Please welcome the delightful Katherine Center, whose debut novel The Bright Side of Disaster is funny, clever, poignant, and thoroughly enjoyable. She’s been told she absolutely must stick to our topic, and cannot veer from it at all. We are sticklers for propriety here at the Debutante Ball…
Today’s topic is “sibling rivalry.”
But I can’t write about sibling rivalry. Even though I have siblings of my own and two children who are, obviously, also siblings—I can’t write about it. For several reasons:
One. My sisters would kill me.
I am the middle child between two feisty and fabulous sisters. We all actually get along very well.
But that doesn’t make for an interesting topic. And I always feel compelled to say something interesting. I can never just answer “How are you?” with “Fine, thank you—and yourself?” I always have to say, “Well, last night I dreamed I was a bat with wings made out of newspaper.” Or, “Well, I have this crazy cough that sounds like tea kettle.” Or, “Well, my son has been waking up three times a night for six weeks straight and I feel like setting myself on fire.”
If I were going to write about sibling rivalry, I’d have to say something real. I’d have to talk about the time I taunted my older sister so badly as we played Monopoly that she picked up the game board and hurled it across the room. Or the way I used to trick my sweet, eager little sister into running to the way back of the house to get me sodas by telling her I was “timing” her.
I’d have to reveal secrets and search for meaning—using my family as material.
And what’s the big deal? David Sedaris does this all the time. He has a phenomenal essay in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim in which he spills all kinds of beans about his sister Lisa—including the time her father-in-law said, “What’s the matter, Lisa? Gettin’ too fat—I mean, hot?” He embarrasses the hell out of his sister in that essay, I’m sure—but he does it so well, it’s completely worth it.
But there is nothing in this world that could make embarrassing my sisters worth it.
It’s easier with fiction. Because nobody knows what’s true and what’s not true. You can slip true things in undetected. My next novel, Everyone Is Beautiful, has a character in it with all her furniture upholstered in white—and, in truth, one of my sisters has not one, not two, but three sofas upholstered in white. The character is certainly not my sister, but I did borrow those sofas. Though nobody would ever even know whose they were unless I said something. Like now.
That’s the trouble with writing essays. In fiction, you can be as true as you want. Real life is a different story.
Two: My mother would kill me.
This spring marks the twentieth anniversary of the first essay I ever published—in my high school newspaper. It started off, “I wish my parents had never let me watch The Brady Bunch” and went on to argue that real life was better than sitcom life.
I wanted to say that a family doesn’t have to be perfect to be great—but I wound up exaggerating to make the point. Really exaggerating. Like at one point I said that my mother—who had a main course with at least two vegetables, a salad, and usually iced tea with sprigs of fresh mint on our table every night of the week—didn’t cook.
When the essay came out, a woman called to apologize for asking my mother to be on the food committee of our upcoming class party. She said, “I had no idea you didn’t know how to cook.”
So, yeah. My mom’s not too interested in seeing me write about my family.
And Three: With my own kids, we just don’t have a lot of sibling rivalry (yet).
And now I’ve jinxed myself. I’ve been at parenting long enough to know that anytime you pat yourself on the back for anything, the universe will custom-build an elaborate paddy-whack machine to put you right back in your place.
But now that I’m already jinxed, I’ll forge on and say there are many parenting mistakes we did not manage to avoid. They run through my consciousness in a continuous loop:
We are bad about flossing. Also, we never figured out how to get anybody to sleep reliably. Also, no one in my house puts their toys back before moving onto another activity, not even the grown-ups. Also, even though we started out pureeing our own organic baby food, we now keep a bag of Nerds in the cupboard to hand out whenever mommy needs to talk on the phone. Also, my two-year-old son nursed for so long that now his default position has a hand crammed into my bra. And also, and also, and also…
Really, sometimes, I think it’s a miracle we’ve gotten anything right at all.
But here’s something we did get right. When we brought our baby son home from the hospital (and just after his two-and-a-half year old sister, who had a nasty cold, leaned in and sucked on his nose) we gave him dialogue.
We pretended that he was speaking in a soundless language that only we could translate, and then we spoke his lines to his sister:
“Thomas says, ‘I love you Big Sister. You’re my favorite person in the whole house.’”
“Thomas says, ‘Hi Big Sister! I was missing you all day.’”
“Thomas says, ‘Here’s a present for you!’”
We made him into the sweetest, most adoring, chattiest little newborn you’ll ever see.
And she loved him right off, even though he was “pretty noisy.”
And what’s not to love about an infant brother who rhapsodizes about your golden hair, insists your parents give you lollipops, and makes up little ditties of delight when you pee in the potty?
Our daughter, Anna, pretty chatty herself, figured out in good time how to translate her brother’s dialogue, too. “Thomas wants me to take his toy. He says, ‘I’m just pretending to cry.’”
Now Thomas is two-and-a-half himself, and he has learned to do his own talking. And the things he says are not always the dialogue we would write. We hear, “Go away,” “Don’t change my poopy diaper!” and “I’m going to take this big, big sword and stab that mean, mean dragon until he’s super-dead.”
But, in equal measure: “I love you the best of anyone,” and “Here’s a present for you!” and, after accidents, “I’m so, so sorry.”
I keep meaning to write these things down in some master list so I can show it to him when he’s an adult and his little two-year-old self is long gone. But, at night, I usually conk out on my bed, still in my clothes from the day, before I can ever get to it.
Still, there’s one thing I will carry with me until I, myself, am long gone. His first real word, when he could finally speak for himself, was his sister’s name, over and over: “Anna. Anna. Anna.”
31 Replies to “No One Here But Us Rivaling Siblings by Guest Author Katherine Center”
Katherine–I loved your post–so funny and charming, just like your book!
Oh, Katherine, this is so sweet. It took me back to when I brought my younger son home to his 19 month-old brother. And the thrill of watching their relationship develop. They are both now away at college and the bond between them is very strong. I know they talk to each other more often than they talk to me (except, of course, when they need money) and they tell each other much more than they tell me–most of which I probably don’t want to know!
Katherine, thanks for visiting and what a very sweet story about your kids.
See, now you took all the fun out of brother bashing. I’m suddenly reminded of the story told to me many moons ago by my third grade teacher. It seems she was teaching my oldest brother when my parents first brought me home. Apparently the next day all he could talk about to his teacher and his fellow students was his brand new red-headed baby sister. (My parents were advised by the adoption agency that they were not allowed to tell my brothers when they’d be getting their new sister until they brought me home, so it was a big surprise when one morning they woke up and there I was). I’m sure my btother probably doesn’t get that excited about seeing me anymore, but it’s nice to know at one time I could elicit great emotion just by ‘being’.
Thanks again for being here!
Jenny: Thanks! I’m so excited to be here!!!
Judy: Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the essay took you back! I so hope my two will be as close as yours when they are big! In this busy world, where people move in and out of town and race around all the time, I love the idea of something as steady and life-long as a good, solid friendship with siblings. I certainly can’t even start to imagine my life without my two sisters. I talk to them on the phone almost every day!
Joanne: What a great story about your brothers! And what a fantastic surprise it must have been for them to wake up that morning and meet you! And now you all are grown-up, but they carry that moment with them somewhere in their hearts, even if they can’t remember it now. So much of childhood is that way–we carry it with us in ways we don’t even recognize… And, P.S. I’m a big fan of redheads! We have many in our family!
Katherine, I love this piece–so many things to think about in it and it evoked quite a few memories of my own siblings (who I really can’t write about much either) and of my two-year-old. No sibling for her yet but I’d love her to have one sometime for all the reasons you’re talking about. And if/when she does, I will keep your talking baby strategy in mind!
Thank you! It’s tricky writing about your own family. They don’t tend to like it very much. My family has been remarkably patient with me! …And I wouldn’t rush on that second sibling. I think it’s actually much easier on the parents if the big sibling is like 3 or 4… There’s such a huge difference between a 2 year old and a 3 year old! The further in I get with this parenting project, the more I see the sense in making things as easy on yourself as possible! Things I might once have disdained now make a lot of sense to me: Pre-packaged apple slices! Bob The Builder! Toys all over the house at kid-height! After five years, my perspective is really shifting…!
It’s lovely. Now I must rush out and buy new book! Fabulous!
Jenny, I just finished sleeping with Ward and I’m equally charmed. So
funny, now where can I get one of those fabulous sleepshirts? (and perhaps a chiffon apron?) Rhianna
When my book came out my dad wanted to know why he wasn’t listed on the cover as many of the lines were “his.”
I adored your book and can’t wait for the next- thanks for visiting with us at the ball. Do you have any advice for debut authors?
I was busting out laughing at Thomas and Anna, because I have a baby with dialogue, too, and an older sibling who also does some scripting for the baby. Then I got to the end and got weepy!
My baby’s first word was “Daddy” but close on the heels of that was “Sah!” for big brother Sam.
Rhianna: Thank you for your fun comment! If you get a chance to read it, send me an email at my website and let me know what you think!
Katherine, this was wonderful! To be honest, it totally makes me want to have a baby. Or two.
Despite the whole “setting oneself on fire” thing.
My sister just had a baby (first grandbaby, first nephew), and I am learning so much from her. And gosh do I love that kid!
Kristina: Thanks for making it to the end! (It looks a lot longer here than it did on my Word document…) And I’m glad you’re doing dialogue, too. It works! I can’t take credit for too many smart parenting moves, but that was definitely one of them. Newborns just don’t bring a lot to the conversation.
And Eileen: Advice for first time authors? Sure!
1. Say yes to everything. Book clubs? Yes! Mailing signed copies to people? Yes! Offering yourself up as an auction item for a charitable fundraiser? Heck, yes!
After a little while, you’ll start to feel the tingle of overcommitment somewhere on your body–earlobe, big toe, scalp. Make a note of it, solicit a gift certificate for a massage from a parent or an aunt, and then go back to saying yes.
2. Develop a scribbly signature. I used to try to spell out my name, letter by letter, as I had since the age of three. Somewhere along the line I noticed a tendency to start misspelling it–my very own name–after my hand got a little shaky. Now I do a K and a C with many up-and-down scribbles and some horizontal flourishes. It works well, it makes me feel famous and fancy, and I no longer ruin people’s books and have to buy them new ones.
3. Try not to visit Amazon.com. I got my Meanest Review Ever this week from a very cranky woman who, on further inspection, turns out to be kind of delightful. You can’t help but love her! What’s not to love about review titles like, “A waste of time,” “Rated R for Racey [sic],” “Stupid and has a lousy ending,” “Whiney [sic] and boring,” “Hated it,” “Dumb,” “Zzzzzzz,” and “Snoozer”? The Memory Keeper’s Daughter? “400 Pages of Dribble.” She’s fabulous!
That said, even hilarious reviews can distract you from what you really ought to be doing, which is writing.
I’m not sure I have that much great advice. I’m just stumbling through it, myself. But it sure is fun, and I sure am grateful to get to write. Bet you are, too…
Yeah, the “setting oneself on fire” thing is tricky. Because having kids is, um, an opportunity to get to know yourself in a whole new way. Does that sound right, moms? Little children can and will redefine “frustrating” for you. But, that said, they will also redefine love. And love, it turns out, is way better than you ever imagined.
Thanks for joining us on the Debutante Ball today! I also have three (count ’em) white couches, which, thanks to my two small children are almost always covered in dirt…
What was I thinking?
Best of luck with the new book, can’t wait to read it!
Hi Katherine! Great to have you here, today! I loved reading this. You have a wonderful, witty voice and now I can’t wait to read your book! Also appreciate your advice for new writers you wrote in the comments! Just say yes!
Lisa: I told my 3-couch sister about your count-’em couches and she thought it was pretty funny!
Gail: Glad you liked the post–and the advice!
And thanks to all the Debs for having me. Being from Texas, I’ve attended my share of deb balls. But never one this feisty or this fun.
Many thanks again–and good wishes!
Ooooh, Rhianna! Thanks so much for reading Sleeping with Ward Cleaver and I’m so glad you loved it!
Katherine–you totally crack me up!!! You’ll have to warn me if you’ll be in virginia as we have to get together for drinks! Sorry you got spam blocked–happy Eileen got you fixed up! Sorry bout that–I was driving to DC in a heavy downpour and couldn’t stop to do anything about it!
Jenny: I would totally love to get drinks with you next time I’m in Virginia! I was born in D.C., actually, though we were really just ex-pat Texans…
Thanks again for today. You guys rock!
What a joy to meet a Katherine spelled the old way just like mother’s name was spelled.
What a sweet story! Can’t wait to read your book.
Thanks for your note!
And glad you like my spelling! My mom was trying to pick the most common spelling, but it turns out there really isn’t one… Cs, RYNs, As… There are so many ways to mix it up. But I’m partial to my spelling, too–if for no other reason than that it’s mine!
Hope you like the book–and thanks for checkout out the essay!
I was just coming over here to tell you I linked to this on Good Mom/Bad Mom but then I saw your quote about “I just finished sleeping with Ward and i’m equally charmed” and now I’m all, “Wait…who the hell is Ward and why is everyone sleeping with him?”
Okay, Jenny, Blogess, I think this is some freakish moment of fate. I was just reading backlogs of June Cleaver Nirvana and I saw your name and was about to link it (but then my memory sucks and by the time I finished reading comments I FORGOT!!! this is my curse). So then I went into my gmail and lo and behold I saw that you had posted this comment.
I wonder how this ended up on Good Mom/Bad Mom and also now need to figure out what Good Mom/Bad Mom is because it sounds like it’s right up my alley 😉
Well, if you don’t know who Ward is, you must be asleep, girl! Everyone who’s anyone is Sleeping with Ward Cleaver 😉
(and you can go here to read more:
Okay, I just checked out Ward and now I totally want to sleep with him too. My God, I’m easy.
Hey, easy’s what we’re all about 😉
If you need someone to vouch for Ward, we have affidavits on file 😉
Actually go as Holly at June Cleaver Nirvana–she too has slept with Ward and was happy she did…
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