Cut from the same cloth, my younger brother and I have a lot in common. We both have a penchant for numbers, at times a dry sense of humor, and a tendency to get caught up in our own heads. We both pursued analytical degrees: I studied math, and he studied physics.
These similarities, however, come through in entirely different ways. He is able to endlessly rattle off sports facts and recall theorems from math classes, whereas I can’t remember characters from a book I read a few months ago. While my record in that damn lemonade stand strategy game (where you choose lemons, sugar, and water based on the day’s weather in an attempt to turn a profit) is shaky at best, he gave it a try and began to beat it consistently after about 20 minutes.
My strengths are in noticing all the details; I try to read into everything and everyone, and in school I was a perfectionist. I am an excellent test-taker, probably because I have a great short-term memory. Regarding long-term memory, the details tend to fall away, but I remember moments vividly, especially if strong emotion was involved.
For example, I remember when I was a teenager and my cool cousin had some of his friends over. I felt very shy and anxious, almost paralyzed in my fear to join them outside. My brother, however, was able to insert himself into their group with relative ease. When he talked to me inside, and I told him I was nervous, his advice was something along the lines of just ‘be polite and the rest follows’ (maybe less eloquent). I was so jealous that he didn’t have the intense social reservations I did, but impressed that he didn’t overthink the situation like me.
A few years ago, my brother and I were at a family party, and he, his wife, another cousin, and I were all chatting. I said something that alluded to my brother and I being close as kids, and my brother interjected, saying, no, he didn’t remember us being too close…it wasn’t a really great childhood, for him.
My stomach dropped. What? Of course we were close! Neither of us had good friends in middle school; we only played with each other for the most part. We played all the time together!
My cousin supported me, saying, yeah, we were closer than any of the sibling cousins when we were younger. We were always hanging out together.
My brother reiterated that he didn’t remember that…but maybe he just didn’t have a good memory or something, he didn’t know.
I felt awful. I hadn’t realized how much of my identity I had placed in the fact that my brother and I were close, and almost always had been. What about the times we built Lego caravans and towed them around the house? What about all the Hotwheels races in the hallway? What about running around, me the Tails to his Sonic the Hedgehog? The hours (and hours and hours and hours) of video games together? I couldn’t believe he didn’t see our childhood in the same way.
It made me feel sick. It made me cry a lot that evening, and the next. It felt like one of us was not living in the same world as the other. He and I talked about it some, and he didn’t mean it maliciously; he just really didn’t have the same memories I did. It was still painful, but as some time passed, it hurt less but remained confusing.
Not close as kids? There were so many family trips, and so many made up games. I could not fathom how we could have seen everything so differently.
Recently, though, my mindset changed. It was not one moment, but several realizations. For one, in my relationship with my fiancé, despite him being a few years older than me, we have found that we sometimes play the sibling parts we learned as children: he is the moderate, easy going middle child, occasionally frustrated to be understood, and I, still the perfectionist, like having control and sometimes insert some difficult-to-perceive bullying tactics into a situation.
I have never thought of myself as a bully. I had such a hard time in middle school, friendless, nerdy, wracked with (what I now realize was) anxiety. But, the more I talk about memories with my fiancé, the more he and I joke around together or wrestle sometimes, and the more movies with sibling stories I see, the more I find that I do possess that unique-to-older-siblings skill to subtly bully.
The other day I told him how I remembered beating my brother in some racing video games, and how I pretended to put a secret code into the controller to secure that win. My brother was so mad; he thought it was so unfair that I cheated that way. It was funny then, and, to be honest, it’s a funny memory now. But, I had completely missed the fact that, were I on the other end of that interaction, it might have felt like mild torture.
My fiancé has an older brother, and his stories contribute to my realizations about myself. It has made me think, yes, wow, to be a younger sibling to someone who is a little older and a little smarter (at least by years of experience in the world) must be hard! Always one step ahead, often twisting a few words, having a few years closer to your parents and using that advantage. Sure, paving the way through stricter parental rules, and being the first to do everything has its downsides, but I had not considered the mental anguish of sibling competition without any of the advantages.
It was so easy to lead the games, to make up the rules, to be in control. It was a lot of fun to have a buddy at home. But I never realized that there could be another side to that coin. To have less power, and worse, to follow a straight-A student, someone the teachers loved, someone who aced tests easily and wanted to spend time studying…the pressure must have been stifling. How do you deal with that?
I recently watched the movie Boyhood, and the story touches on some of this. The titular ‘boy’ has an older sister, and she is a little more interested in school, a little better at sports, and good at grabbing their dad’s attention. And watching this movie, you feel bad for the boy; you’re rooting for him. You want the parents to see how great he is, how he likes exploring, and makes interesting friends, and how he’s just a nice boy overall, even if he forgets to do his homework sometimes. Watching this movie, I felt like I understood my brother just a little more, that maybe he should have gotten a little more attention, and maybe he was a little underappreciated for his skills, which didn’t always cause the letter ‘A’ to be stamped on a piece of paper.
As an adult, I don’t see my brother all the time. He lives in the suburbs, and I live in the city, and we’re both busy people (like everyone). But I am so grateful that we are both very purposeful in our attempts to call and visit each other. We listen and respect each others’ thoughts, and we try to give advice while limiting the criticism. We make time for each other, and I think we can sense the focus and effort on that. I am grateful for what I have now, and I am grateful for the childhood I had with him; however, now, I can see and appreciate that maybe we saw our small world a bit differently, and that did shape who we are and how we navigate our current, larger world.