Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Shared Childhood

Thirty five years ago I was an quiet, shy little girl in Missouri who tried her best to stay out of the way. Being the middle of a pack of five siblings made this goal very attainable. And when you add to the mix a wide variety of foster siblings, sometimes up to five at a time, there was plenty of room to get lost in the chaos. My mom was a saint, but also just a woman. Just one woman who tried to spread her love and attention across many young lives. She loved us with everything she had but logistically there wasn’t a lot of time for one on one nurturing. That’s where my oldest sister stepped in.

She and I shared a room through most of my childhood. She was three years older and a dozen years wiser than I was. She was pretty and confident and popular in school. All the things I dreamed of being but couldn’t quite measure up. But she encouraged me anyway. She dried my tears when I sobbed about the prospect of never having a boyfriend. She tried branching out my fashion style when all I wanted was to wear a button down collar shirt and Levis to school every day. (with or without a belt was my biggest style dilemma) She advised me about hair styles (bangs or no bangs?) and let me read all of her Seventeen Magazines. She was very much like a second mom to me.

Eventually we all grew up and found our own paths. I did find a boyfriend (or two) and settled into my own style of life. On a cold day in November, almost 20 years ago, my sisters stood by me in velvet bridesmaid dresses as I said vows to the nicest guy I’d ever met. They welcomed him into the family with open arms. Then we all moved on with life.

Somehow the years flew by. College degrees were earned. Children were born. Siblings went through painful divorces then happy second marriages. Jobs came and went. We moved our family across the country a few times as two of my siblings settled in Dallas. One sister started out in Dallas and ended up in Atlanta for the long term. Another brother settled in our hometown in Missouri. We each lead very different lives but we will always share a very unique childhood.

Very few people understand what it is like to grow up with dozens of revolving siblings. Kids coming and going through your house, sometimes never even knowing their last names until after they were gone. Explaining to school friends how this new ‘brother’ was related to me was tricky and sometimes awkward. But I always knew I was not alone in this experience. There were four other natural siblings who completely understood my frustrations and insecurities. We each came out of that experience with different life goals. It shaped who we are in different ways.

Because we live so far apart I rarely get to see these four special people in my life. So it was a very rare treat to drive to the airport this week and pick up my sister and my brother, who had flown in from Dallas. As a bonus they brought along one of my nephews and one of my nieces. We had just three days together but it was just enough time to make some really priceless memories.

We took a long hike down the Indian Ladder trail and then visited our favorite pizza place nearby. We did the obligatory tour around downtown Albany, to remind my nephew and niece that New York City is not the capital of New York. We toured the state museum and took pictures by the touching 9/11 exhibit. And of course we rode the free carousel.

When we were not out and about we had just as much fun hanging out at home together. The tire swing was in constant motion and the bike jumps in the woods saw more action than they’ve seen all summer. It was interesting to be around these two children who are related to me yet so foreign to me in their everyday lives. I email my siblings often and every once in awhile we talk on the phone. But hanging out with a child, and with a grown sibling, is the only way to really know them, who they are in life.

Sitting in lawn chairs in our driveway I saw this teen aged child who looked so much like the sister who used to comfort me during my teen years of angst. My oldest sister has raised a pretty great kid who resembles her in more ways than physical appearances. She is kind and thoughtful and has amazing confidence, just like her mom did at her age. Across from me at the pizza joint sat an adorable replica of my brother who had amazing ideas and a great sense of humor.

It was almost surreal, to think we are no longer the kids. No longer the ones wondering where our lives will take us. No longer worried that we won’t get the right college degree or marry the right person. Most of our big life decisions have been made. Now it’s time to watch the new generation take their first steps.

The weekend flew by way too quickly, as I knew it would. I am left with a heart full of new memories and a camera full of pictures. Being around my siblings used to make me feel young again. We were instantly back to childhood, with our same pecking orders and relationships.

But now suddenly we all got old. We all feel the same age. We all feel the pressure of raising good kids in a mixed up world. Even when we don’t see each other every week, or even every year, it is a comfort to know they are out there. Four other people on the planet who know me like no one else. Four other people who understand my crazy childhood. Four other people who will always be welcome to come share a lawn chair on my driveway.

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