Sibling rivalry has existed since the time of Cain and Abel, takes many forms and can spring up for a number of reasons. A child might bully their sibling due to a perceived imbalance in the distribution of parental attention, approval, or discipline. It might also spring from a genuine dislike. Whatever the reason, I think it’s fair to say that the more kids there are in a family, the more likely it is that there will be some rivalry and/or bullying. I am the youngest of five children so it’s no surprise that I experienced a fair bit in my day.
I shared a large room in the basement with my two sisters when I was a little girl. Basements – even fully finished ones like our – are just intrinsically creepy to children. This visceral memory is exploited in scary movies when fear and anxiety are triggered or amplified by the protagonist going down a set of cellar stairs. My bedtime was a good hour before my sisters’ which meant I was expected to go downstairs and walk the long, dark corridor to our bedroom all alone. Every night I would steel my courage and convince myself that there was nothing to be afraid of in the basement – tonight was the night I would boldly walk down the hall, brush my teeth in the bathroom across from my room, and go to sleep like a normal person. By the time I got to the bottom of the stairs, however, my bravery would inevitably have seeped away. I would park myself on the bottom step for what seemed like an eternity, occasionally nodding off but still unable to brave the darkness of the hallway. When I finally heard my sisters begin their descent, I would scurry to the room and jump into bed so they’d think I had been there all along.
The storage and laundry rooms were on opposite sides about of the hall half way to our bedroom. Each of them was dark and menacing because both contained machines that randomly made scary noises – the furnace in the storage room and the water softener in the laundry room. There is nothing quite so terrifying to a kid as a loud, disquieting sound coming from an empty room at night. The storage room had a lock on the door because my mother stored our unwrapped Christmas gifts in there every December. My sister Lisa was a clever one, and realized how scared I was of the inhuman noises that emanated from these two rooms. She told me that the pilot light in the furnace was actually the devil, and the noise it made was him waking up and getting ready to attack anyone hapless enough to be within striking distance. One day as I was heading down the basement hall Lisa came up from behind, pushed me in the storage room and locked me in. I started banging on the door and pleading to be let out, and then the pilot light clicked. All motion and sound seemed to cease as I froze and slowly turned around. Moments later, the furnace roared to life. My legs turned to jelly and I helplessly slid down the door to the floor. I sat there shivering, staring at the devil’s lair and waiting for him to incarnate in some terrifying form before me. I don’t know how long I sat there, but eventually I thought to try the door again and found it unlocked. I guess the joke had lost its lustre when I stopped crying and pleading.
My sisters are five and seven years older than me, and throughout my childhood I desperately sought their acceptance. They often took advantage of this eagerness by getting me to do favours or run errands for them. They were particularly fond of having me sneak upstairs after lights out to pilfer them a snack from the kitchen. I would definitely be punished if our mother caught me taking food without her permission, so I had to be extremely stealthy on my mission. As a parent I’ve come to realize that kids are terrible at being furtive, so I’m pretty sure my mom heard me every time I made a late night foray. The only reason I ever succeeded was because sometimes she couldn’t be bothered to catch me, not because I was actually quiet enough to go undetected.
As nerve-racking as these trips to the kitchen would be, it was often part one of a diabolical two-part plan. While I was upstairs one of my sisters would position herself in the storage room and the other would stand in the laundry room, silently waiting for me in the dark. As I drew abreast of the doorways they would simultaneously jump out with a growl and scare the shit out of me. Before I could even cry out they would each grab one of my arms and hustle me into our room to bury my face in a pillow so our mom wouldn’t hear my sobs. This scenario played out on numerous occasions, which might lead one to wonder why I didn’t simply refuse to go after the first time. The answer is simple – I was extremely eager to please and naïve enough to trust them when they swore that this time they wouldn’t scare me. I was the ever-hopeful Charlie Brown who gullibly believing their promise to hold the ball in place, and they were the calculating Lucy who heartlessly pulled it away every time.
I am closest in age to my brother Michael and he and I have always been very close, but there were times when even he bullied me. I was coming home one day at the age of 9 or 10 and noticed Michael standing still in the middle of the driveway. Odd. When I got to the sidewalk in front of our house I stopped and asked him what he was doing, to which he replied, “Nothing.” I started up the driveway and he suddenly revealed that he had a knife in his hand which until then had been hidden behind his thigh. Needless to say I stopped dead in my tracks and asked him why he had a knife.
“You don’t think I would stab you with this, do you? You know I would never do anything like that.”
Somewhat mollified but still suspicious of and concerned by his behaviour I again started up the drive, leaving a wide berth between us just in case. He took a small step sideways to block my path and pointed the knife at me, forcing me to once again stop. This pattern played out a few more times before I finally screwed up the courage to run past him as fast as I could into the house. He never explained why he did this nor did I ask.
Another time he talked me into having a boxing match with him while wearing hockey gloves to protect our hands. Michael is three years older than me and thus greatly outmatched me in size and strength. He was handily winning the fight when our eldest brother walked in. David was a teenager by then and his advantages in size and strength over Michael were proportionate to those of Michael over me. He immediately grabbed my hockey gloves and started sparring with Michael, asking him how he liked fighting at such a clear disadvantage.
David is one of the most non-confrontational people I have ever met, yet he stepped right up in my defence. One of his best friends was the exact opposite. Bob was a braggart and a blowhard who reminded me of Frank Burns from “M.A.S.H.”; thin- skinned and always ready to laugh at another’s distress or discomfort. He was the eldest of four and took particular delight in tormenting his youngest brother Bruce. Bruce went to bed well before his big brother, and one night Bob decided to use this to his advantage. He plunged his hands in frigid water long enough to make them freezing cold then silently entered his brother’s room and knelt at the foot of the bed. Carefully sliding his glacial hands under the covers he simultaneously grasped both of Bruce’s ankles while letting out a ghostly moan. Needless to say Bruce shot up screaming and spent the rest of the night in his parents’ bed. I overheard Bob relating this story to David and he was laughing so hard that he could hardly get the words out.
The most extreme sibling discord I experienced in my young life was between my cousins Cam and Greg. Their family was comprised of three boy ; Matt, Cam and Greg from eldest to youngest. Matt and Greg were both golden boys – they were attractive, popular blondes who excelled at school and athletics. Cam, on the other hand, had mousy brown hair and unexceptional looks, struggled at school and had the worst hand-eye coordination I have ever seen. One time he and I were on a tennis court casually lobbing the ball back and forth for fun. Cam rarely managed to connect with the ball even though it was perfectly placed every time and there was literally nothing at stake. He became so frustrated with his ineptitude that he whipped his racket over the net, almost crowning me in the process. While Matt and Greg were highly praised and prized by their father, poor Cam was mostly overlooked. He responded by becoming jealous, bitter and depressed.
Matt mostly did his own thing and didn’t bother much with his brothers. He knew who they were and seemed to accept them as such. Greg, on the other hand, delighted in hassling Cam. It didn’t help matters that Cam made himself a ridiculously easy target by always rising to Greg’s bait. More often than not Greg would have his fun and use his superior intellect and athleticism to get away clean. On one occasion, however, he pushed his luck too far and Cam finally got the better of him.
My Aunt Carolyn and Uncle Bill both worked so when they deemed Matt old enough to handle the responsibility, they would leave him in charge after school until an adult got home. Most days Cam and Greg returned from school before Matt did, and Greg often took this opportunity to wind Cam up. He would goad Cam into a blind fury, and when his brother came at him Greg would simply deke out of the way and run out of the house laughing. That was how it usually played out, but not always. Matt told me of a time he came home from school to see Cam brandishing a knife, furiously lumbering between a cowering Greg and the outside door. He had to quickly figure out a way to diffuse the situation without anyone getting hurt. My Aunt Carolyn was a fairly icy person and all of her boys craved her approval. With this in mind Matt looked squarely at Cam and calmly said,
“If you kill him, Mom will be really mad at you.”
It didn’t take Cam long to realize the veracity of this statement, and as he lowered his head and the knife Greg bolted out the door.
Sibling rivalry and bullying are just a part of life. I have never heard of anyone being traumatized by it, or of it being responsible for breaking familial ties. Most of the time these incidents are just rites of passage which in retrospect become funny or at least entertaining stories. I know that all of the mistreatment I endured at the hands of my siblings has become that for me – the stuff of interesting tales from my childhood which have no bearing on how I feel about my brothers and sisters today. We all experience difficult situations, and in the end are stronger for having endured them.