Meet the Little Kids: Sisters Diverging

This is the third 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.

Sisters never quite forgive each other for what happened when they were five.
~Pam Brown

After my oldest sister, our family developed in a nice pattern of two boys followed by two girls and then two more boys. Convenient in so many ways for organizing shared bedrooms and handing down out grown clothes, but it also enforced patterns and expectations. What little similarity existed between the older brothers now seems monumental compared to the the little sisters who give every appearance of having been raised on different planets. Like the older 3 siblings (the big kids), the little sisters were a product of the political environment that dominated the boomer generation. The seeds of feminism were planted while they were children. One would pull the seedlings out by the roots seeing only weeds, while the other never thinned the garden to allow the choicest fruit to mature. One modeled her life on Cleaver while the other chose Friedan.

If you are aware of Like Pirate Day it will not seem odd that we also have Middle Child Day. Number four of seven assigned herself this syndrome at a young age and has carried the resentment as her badge of neglect ever since. I am still delighted every time I see images from our Christmas celebrations that showed two little girls in identical outfits. The younger girl twitches in joy while the older scowls and crosses her arms across her tummy suffering the annual indignity of being forced into the little kids group, yet again. Amazing that our parents never saw the story that played out in those pictures. Every time she thought that she had grown enough to approach having our parents see her as a part of the big kids, Christmas would roll around to squash her dreams. Our family dynamic of pairing two boys and two girls was always too much to overcome.

She, more than the rest of us, locked herself into our parents view of what life was supposed to be like. Somewhere between her self imposed middle child syndrome and our parents' teaching that women should emulate June Cleaver, her personality simply vanished. For each of my other siblings, I can identify something that excited them in their youth. Not for number four. Either she really lived a life of perpetual ennui, or anything that revved her engine remained for her eyes only. She carefully studied our mother's lessons for being more polite than honest and adopted the goal of being a passive aggressive home maker for her husband, even when fate prevented them from having children.

In another of those classic Peary Street untold stories, I heard this story years after it had happened. The last slumber party my sister attended happened on a warm early spring night. Sometime after midnight, the girls thought they could slip out of the house while the host's parents slept. The goal for the evening switched from slumber to meeting with a group of boys for an early morning rendezvous. The plan came together perfectly as the two groups came united to grope for the answer to "Well, what do we do now?" With no good answer to the question, one member of the group found a garden hose that seemed to need a purpose for the evening. The hose was slid into a car window and the water turned on. The car's owner noticed activity and called the police. Soon the impromptu swimming pool was drained and all of the slumber party escapees were taken into custody. Trips to jail and early morning phone calls to parents followed. Only in a family of untold stories can an invisible middle child keep a trip to jail hidden.

My little sister was also the first to leave the east coast as she attended college in Ohio before heading to California. She was like the big kids in her determination to get far away from Peary Street as soon as possible. The distance did not prevent her from becoming her mother, following the example of her older sister and settling into a role that was rejected by the politics of the sixties.

By comparison, my youngest sister did everything she could to break the gender roles assigned by my parents, but never had the courage live her political convictions. She became the cheerleader for every new wave of liberal orthodoxy as her one act of rebellion against the teachings of Peary Street. Her pompom waving was the red cape in the bull's eyes of our conservative family. The most casual observer could see that both sides relished the coming argument as each family gathering degenerated into increasingly obtuse argumentation. The two little sisters are a case study of invisibility and ear rings for an elephant.

Unresolved conflict is the worst form of intellectual malignancy. My sister was unable to resist the temptation to keep the conflict alive, at every opportunity, fanning the embers of the anger of her childhood. She was never able to span the gap between her idealism and the pragmatic capitalism of the family. Her inner conflicts left her only the stories blaming the intransigence of her siblings. Her stories of her childhood focus on incessant persecution of the youngest daughter. Where I saw my parents carelessly herding cats, she saw a cunning wolf pack plotting to have an artist for dinner. Where the rest of the family chose to keep their stories secrets, she chose to use her stories to keep her conflicts simmering and assure her place in the family.

Most of these posts have looked at withholding stories as an influence on our family's interactions. In the case of my youngest sister, repetitive reliance on her “approved list” of stories carries equal impact. We are assured of hearing the story of the kindergarten teacher who insisted that our mother not inhibit the creative impulses of a young mind. We know that she wore multiple skirts to provide the look of a pinafore. We can all recite the instances when she was picked on. But, we do not hear the stories of growth, change or evolving relationships. Her static stories enforce her stereotypes of her siblings.

For a number of years, my sister lived in an apartment building located in the block next to the World Trade Center. She was home when the bombing of the building took place in the 90's and felt the rumble from the explosion. She was in her apartment on the morning of September 11, 2001. After the first plane hit the building, she started getting calls from friends to make sure she was unharmed. She looked up from her living room window on the 23rd floor, but could not see the damage caused by the crash because she was too close to get a good angle looking up. She was still home when the second plane crashed into the second tower. She did not leave her apartment until after the towers collapsed and her building became uninhabitable. It took eight years for her to get to the point that she could tell the story of sitting in her office, pressed against the wall in terror, while the second plane screamed directly overhead and crashed.

None of us are ever separated from our stories. Imagine growing up feeling like the only member of the family who did not fit and feeling a little less secure at home. Now imagine sitting in your home of the last decade while it is attacked from the air. Finally, try to imagine building stories about the security of home and family. Even in our imagination, we have to generalize about these stories because so few of us experience this level of trauma. We cannot imagine what she went through, so we find a pidgeon hole for her feelings. In a family that lacks shared stories, the possibility of escaping the unfair caricature is remote and becomes impossible when you only repeat the well worn stories of children.

Both of the little sisters carry huge loads of unresolved conflict. The older maintains her invisibility with her silence, dooming her to remain that way. The younger maintains her outspoken rebellion using repetition to keep her siblings at bay.

Next, the little brothers.

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