Long long ago in my twenties, being a friendly sort of girl, I spent the night at a Dublin friend’s home with a fellow I didn’t know.
Next morning we breakfasted. He pounced on toast, butter and jam like a drunk man on a loose woman. He squirreled them away to his corner of the table, a territorial arm thrown around them. He suddenly looked alarmingly feral, like he wanted to grab the toast and retreat under the table snarling.
“So tell me, Niall” (am so not a slut, I knew his name) I asked, “are you the youngest of a large family?”
All credit to him, he was astonished at my (elementary) observational powers, but that hungry youngest child still did not drop a crumb of food.
My point being, I think the number of siblings, and where you fall in that order, affects you.
That Dublin friend I was staying with, Mary, is one of six sisters. Close knit, intellectual, filthy humored, and warm, their family is one I’ve looked up to for years. Having five sisters partially defines each of them. Growing up every one had five best friends before she even left the house. They seem to glide through life confident in that knowledge. They are used to being with people all the time and it shows. More than anything they are great listeners and they tell the best stories.
They also have no personal boundaries. When Mary followed me into a toilet cubicle one time I explained my embarrassment to her ‘sorry don’t come in, I need to change my tampon’
‘Oh that’s ok’ she replied ‘I don’t mind’. See, no boundaries.
My husband, on the other hand is the only child of only children. They maxed out the onlies in that family. He is wonderful but when he’s tired or stressed he retreats to his own world, a planet for one. When he’s at his most vulnerable he finds it hard to break out and ask for help. Yet he’s also learned to be warm and engaging with strangers; he makes the effort to make friends wherever he goes. To an OC friends are people you earn ‘out there’; there are none ready made at home. In the absence of his own family he has lovingly adopted mine and takes delight in viewing my best friends as his family too.
As a child I was obsessed with the family Von Trapp. I wanted hoards of singing brothers and sisters. I wanted to roam the countryside with them, singing my heart out whilst dressed in old curtains. There is something safe about taking your own team with you everywhere you go.
Mr OC and I have three children. It was as many as we could manage in the available time. Not quite the Von Trapps, but they’ve got each other and I’m so glad of that.
So what about me? How many of us are there in my family? Truly I have never known how to answer that.
There are four of us. Two brothers two sisters. But my eldest half brother died when I was small so I didn’t grow up with him.
That means there are three of us. But my half sister is 17 years older than me and estranged herself from my parents after my brother died, so I barely know her.
So there are two of us. But my brother is also my half brother. Whilst we are very close he has another family who I don’t know. And he is 12 years older than me. I was six when he left home. Now he lives on an island two flights or a 10 hour drive away.
After he left there was one of me. I’m not an an only child but I’m not really one of four or three or two either. I feel like I’ve spent my life trying to replace those precious people who are missing; 4,3,2,1.
But at home I’m one of a family of five. OC husband delights in the new found joy of traveling in a pack.
And recently I’ve found some sisters who I’ve never met, who aren’t related to me, whose ages span a range of 30 years, who live hundreds of miles away. We have much in common and they feel like family to me. Perhaps one day we’ll roam an Austrian lakeside wearing drapes. In the meantime we’re having a great time listening and telling stories.
Oh PS one of those sisters is a young Irish bloke. I’m sure he has impeccable manners at breakfast.