Meet the Combatants

This is the first in a series of posts that offer a caricature of the seven combatants that grew up on Peary Street. These brief sketches also point to the third guideline of symmentropy, the way people respond to what we say is rarely what we expect.

Third rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling rarely produces the outcome we expect.

I don't believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.
~Maya Angelou

A sister smiles when one tells one's stories — for she knows where the decoration has been added.
~Chris Montaigne

It could have the first time in over 20 years that the seven children of Peary Street were in the same room at the same time. It could have been a time of warm greetings. It could have been a moment of shared grief. It could have a lot things, a whole range of possibilities, but it turned into a meeting of a board of directors planning hostile takeovers. Protocols of formality in dramatic contrast to an artistic environment of our mother's basement gallery room, shut down any stories that might have been shared of our father's last days or reliving the lore that ended with his death two days before we gathered. The third principle of symmentropy predicts the unpredictability of how differently we respond to events and stories. That unpredictability comes from our different stories that show us the people and places involved, our sensitivity to our first life experiences.

Among the many things that help us create predictability in relationships are generalities, just a nice way of saying stereotype. It is so much easier to consider even our closest friends by the stereotype we assign to them than to consider all of the little stories that we have tucked away to provide meaning. For example, most people thought it completely out of character when I learned to ride a horse by gentling mustangs and getting them under saddle. When I discussed it with my older brother, he did not bat an eye saying, “Any four year old that spends a year dressed as Hopalong Cassidy probably wants to work with horses.” He remembered seeing me with my boots and cowboy hat and put the story together to allow me out of the suburban stereotype that chained my other siblings into their surprised looks.

My family enforced limited stories about all of us, so we were left with caricatures as a framework for understanding each other's desires and goals. The descriptions that follow will be those caricatures that we forced upon each other without regard to any stories that might have changed our perceptions. We all had the stories that would have permitted us to behave as individuals in a harmonious group. All we had to do was share the stories and gain some understanding. Those stories would have fostered some surprising interactions rather than being consistently surprised by our failures to act according to the stereotypes we carried with us.

A sister is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost.
~Marion C. Garretty

About six weeks after the nuclear attack on Japan, number one of seven was born. She is too early to feel the angst of those attacks and too late to feel the paranoia of communism, somewhere in between the baby boomers and the GI generation. She did not have the opportunity to feel the rebellion of the 60's as she immediately adopted a care giving role in Peary Street. Her stories remained her stories because my family's culture did not allow a woman to have a story to share, only to hear the stories told by men and children under their care while remembering to be more polite than honest. She begins the line of seven non-storytellers following the example set by her parents, but the few stories I have offer a different look than the limited nurturing, stay at home mom that is the caricature in the family.

Brothers and sisters are as close as hands and feet.
~Vietnamese Proverb

It takes a lot to rouse me out of sound sleep, but my older sister's wails and tears met the challenge and then some. It was a February morning in 1959, yes, the morning after the music died, when she ran into my room to have someone to share her horror and sorrow for the deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. I was too sleepy to cry, hoping it was a bad dream but I hugged her until she could make enough sense to tell me the story. By then the whole house was awake and coming to see what the screaming was about. I have two memories of that morning. The first, of course, is the tragedy. The second, is that my sister chose me as the one to rouse and seek some solace.

Big sisters are the crab grass in the lawn of life.
~Charles M. Schulz

Some years later, after she had her driver's license and some of her dates had started to show her the hot spots in Washington, D.C., I was the one she chose to share that with, as well. My first trip to a club to listen to music was with her. We heard Ian and Sylvia in the Shadows (soon to become the Cellar Door) on M Street. On a second “date” we heard the Phoenix Singers at the same club. I was all of 13 at the time and with my big sister and it was cool! She had all the makings of a good folk music listening counter-culture loving hippy, but she chose to get married instead of following her own drummer, or strummer since none of the folk music included drummers in the beginning. I was invited to spend several weekends with her and her husband while they finished school. I heard her dreams of becoming an architect. I heard her dreams of running her own business. I heard how important it was to her to not call Peary Street her home anymore. I never heard her say that she planned to be a stay at home mother of four, but that was what happened.

The hard part about all of this lies in the damage done to all of us by Peary Street. My sister reached out to me many times over the years. We talked our joys, sorrows and growing children, but I have no idea if she talked with any of her other siblings in the same way. Our conversations were secrets, like most of the relationships in the family. We talked at length about divorce and what it meant to children before she became pregnant with her last child, which only delayed that divorce for nearly 20 years. Her story had so many possibilities that were taken from her by her desire to escape Peary Street.

Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connections can supply…
~Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

So, I hear the caricature that the group assigns to my sister and I smile. I have stories to tell but have not. That unspoken bond of not repeating anything prevents my family from knowing the sister that I know, but at the same time makes it clear that all of us have stories that remain hidden away. These untold stories are the source of surprise when people do not respond as we expect them to when they hear our stories. If we knew more of their stories and they knew more of ours, the amount of surprise would be reduced, but never eliminated. With all that I know of her, I am still surprised by how often she chooses polite over honest, just as she was taught.

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