The nature of the relationship between my two oldest children might best be described by the words of Charles Dickens in "A Tale of Two Cities": “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
In the best of times, I watch them huddle together over some clandestine project, giggling and chattering together, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude that they have each other as company. They scamper around the back yard before breakfast, still in their jammies, and they collaborate in imaginary schemes that involve organizing rocks and sticks into piles on the grass. As I hear them speak in whispers meant only for each other's ears, I beam at their pure love.
In the worst of times, they both get sent to their rooms for fighting. The elder provokes the younger until he screams. The younger bites the elder’s arm until she screams. They steal each other’s toys. They call each other names, and there are lots of tears.
The times change as quickly as the shadows move across the floor. One minute, my daughter is offering her brother a piece of her precious candy; the next she tells him he’s not wanted. He, in turn, will think of her first as soon as there’s something exciting to see and say “Where is she?” in one breath, and in another, say a prayer, out loud, in front of her, that the police will come and take her away.
They are 6 years old and 3 years old, constantly caring for each other and constantly comparing each other and constantly creating conflicts at times for fun, or so it appears.
But for all of their superficial fighting, I think that deep down they know that siblings are a gift. Somehow, by virtue of sharing their childhood, their parents and their house, they share a bond that goes deeper than any friendship.
For my grandmother Fleeta, who died before I was born, having brothers and sisters was a blessing in the face of tragedy.
She had nine brothers and sisters, including her baby brother, Chester, who was removed from the family shortly after their mother died in 1915. Fleeta was 4 years old, and Chester was in the thick of being a toddler. He was at an age when kids are the most dangerous — able to walk and climb and crawl, but not aware enough to know all of the perils around himself.
One day after their mother died, Chester grabbed something off the stove and burned himself. The Kansas equivalent of child protective services removed Chester from the home because they believed Fleeta’s widowed father couldn’t take care of such a large family on his own. It took Fleeta’s family 16 years to find him again.
In the meantime, the family worried that Fleeta would be next, so she went to live in another state with her brother, Walter, as soon as he was married. I think the fact that her brother, who was 15 years older than she, and who was just starting a life of his own, was willing to take his little sister into his home and act as her surrogate parent speaks volumes.
Years later, in 1974, two years before she died, she told my dad she still remembered how she felt as a small girl who lost her mother. For years, she was afraid to sleep near a door because she was afraid someone might come and take her away in the night.
I’m glad she had such a broad base — eight siblings — to give her support for most of her life, although she outlived all but two of them. Brothers and sisters can be a living framework put in place to provide support in times of tragedy and especially in their parents’ absence.
My children can fight, but they can also forgive. They can spend their days as enemies, or they can spend their days as the best of friends.
But one thing will never change. They will always be family.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.