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.”