two of us
We grew up in the suburbs, and our pediatrician's office was in Boston, a good half hour's drive from our house. Once a year my mother would take us in for our checkups, an outing I regarded with equanimity, even looking forward to the likely, exhilarating spectacle of a temper tantrum thrown by a younger child in the packed waiting room, the lollipops presented at the end of the appointment, and a possible stop at Downtown Crossing or Fanueil Hall. I remember the ride in: the thrill of heading into the city, even for such a prosaic purpose; the serene little world the three of us made in my mother's small car, passing the looming Children's Hospital, where we knew dying children were sent; and the straight shot up the ancient elevator to a high floor where overburdened nurses and lousy Highlights magazines awaited.
At the doctor's office we had our eyes and ears checked, throats swabbed, knees knocked, temperatures taken, and measurements recorded on a piece of paper Dr. Hubbell kept on a clipboard, which also held similar pieces of paper from previous years. The appointments themselves blend together so seamlessly that I remember only one with any specificity; it was the year I was in fifth grade, and I must have been ten. I was forty-eight inches tall, and I weighed forty-eight pounds, a coincidence that struck me as meaningful, as though I was destined to have a lucky year, some uncanny good fortune. I was a child who appreciated-and found comfort in-symmetry and order. What it actually meant was that I was unusually small for my age, four feet tall and under fifty pounds.
Dr. Hubbell showed me the height and weight chart as he explained this to my mother; then, a competitive kid, I was dismayed by how low my percentiles were, naively assuming they were like grades: higher was better. To myself, I pledged to grow, to do stretching exercises and eat more, the initial pleasure in my matching height and weight floating out the window grate and down to the grimy parking garage below. Then I noticed Alison's chart still out, as the doctor and my mother rambled on about strep throat season and ear infections. She had seen the doctor first that day. Her height percentile was down in my range, which made sense, as she was always about two inches shorter than I. Her weight was not. It was much higher than mine, and I noticed this, not impressed or disparaging, but neutral, as I approached the doctor's office itself, simply taking note. Alison wasn't fat, she wasn't thin, she was just Alison. Back in the car, though, as we sucked contemplatively on our lollipops, I decided not to tell Alison about my matching forty-eights, but I wasn't sure why.
Masking tape down the middle of the car's back seat-does this mean anything to you? If you are an only child, or one of twelve, probably not. I have a hunch, however, that it could serve as a metaphor for the line that divides the lives of siblings other than Alison and me. I'm not certain we ever marked this essential separation with actual tape, but it doesn't really matter. Throughout our childhood-and way too far into adolescence-there may as well have been a laser beam splitting the car, any car, in half, a beam that-if so much as inadvertently elbowed-would shock the body attached to the offending elbow right back into her designated corner. When I think of how many hours and with what emotional fervor I guarded my side-well, let's just say it's a good thing there wasn't a third child around. And I don't even want to get into the particulars of the system devised for those exhilarating occasions when the front seat was free, but I will make a shameful confession: on even-numbered days, I still feel a faint but unmistakable thrill when I sink down next to the driver.
When Alison was born, I was thirteen months old, but in that thirteen months I had managed to stake a firm claim to every square inch of my parents' attention, a claim I have never successfully relinquished. This seems to be universal among older children, who after the initial glory days forever attempt to reclaim their birth status in one way or another. It is no accident, in other words, that Cain, perhaps the world's most notorious oldest sibling, committed fratricide. When Alison was born, I took out my hostility, Cain-like, directly on the source of the shift and have been struggling with the impulse ever since.
Apparently when Alison was just a few months old, I was caught trying to turn her out of her cradle. A picture exists, in fact, of me standing over the cradle, angelic in short-lived curls and a long white nightgown, looking lovingly down on what the image suggests is my new baby sister. I can only imagine that this photograph was snapped under the watchful eye of one of my parents or grandparents, and that moments later, when this justifiably anxious adult turned to answer a telephone or open a window, I made my move-the first of many-to unseat the interloper I hadn't asked for and didn't want.
Of course I have no memory of Alison being born, no recollection of the thoughtful, sensible talks and books parents give first children to prepare them for the upheaval to come, although I'm sure I had both in spades. I do have a vague and fuzzy and probably false memory of being presented with the enormous stuffed dog my aunt bought me as compensation for the indignity my parents had brought home as blithely as one would a bag of groceries or a lamp. This giant dog now sits in a corner of my father's den and may serve him as a warm reminder of this period in his life when his family felt complete. When I look at it, I get a tiny shiver down my spine, as though sensing somehow that the heavy ceiling beams of this part of the house are about to loosen, fall squarely on my head.
Irish twins, I believe, is the politically incorrect term for children born as close together as we were. And in fact, for the first seven or eight years of our lives people usually thought we were twins, identical twins even, although I was always taller, and Alison didn't have freckles. Alison and I liked this extra attention and voluntarily dressed alike, chose matching ribbons for our braids, and cocked our heads to the right in the same stagy way in many of our holiday card pictures. In photographs from these years in which you cannot see our faces, the only way to tell us apart is the length of our hair, my braids or ponytails inching slightly further down my back than hers.
Sometimes I dream that we are seven and eight again in Alison's pink-carpeted closet, wrapped in our favorite cats-in-sneakers sleeping bags and eating penny candy while she indulges me by letting me read aloud to her from the Five Little Peppers, not in my schoolmarmy, show-off reading voice but in my real one, with variations for the characters: high-pitched and girlish for Phronsie, low and growly for the boys. Picture us in that closet: we are tiny, have straight bangs across our foreheads, round cheeks, identically formed hands and feet. Picture Alison falling asleep: first, head bobbing ever so slightly, then eyelids drooping, chin lowering to chest with every audible inhalation, until I flick her sharply on the crown of her head with my forefinger.
"I'm reading," I admonish, "stay awake," and she either nods, so drowsy she doesn't even know what I'm saying, or yells at me to get out of her room right that second and take my stupid sleeping bag with me.
Finally, picture me, woefully unappreciated, a classical Greek orator in my own mind, reading the Five Little Peppers alone under the covers with a flashlight in my own bedroom with its narrow, ordinary closet not big enough for a single sleeping bag, let alone two. I am sulking, wondering how I can get Alison to forgive me and let me come back-with the book-without surrendering my all-important pride. That's the problem with reading out loud: there's really no point if you don't have an audience, and Alison always was-still is-my best one.
If I'm certain of anything, it is this: your siblings are the only other citizens from a country nobody else will ever visit. Adults like childhood generalized, expanded to a fuzzy, falsely unifying idea made up of equal parts nostalgia and multicolored crayons, but childhood itself is painfully, excruciatingly specific, and few other people can ever come close to understanding your own. Parents are ambassadors from another place entirely; they think they understand the language, the dress code, the culture, but they are always off beat and a few steps back, mocked by the natives whenever they walk out of the room. They hail from their own countries; if you watch them with their own siblings, this realization will make you feel strange and even a little afraid, as though you're walking near a minefield or have ventured into forbidden territory with no idea how to get back home. Occasionally a glimpse of your parents with their siblings will provide insight into your relationship with your own, an insight along these lines: oh my God, it never changes. She'll be like this when she's 110.
Excerpted from The Weight of It © Copyright 2004 by Amy Wilensky. Reprinted with permission by Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.