Sisters

November 10, 2009 at 10:01 am (Uncategorized)

I was supposed to be at a book launch this evening, but I lost my wingman to work – how quickly we return to normal routine – and I didn’t feel up to going it alone after the recent rejections. So here I am, sort of regretting not going because I’m spending the evening alone anyway. I undoubtedly would have had more fun toasting the success of others. But I do want to tell you about this anthology, because I think it’s going to be an absolute cracker. It’s edited by Charlotte Wood – one of the contributing authors, and already known to some of you thanks to her delectable food blog How to Shuck an Oyster – and it’s called Brothers and Sisters.

Brothers and Sisters is a collection of mainly short stories (there’s a non-fiction essay in there as well) featuring some of Australia’s best writers, exploring the frailties, challenges and rewards of the sibling bond. It’s a great theme for a collection, because while every family is different, there’s something wonderfully universal about the experience of having a brother and/or sister. Even in the past two days of being back in Australia, I’ve had occasion to recall aspects of my childhood as it pertained to being the second child. My sister is two years older than me, and I largely credit her with the fact that I learned to read quite early. At its most basic, this was an act of adulatory mimicry – I recall wanting, more than just about anything, to be able to do whatever it was she was doing. As I noted in a comment on the Varuna blog only yesterday, I think I chased my way into her books as a way of trying to be part of her world. Look at me, let me play, can’t I join in?! Of course, what I found were other worlds instead, but I think I first started eating up books in the hope of one day catching up to Kate, and finding her in the pages of one.

Listening to Charlotte’s recorded radio interview about Brothers and Sisters this afternoon, my ears pricked with recognition when she and the interviewer began discussing one of the stories in the collection, which goes into the importance of sibling clothing, such as a particular colour that’s perceived as important or best or preferential, and the competition that invariably ensues as each sibling vies for the choice item: the emblem of being anointed, of being the beloved. However inaccurate such symbolism may be in representing the truth of any child-parent-child triangular relationship, the fact that kids slug it out in this way testifies as to its suggestive power. And again this made me think of my big sister. Kate. How she must have loathed my growth spurt when we were two young girls. Imagine for a moment the sheer indignity of being the eldest child when the younger has the gall to grow upwards until before you know it, you become, horror of all horrors, the unwilling recipient of that intolerable usurper’s hand-me-downs. It must have been hateful to her, and as an adult of 37, it’s taken me this long to fully appreciate what that might have been like for Kate, for the development of her identity and sense of self. Now it seems such a small, trivial thing – of course I couldn’t help growing, nor could I help that we were too poor for new clothes for all – but I hazard to guess it was a big, monstrous thing at the time, something with its own obnoxious personality and stubborn heft.

Did such a thing as inheriting my castoffs negatively impact my sister? Of course only Kate could say, and she may not even remember any such thing. Indeed I hope not, and I mainly want to express how grateful I am that she was (and remains) a reader, because without doubt her reading was a critical component of my learning to read. So thank you, Kate, for showing me the way.

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19 Comments

  1. litlove said,

    Di – it’s so lovely to have you back! Welcome home!

    Siblings seem to be one of the last great unexplored areas of the relationship world, so this sounds like a timely collection. How nice that you have such a great recollection of your early years with your sister. My brother is seven years older than me, and all I can remember is us fighting like cat and dog. He taught me how to want to compete with the big boys and I still don’t know whether this is a good or bad thing…

    • doctordi said,

      Very nice to be back, although god I loved Shanghai…

      Yes, I think it is a curiously untapped area… and the contributing authors are a pretty impressive lot, so I can’t wait to read how they’ve dealt with it. I think it’s a good thing that your brother taught you to compete with the big boys, btw. A very good thing. And at least there were no hand-me-downs…

  2. Lilian Nattel said,

    Di, I see that dynamic very much with my younger dtr. Whatever her big sis does is desirable. And she too most likely will be taller and we sometimes talk about that.

    • doctordi said,

      SO desirable, Lilian! It’s so funny reading Kate’s own perspective below and realising that she didn’t even know I felt that way. Well, perhaps our experience suggests your girls might need their own clothes!

  3. kate4samh said,

    Aww! I was so not expecting this! Thank you! Books were my lifeline then. They were an escape, a place to breathe. Di, as I’ve spent decades now seeing you as the more accomplished, sophisticated, educated and yes, taller one it was startling to read there was ever a time when you looked up to me. While I am glad that I could point the way I know that you would have found your own path and blazed your own trail regardless, as you have been doing for so long now.

    Sadly, I do remember the hand-me-down’s situation. With much less angst these days! Now I can speak of it and laugh! At the time though it was hideous. Not only did you get first dibs on the clothes we were given but it also seemed as if you received the best clothes we were given! The long blue and white sundress, the blue cork platforms, the pink drop waisted sailor dress instead of navy blue. How hilarious when there is so much I do not remember that what YOU wore still comes screaming from the dark recesses of my mind!

    I don’t know that I would call it a growth spurt. You were taller than me almost from toddlerhood. You were just tall, and I was just not. If I was first off the mark, then you took the baton and ran with it. You were such an inspiration to Sam with your drive and tales of adventure. Whenever it feels like my life is closing in on me you are the reminder that there is a whole wide world out there. A world that you don’t just stride out into, but bring back with you to share.

    So, for that and so much more I thank YOU, my big little Sister.

    • doctordi said,

      Kate, this makes me cry… about Sam, of course, because I did so want to encourage her in that way, but also because you’re such a champion of mine, and so willing to always encourage and applaud me when really you might so easily (and forgivably!) not. I find your goodness inspirational and breathtaking. It teems out of you like a blinding shaft of light, and it always has.

      Hilariously, I too remember ALL these very specific items of clothing, but never before really knew the trauma they caused you at the time – I’m sorry!!!!

  4. David said,

    As an only child, the ins and outs of siblingness remain a bizarre mystery to me, though of course I have heard about and witnessed them at third hand from many friends, and from my mother, one of six children.

    But sometimes I read about sibling relationships — like yours with your sister — that make me think I really missed out on something.

    • doctordi said,

      David, you may be interested to know the non-fiction essay in ‘Brothers and Sisters’ is by a writer who’s an only child herself and has become parent to her own only child. I’m looking forward to that one particularly because Charlotte talked in the interview about the sorts of pejorative labels people so quickly ascribe to only children – selfish, indulged, lonely, for example, get quite a workout around here – instead of regarding ‘only’ in its other sense, namely as unique, rare, and special.

      But one of the things I truly, truly love about my sister is what she knows, because she was there. Also when we laugh together, it’s like no other shared laughter I know.

  5. Pete said,

    Great post (and I loved your sister’s reply too). I should definitely read this book since my siblings played such a huge role in shaping me. I don’t think I minded the hand-me-downs, although I did resent the fact that my brother was better at every single thing and that he was the favourite!

    • doctordi said,

      I love Kate’s reply too, Pete. Yes, order your copy immediately! Shameless plug for friend’s book but I DON’T CARE! Ah yes, the favourite – why oh why does every sibling always think another child was the favourite?!

      • Pete said,

        Both of my internet suppliers don’t have a single entry by Charlotte Wood. They’re both local so I guess I will have to try Amazon (but there are delivery problems with Amazon in South Africa). Not giving up though.

    • Charlotte said,

      Thanks Di for the lovely references to our book. I am really proud of it. Pete, can you send your email address privately to Di to pass on to me, and I will make sure a book gets to you? I would hate you to miss out on it because of annoying publishing / sales irritations!

      • doctordi said,

        Done! Thank you, Charlotte!

      • Pete said,

        Wow, Charlotte, thanks so much! I think that the publishers are lazy to punt Aussie books in South Africa but I’m still going to ask them about this. I’ll certainly review with interest when I get hold of this.

  6. Grad said,

    Anyone who knows me knows how close I am to my brother and sister. This piece has such meaning for me, Di. I can only remember one incident when I felt like the red-headed stepchild and that was over a bicycle. My sister got a new, blue Schwinn bicycle for some occasion (birthday? Christmas?). And my brother, being a boy, got a new bicycle for some occasion. When it was time for me to get a bike, I got Judi’s hand-me-down Schwinn. I loved it – but never felt my noble steed was ever quite mine. When I grew up and got a big girl job, one of my first purchases was a new bike. It was, it was fast, it was wickedly beautiful- but it wasn’t the old big-tired Schwinn. I would have happily traded my shiny prize for that old hand-me-down.

    • doctordi said,

      Bicycles. I hear ya, Graddikins. Empires rise and fall on the back of a child’s bike. I remember our younger brother getting a BMX before either of us got wheels, which made me murderous as I watched our grandfather teaching the little shit to ride his pride and joy behind the Bondi Pavilion. When Kate and I were finally granted bikes of our own, they were identical, which to Kate must have seemed yet another affront. I was two years younger, for pity’s sake, and should have had no claim to a big girl’s bike. These things MATTER, damn it!

  7. doctordi said,

    Pete, I shall ask Charlotte about this immediately!

  8. Charlotte said,

    Lovely to hear these tales. I must say, in the very early days of the book being out, it appears to be selling like crazy (a new experience for a book with my name on it!) and I think it must be tapping into a desire to hear what people have to say in their different explorations of this very powerful relationship

  9. doctordi said,

    I think so, Charlotte. As Litlove says above, it’s not a relationship that’s been tapped as often as one might expect. Perhaps it’s one of those serendipitous things, too, where your timing is just right; I think people roughly my age are starting to look at their siblings differently, particularly because parents are beginning to age.

    It’s just wonderful to hear it’s selling like hotcakes – congratulations!!

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