I have two younger brothers, Andreas and Johannes, respectively seven and ten years younger than myself. Ask me who or what is dearest to me and I shall name them.
Invariably, when I think of my brothers a specific song comes to mind; “My Brother” by Terry Scott and Mitch Murray. The song dates back from the 1950s when my own parents were children. As a child, it was one of my favourite songs on my favourite record, a compilation called “All Aboard”, released in 1979 by EMI Records.
“Phorr, there’s something funny round ‘ere. What is it?
Oh, it’s you… come ‘ere and sit down.
You’re gonna ‘ave the truth told about you and put on record”
Andreas was born whilst my family was living in the Netherlands. I do not remember many specific details from our first years together; it is mostly the sensations I recall. A distinct and snug sense of being part of something that had been organically extended. The events of my brothers’ births and their entry into the daily life of the family represented an extension of who I was and the little world I lived in and my understanding of myself and it.
The nurses on the ward where Andreas was born nicknamed him “Bear”, as he was a sizeable baby, and joked that he had had too much of his legs bent into feet which, at the time of his birth, had the same length as his shins. Time has evened out proportions; today he stands nearly 2 metres tall (to some consternation to his sister who had expected to retain unchallenged height superiourity at 187 cm).
I do recall our first meeting in some detail. I remember noticing the little tuft of bright auburn hair right in the middle of his scalp which would later give way to dark blonde hair. I noticed, too, his eyes which at his birth which were so very, very blue (now, bright autumn ocean grey) and which actively roamed the room, taking it all in. I noticed his calm. Indications of his character to be which today is marked by inquisitiveness, intensity, activity, supreme kindness and a complex air of contagious calm, good humour and quick temper.
I had not considered and did not consider what it meant to have a brother. I slipped into the role of big sister as easily and naturally as you like. I knew he was mine to protect, to teach and to love. I recognized him as part of the tribe, part of me, part of who I was, and am, and us as separate beings, his own self, my own and his own, my own self. Perhaps it is the fluidity of childhood memories talking, but thinking on it, fluid is how I would describe the relationship between myself and my brothers today.
In our earliest years together, Andreas and I spent late mornings under the covers of my bed where I would read to him, as my mother had to me. I played mother. Who needs dolls when you have cute brothers to practice on?
“Who put salt in the sugar bowl? Who put fireworks in the coal?
Who put a real live toad-in-the-‘ole? My brother!”
Andreas was a handful as a child. Not that he was difficult, but that he was perpetually active and absorbed in figuring out how things work. At a young age, back when 8 RAM could put stars in a young nerd’s eyes, and did, he got a pc. The first thing he did was to entirely disassemble it, to the last chip and bolt. He wanted to know everything about it. He assured our mother that he could put it back together again. She had a few anxious hours, but he was true to his word. On another occasion, my old radio broke beyond repair. I handed the radio to my brother. He stripped it and the parts found their way to various constructions and inventions. I dare say that most children that young could not be trusted with sophisticated electronics and tools, but with neither of my brothers has that been an issue.
My youngest brother, Johannes, was born when I was ten years old, shortly after the family had returned to Denmark.
Like Andreas, he was a big boy. The nurses joked that he had packed lunch for his birth. For the first few years of his life his head was beset by blonde, almost white, ringlets. He knew well the charm that he commanded and made good use of it. He still retains that quality. Other characteristics that have followed him into adulthood are a generous and affectionate spirit, great pride and sense of self, wilfulness and persistence, with a subtext of gravity.
Persistence and pride are consistent traits in our family, I might add. Some might dub them stubbornness and intractibility, but around here we name them virtues.
“He looks just like a chimney sweep, but dirt, they say, is just skin deep.
I know he’s good when he’s asleep.
But you don’t know what he’s dreamin’ about do ya?”
That Johannes was a storyteller was evident early on. At night, the sound of singing and chatter and accounts of epic adventure could be heard from his room. Should you peek through the door you would find him fast asleep. Johannes never minded going to bed as he would continue his games in his dreams.
“Who put jam in mother’s shoe? Who made real caterpillar stew?
Who locked Grandad in the loo?… My brother!”
When Johannes was old enough he became Andreas’ “partner in crime”. The things they thought up! Digging up half the patio to construct a moonscape for action figures. Indoor sleigh ramps on the stairs, cushioned by matresses. Air lifts extending the length of the front yard, transporting intrepid Lego explorers. Booby traps.
Our uncle built a miniature castle, complete with tower, in our garden. Kids would come for weekends and holidays, pitching tents around the castle and engaging in mock battles and super-soaker mayhem. We effectively held summer camps in our small front yard.
Reading this, some might assume that my brothers were ungoverned or ungovernable. Not so. Burning with activity, imagination and untested possibilities soon-to-be-attempted, yes, but they were sweet and exceedingly well-mannered. They had permission to explore their possibilities and ideas. Our parents strived to provide the most stimulating environment whilst at the same time encourageing ethics at an early age, as well as understanding and accountability.
I freely let my brothers play with my old toys. I had been most assiduous in keeping my toys in prime condition. Alas, my yellow Lego castle was dispersed in feverish building of mega-cities and the Fisher-Price castle was dissolved by rain. Not one to cry over spilt milk and appreciative of the pleasure with which my brothers played with my old toys, I took it in stride. I was too old to enjoy them anymore in any capacity other than relics of things past and my dwindling childhood. My acceptance of the loss of the toys represented my entry into adolescence. My vintage Star Wars toys, however, remain intact and out of bounds.
While I have been irritated or even frustrated at my brothers, I have seldom felt jealous of them and never resentment. Perhaps being so much the elder and being female has had something to do with that. I have always secretly dreaded having a little sister. Would I as easily have accepted and patroned a sister as I do my brothers? Or would I struggle with rivalry? I know that my brothers have had between them their share of rivalry in the past, especially in their teens. They have also challenged me in the past. We all have our niches, our special skills, talents and characteristics which define us, but we also overlap. At one point, I think my brothers felt my shadow keenly, having had a significant headstart on them and a tendency to spread my interests far and wide, leaving little ground on which they could plant their flag, as it were. I dare say I felt them encroach upon what I considered “mine”. What we have come to understand is that roles among siblings are not exclusive nor conclusive, but are, indeed, fluid. For example, we are all writers. What we have in common brings us together rather than separates us in rivalry. Both the common denominators and our differences are a source of pleasure and variety.
“Who says I’m best at – football, ludo, snakes & ladders, ‘ide & seek … Well, he’s gotta say I’m best, ‘cos I’m bigger than `e is. An’ if ‘e don’t say I’m best at everything… I’ll bash ‘im. Ha Ha. My lovely, lovely brother”
I cannot fool myself and continue to refer to my brothers as “the kids” or “my boys”, publicly or even in the privacy of my own thoughts. During the last couple of years they have irrevocably and undeniably developed into men. I have to “let go” of my boys and accept them as the men they have become. That does not mean they do not need their sister anymore. I am honoured and pleased that they still do. Johannes tells me I am the wisest, most beautiful woman in the world, and I say, but of course I am. He shows me something he has written and asks do I like it? Andreas blows in on a wind of activity, pouring forth his ideas and asks me what do I think? I am touched every time and sentimentality threatens to bubble forth from my big sister surface.
I endeavour to stay fluid and flexible.
No manner of realization can deny, however, that my feelings towards my brothers remain decidedly maternal, matriarchal even. Any occasion to “mummy” them is rewarding. I’ll make a good mummy one day, I think, by virtue of my upbringing and my relationship to my brothers.
This text was originally posted on my previous website in February 2011.