When I was pregnant with my oldest I was teaching for a class of two-year-old kids. In September of that year they were all the youngest in their families. Grace had three old brothers (“by the Grace of God we finally got a girl” I was told was the source of her name) and would remain the baby of the family for the rest of her life. Through pregnancies and adoptions, most of the members of the Blue Bear class were no longer the youngest by the time we parted ways that May.
One of the moms had believed that she really just wanted one child and thought that asking her pediatrician (himself an “only”) would provide her with the reasoning to satisfy friends and relatives who were insisting that her seemingly contented son somehow “needed” a sibling. Standing before me after class that day, visibly pregnant, she told me how he had responded “it was a privilege to have the undivided attention of my parents growing up, always knowing I was very special to them. I was taken to concerts and plays and traveled extensively in a way that would have been more difficult if I had brothers and sisters. Financially, I was able to choose the schools I wanted to attend.” Thinking she had all she needed to justify what others had been telling her was a selfish choice he continued. “It was great up until my father passed away during my final year of undergrad and my mother while I was attending medical school.” He went on to explain that while there was no squabbling over decisions or inheritances, there was also nobody to spend his holidays with, nobody to regale his future spouse with memories of his antics as a child. There was nobody who really shared any of his memories or to help him confirm a year that something had happened or even have an inside joke with. He confessed that it was wonderful to be an only child but one does not remain a child and in his case he found it particularly lonely being an “only adult”.
I have two older brothers, one by seven years and the other is four years my senior. I have many memories of our childhood growing up during the ’60s and ’70s in Linden Hills, a little neighborhood in Minneapolis Minnesota. Today I am thinking of my brother Steve. It is March first and he is turning 55, I turned 50 back in July.
Steve got to be the youngest for four years, a distinction he was none too keen to simply hand over when I arrived. In early family snap shots my mother holds me, my father looks on adoringly, my oldest brother smiles appropriately and Steve is either looking at me with a disapproving scowl or some more intentional facial distortion. My understanding is that he was a bit of a mischievous ham until I arrived. My father had no sisters, my mother had no sisters and through no fault of my own my birth was sort of a big deal.
Four years is the sort of age gap where you don’t really share secrets, your activities don’t overlap and your peer groups are separate. I was young enough to be an annoyance and close enough in age to bicker. I remember that he could upset me with teasing in ways that nobody else could and he had a special way of keeping a knuckle extended when he would punch me in the upper arm that really hurt. He loved Hardy Boys Mysteries, had excellent skills with a pocket knife and took Judo at the YMCA as a kid. Though we fought some as kids I would say that looking back I was really more of an attention craving aggravation to him at the time and it was our mothers “nerves” that made our typical childhood antics seem like some infraction that was somehow greater than the sibling rivalries that existed in most every house on the 4200 block of Vincent Ave South.
I remember that when he would clean his room I would find treasures at the foot of my bed (a place that could be safely reached from the doorway without actually entering the room). I fondly recall that when a new Tom Thumb Superette opened on the next block he took me there with his own money and let me choose a bottle of pop and then proceeded on to the new Queen Bee’s Bakery where he let me select a cookie. Sure we might still have had childhood arguments after that but it was an early glimpse of what our relationship would look like when we were older.
By the time Steve was in high school, with our oldest brother away at college and me in junior high it was evident that Steve was the responsible one of us three Rose kids. He worked at a Christian boys camp during the summers, had a high school sweetheart who would eventually become his wife and maintained a 4.0 GPA in an era when there was no grade inflation to exceed that. To some it might seem like he was the classic middle child who did not want to make waves. It was during those years that after returning from dates on the weekend he would ask my folks if he could take me somewhere. We would go ice skating in the moonlight at Lake of the Isles, he’d take me for crepes and hot chocolate at Perkin’s Restaurant or after making me promise not to tell he’d take me driving on an ice rink or spinning out in area parking lots.
He was a gifted photographer who worked on the yearbook and despite his status as class valedictorian and NHS president arranged for the following epic photo to be in the yearbook. He and a classmate met for an early morning photo shoot which required driving over the boulevard and sidewalk and up the front lawn of the school where they parked their cars on the cement landing between sets of stairs at the schools main entrance and with the use of a camera on a tripod and a timer took an awesome shot of themselves posed with their cars.
The autumn of my 9th grade year Steve left to join our oldest brother Bob at St. Cloud State University. I looked forward to him coming home. In a strange coincidence my school choir tours first stop on a trip to Winnipeg was at SCSU. My brothers attended the concert, along with perhaps a half a dozen music majors who were likely doing it for extra credit. Four years later Steve graduated and then I began college at SCSU. He first moved to Michigan and then to Texas, getting married during the spring of my sophomore year. It was during those years that Steve and I exchanged letters. His first letter to me at college was filled with advice of little known places on campus that were available for study, methods for keeping up on laundry and other useful suggestions for surviving freshman year. Steve’s letters were hand written in precise uniform print, on graph paper. Most letters ended with a stick figure scene accompanied by fill in the blank spaces for a quote I was to send the solution to in my next letter. For years his wife thought we cheated but they were phrases from comedians, movies, story albums we’d listened to as kids. These were the inside jokes that the pediatrician had wanted to share with an adult sibling.
By the time Steve and I both had children he had been back in Minneapolis for a number of years. I have a daughter and son in college and he has two teen boys. For each others birthdays we try to arrange for a meal out together. A few years ago he drove me around to see the homes our relatives lived in around Minneapolis and the surrounding suburbs. Some were houses we’d spent time at as children and others were places dating to the late 1800’s that he’d found by going through old census documents. Those were the places our parents and our grandparents shared memories and likely some inside jokes with their own siblings.
As much as I respect the choice of people to have just one child, I feel fortunate that despite the board game cheating, bruises, frustration, angry words and hot tears of childhood (that come with sharing your parents with other offspring)I was not an only child. With our parents gone I will say as well that I am most appreciative that I am not an “only adult”.