Mama Madison: Siblings are at least as important as parents

The holidays make it all clearer

We could have just as easily chosen to see Turner and Hooch on our first date back in 1989. But for some reason my now-husband and I ended up seeing Ron Howard's Parenthood--a daring, and in our case auspicious, choice for a couple who barely knew each other. At first we tried to play it cool, attempting to limit our post-cinema banter to Ron Howard's acting and directorial career.

But conversations about Mayberry and mermaids can only take you so far, especially if you think you might be interested in seeing the other person again. So prompted by a second glass of wine, we wandered into the much more emotionally charged arena of family dynamics. Not childrearing per se, we were only in our early 20s and neither wanted the other to think we had actual "parenthood" on our mind. Instead we talked for hours about the other main theme of the movie"the influence of siblings in our lives.

Every year I think back fondly on that first date conversation as all the kids in my family get together for the holidays. My parents had four of us, a boy followed by three girls, none more than two and half years apart. Growing up as daughter number one, I probably took on the traditional characteristics of an oldest child"studious, socially authoritative, a parent pleaser. The in-between sister was classically middle "quieter, shy and often falling through her own perceived (or created) cracks. The baby was textbook youngest--gregarious, confident and popular. She hosted her first boy-girl party in sixth grade. I wasn't even invited to one until tenth. And my poor older operated as an only child in a sea of estrogen. He pretty much kept to himself, his only means of preserving sanity.

At the time of our "Parenthood" conversation, I had just finished my first year living the "Working Girl" dream"commuting to a "responsible" big city job wearing nude hose with tennis shoes and carrying a briefcase. That night I told my husband-to-be of my loner brother, now living as far away from the sorority house of his birth as possible, working in film and wearing grunge before it hit mainstream. I "introduced" him to my middle sister who was still living at home, taking a few community college courses and struggling against becoming the family black sheep. And I told stories of the hyper-social youngest, never much of a student in the k-12 years, who appeared to be majoring in dormitory romance during her freshman year of college.

But fast forward 20-plus years and my siblings and I are now comfortably settled into our 40s. And in many ways we are not recognizable. My brother, the weird family separatist, is now a dad with two little boys (his reward for having endured all the sisters). He is always the first to jump at a chance to get the whole clan together. Our middle sister, the quiet one, literally found her (singing) voice in her mid 20s, ended up getting a conservatory education and sings professionally. And the youngest, uncharacteristic of her party-girl start, has become a college professor. One never would have guessed back then that I'd be the one writing about motherhood and minivans while she is tackling Emerson and Nietzsche.

Spending time with my siblings again reminds me that who my own kids are now is not necessarily reflective of who they might be in 30 years. The sixth-grade dreamer may become the scientist. The ninth grade historian could easily become the Hell's Angel member. And my 9-year-old daughter might really make good on her promise to live alone in the country with 100 cats.

But I hope, regardless of what surprises they have in store, that they'll all return home as my siblings and I do at least once each year, to revive their childhood roles. I will want them to fight over who gets to sit next to me at dinner and about who's turn it is to empty the dishwasher. I will enjoy hearing them argue about who got the short end of the stick growing up and who was actually mom's favorite. It's inevitable that there is still one major family blow-up every time all my siblings are all together. And I have to believe the arguments sound like music to my mom's ears. These are the sounds of family -- even when painfully off-key.

To this day I still wonder where my husband and I might be had we wandered instead in to Turner and Hooch. But I'm awfully glad we didn't. Because while I'm not sure I believe movie choice is providential, I am really glad I have my family, both siblings and offspring, instead of a slobbery French mastiff.

At least on most days.
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