One day as I was channel surfing, I stopped at a show of a young man playing beautiful classical music on his violin. He’d been a child prodigy and was now a twenty-something professional. His sister, slightly older, had always been his piano accompanist.

The host of the show asked the young man how it was to work daily with his sister.

The young musician replied, “It is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we both know just what the other means and even thinks with very few words. But on the other hand, what starts out as ‘Could we step part two up a little?’ can turn into ‘Mother always loved you best.'”

I enjoyed that comment, for the humor and for the sibling insight. As an only child who always longed to be one of the Waltons, I am fascinated by siblinghood.

I’ve always noticed how my friends relate to their siblings, and my antennas are up to capture the dynamics of large families.

I love the subject of birth order, and have read books and articles, written term papers, given workshops and even formulated theories of my own on this compelling topic.

Maybe I call my two best friends from childhood my “sister” and “brother,” but I do know the difference. Your sibling is someone who is in your life from cradle to grave and, until adulthood, is always, always there – sharing your space, parents, belongings, resources, everything.

He or she may be your best friend for life, or might be a thorn in your side that you must endure until adulthood. Either way, you learn from them.

Fighting, then friends

In one of my favorite movies, “Parenthood,” we see four adult siblings and how their lives are woven together.

The youngest, who has never gotten it together and is actually thrown from a speeding gangster car into the front yard of his parents’ home, is just naturally accepted into the family by his siblings as well as by his parents whenever he shows up, even though the rest of the world is rejecting him. Siblings do that for you, usually.

The sibling relationship teaches you a lot of things that we “onlys” don’t learn until later in life. You learn that life is inherently unfair. Sometimes, in the rough and tumble competitive world of children within a family, you get pushed around, beaten up, blamed and punished for something you didn’t do.

Your sibling may never let you forget your flaws, and may also make up a few. We onlys go out into the world thinking we are cute and clever, that everyone loves us, and that life is always fair. We are in for many abrupt awakenings!

It is fun to observe how sibling relationships change and grow through the years and decades. I read a column where the writer was amazed that her children, who fought their way through childhood, now come home from college on breaks and stay up half the night talking to each other. She felt validated as a parent to see the sibling bond prevail.

I had a friend I hung out with when I first got to Maine. Then as the years rolled along, I became an even better friend to her sister. The two of them follow a trend I’ve observed, which is that when a family has only two children and both are female, they grow into adults so dissimilar that a stranger wouldn’t guess they were from the same family.

Often in their childhood, Dad takes one with him on outings and Mom takes the other with her. “Sibling de-identification” seems at its strongest with these families.

Reach out to them

The death of the parents can often change sibling dynamics, sometimes bringing sibs closer, but sometimes causing them to lose touch. If there were estate squabbles, sibs can become estranged for years, usually finding their way back together in time because there are no other relationships that take the place of sisters and brothers.

Sometimes the death of the last parent can bring sibling relationships to new levels of understanding, freeing people up to examine the old patterns from a more discerning perspective.

The two sisters I mentioned lost their mother recently (and their father long ago). They’ve become closer, and they also see many of the family dynamics more clearly now, ones that helped to form them into the people they are today. And bouncing all that off each other is a gift they can only get from each other, not from any other person alive.

So this holiday season, if you are lucky enough to have a sibling or two and will be seeing them, reach out and connect in ways you haven’t before; really get to know this person with whom you share so much personal history. Get their perspectives on your shared family of origin. Dig around and bounce it off each other, and see what insights you can come up with.

And above all, enjoy this sister and this brother for the gift that they are to you. They are in your life in such a profound way for a reason. See if you can find it.

Dianne Russell Kidder is a writer, consultant and social worker, who is based in Lisbon. She is a regular contributor to this column. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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