought a house at a very young age. Laurie continued to care for my father, and he cared for her. The house was foreclosed on, leaving my father, and all of us, in a sense, homeless. This would be the first of many times for someone in my family to go homeless. I was at a loss, and grabbing whatever came near for dear life. As the months and years passed, some of the family dynamics between us stayed the same, and some things changed. The one constant over the years were my grandparents. They made us keep up holiday traditions that were sometimes challenging due to the discordant relationship between our parents. I would feel such guilt at family functions. My father would be alone. My mother had started a new relationship. The children were in the middle of it, getting bounced back and forth like Ping-Pong balls. Recently, I looked through photographs that my grandparents had taken during those years. In those photos I could see evidence of how they had tried to keep us together as a family. They would take a yearly photograph during the summer at the lake house. We would all groan and make one excuse after another to avoid the family photograph. My grandfather always had the newest technology in taking pictures. I remember one of his cameras being the size of a shoebox. I have scoured over those photos in the last few days. I am so grateful to them, and I see now how important keeping tradition is, whether it be a photograph or a Christmas dinner. If they are not kept up, the tradition and all that it supports will cease to exist.
Where are we all now? That is a difficult question to answer. Each of the four children are all forty years and older. We are four people with divergent histories. We share the same parents and share many of the same good and bad traits. We also share the same pain. We came from such closeness. This past Saturday I found myself standing in my deceased grandparents’ home with my three siblings. I am not sure of the last time that the four of us were together in a room alone. It was a peculiar happenstance that we were there, dividing our grandparents’ belongings between the four of us. When my grandmother died, it was the end of any foundation of a family that remained for us. It was ripped apart rather abruptly. When that last thread unraveled, a lifetime of issues and agony beset my grandfather, and then it, in turn, spilled out onto us. Over the years, I have not been the best sister. I have certainly done my own share of causing distance and distrust between us. A friend once pointed out to me that as adults we often recreate the dynamics we had as children. I believe this to be true of my life. My brother has slowly taken on the role of my grandfather. I believe he harbors intense resentment. He has even written people out of his life. On this previous Saturday morning, he was forced to be in that room with his three sisters who shared their lives with him, and who will eventually share in putting our own parents to rest. This connection could not be denied. We had moments of laughter, and shared our collective sharp wit and sarcasm. My sisters and I have all been trying in our own ways to reconnect, to not stay in an angry place, and to accept each other for who we are, and for what our family is now. I know that at times I have felt so far away from family, so lost and bitter to be alone. Now that I have opened up and let my sisters in, things have begun to change and I believe that we each want the same thing. We so quickly forgave our brother without words for the torment and anguish he had caused us. So many things were broken when our grandparents left us. We were left with a mixed feeling of loss and broken promises. I stood there between my brother and sisters feeling the moment years ago where we were all piling our hands on top of each other. I know that life is full of uncertainties and absurdities. This one family meeting thirty years later offered something to counter those hardships. It gave us this: a one-second-group laugh that contained within it all the hope in the world.