After 23 years of marriage, I still wonder why my husband ever asked me on a second date. The first time we went out for dinner and conversation, Mike discovered one of my most embarrassing faults: I was incapable of finishing a sentence. My poor communication skills had their basis in my childhood. I was one of three children in a boisterous Italian family. My brothers – one younger than I, one older – were high-strung types who had no patience with the niceties of polite conversation. So when my family sat down to our evening pasta, the conversation was pretty much a string of interrupted sentences delivered at high volume. No wonder I couldn’t complete a thought, much less express one.
My own experience reflects what recent studies have proven: siblings influence the person you are. Through their day-to-day interactions, siblings acquire skills that will serve them well in marriage, in the workplace, and in the neighborhood. Sibling relationships teach the art of negotiation (I’ll take over your chores today if you drive me to the movies tonight”), peacemaking (“Okay, you can have the game for now; I’ll play with it later”), and compromise (“We can each spend twenty minutes on the computer”).
The value of sibling relationships is constant, regardless of family size. But how do these factors play out in a large family like mine, where nine siblings all share one house, a pair of parents, and a grand total of two bedrooms?
The interactions that take place between nine individuals in varying stages of emotional and physical development are necessarily complex. The different personalities in my family – a wallflower and a center-stager, an optimist and a malcontent, a nurturer and a loner, a scholar and a naturalist, plus a young thinker- – comprise a motley group in which tempers and tendencies are as changeable as a summer sky. Naturally, conflicts are bound to occur. But clashing personalities learn to coexist, if not peacefully, then at least without much bloodshed.
Grace is an ungilded lily with an aversion to cosmetics and a preference for LAN to glam. Clare loves to preen, paint, and polish. Early morning encounters between the two could be as heated as a hotcake griddle, with Grace disdainfully tossing Clare’s toiletries into her section of the bedroom, and Clare griping about the loss of sleep caused by the late night glow of Grace’s laptop. The sisters’ incompatibility was no secret, and it seemed almost as though they would flaunt their differences when in each other’s company. For a while, the flare-ups were frequent and fiery. But, over time, the demands of big family living increased so much that the girls learned to set aside their differences and cooperate. They had to share a bedroom, because space was limited.
They had to do kitchen chores together, because cooking for a crowd and hand-washing eleven place settings afterwards called for teamwork. Grace had to drive Clare to work because I was driving her siblings elsewhere, and Clare had to help Grace with the laundry because there was so much of it.
Yes, Grace still complains that the scent of Clare’s perfume spoils her appetite. Yes, Clare still grumbles that Grace’s “real time strategy” CD-ROMs are always strewn about the study. But, like celebrity pairs before the paparazzi, the girls have lately been caught enjoying their time together. And when Grace is demonstrating her prowess on Starcraft for Clare’s entertainment, or Clare is seen showing Grace her pencil sketch of a baroque-style bridal gown …well, it’s front page news, indeed!
But regretfully, the art of designing wedding gowns is easier than the art of negotiation. Take the case of the Two Territorial Females. While big sisters Grace and Clare were having it out over Grace’s sleep-disrupting laptop light, Rose’s slumber was being disturbed by a magazine cutout gallery (132, at last count) of photogenic felines, including bald, baggy-skinned Sphinx cats and tailless Manx looking down on her at night. Worse, the pictures put there by Helen, resident cat fancier and avant-garde decorator, were creeping into Rose’s designated space, which was already occupied by images of St. Cecilia, St. Therese, and Blessed Pier Giorgio. To accommodate the overflow of cute, and not so cute, kitty pix, Rose hung beside Helen’s bed a string of plastic links with clothespins attached. (Tip: This is a nifty solution for kids who like to arrange and re-arrange pictures. It eliminates the possibility of wall paint being peeled away by tape.) Clare then helped Rose to establish her own computer account, and showed her how to set up a rotating gallery of saints images downloaded from the internet. Bonus: the ever-changing assortment of beautiful pictures inspires other family members, too.
If the opportunities for dispute in a large family are endless, so are the chances for camaraderie and self-sacrifice. Among my boys, camaraderie displays itself in varied and interesting ways. Recently Vincent floored me with a comment that I’d never expected to hear.
“There’s no one for me to play with,” he said. (‘Say what?’) He went on to explain: “I like to wrestle with Dominic because he’s almost my size. But he always wants to read a book instead of wrestle. It’s so annoying!”
To Dominic, camaraderie meant trading limericks or knock-knock jokes. To Vincent, camaraderie consisted in giving his brother a few bruises.
But over time, each stopped trying to convince the other that his pastime preference was “better,” and instead came to accept, and even value, the other’s individuality. Noted Vincent appreciatively, “If I were as calm as Dominic, I’d probably get into a lot less trouble!” Fortunately, although being as “calm as Dominic” is an unattainable goal for quick-tempered Vincent, young Gerard’s bruising capabilities are such that it won’t be long before Vincent has an in-house wrestling buddy after all. (Big Family Fact: It’s only a matter of time before you end up with a sibling who shares your interests.)
When it comes to self-sacrifice, the large family is the perfect training ground.
Often, the practice of self-denial is exercised in mundane ways, such as by allowing your little sister to have the last Klondike bar on a sultry August afternoon. But there are myriad opportunities for noble deeds on a larger scale. Certainly, it’s a rare family that hasn’t had to occasionally “go without” in order to manage a strained budget, and naturally, the financial burdens increase along with the number of children.
A couple of four-digit auto repair bills, a series of plumbing problems, and an unexpected hospitalization all contributed to a recent financial setback for our own family. (Gentle Reader, what’s the first thing you would do? Hold a family council, of course!) Mike gathered everyone for a little talk on the importance of good stewardship and the virtue of frugality, then canvassed the group for suggestions on ways to save money. I proposed that more laundry be washed by hand, and electric dryer usage be replaced by line-drying.
Grace wanted to know if I was kidding. Ben said he was glad that he’d soon be returning to college, as Stone Age living didn’t appeal to him. The younger boys offered to save on laundry costs by changing their clothes just once a week. “And we can sleep in them, too!” volunteered Dominic gleefully.
It was Clare’s comment that took us by surprise.
“Would we save enough money to let Dominic keep taking violin lessons?” she asked thoughtfully. “Because if we would, then I’ll do all the hand washing and clothes-hanging.”
Clare’s willingness to take on a tedious, time-consuming chore for her brother’s sake was a lovely example of self-denial. Its significance wasn’t lost on Helen, who later observed, “I sort of like it when things go wrong, because everybody starts acting really nice.” (Implying, I guess, that everyone’s behavior under normal circumstances leaves something to be desired!)
To be continued…
Copyright 2011 Celeste Behe