“You must be the oldest of your siblings,” people say when I’m being bossy and trying to schedule social events three months ahead of time.
“You must be the middle child,” people say when I’m feeling melancholy and mopey and like no one really gets me.
“You’re obviously the baby in your family,” people say when I’m acting silly or hedonistic or a little bit entitled.
“Are you an only child?” I’ve been asked once or twice, when people see me with my parents.
The correct answer to all of these questions and accusations is yes. Yes. To all of them. And also no.
I am the oldest of three. I am also the middle of five. I am also the youngest of three. I also spent four or five formative years alone with my parents in the backwoods of Ohio, which was enough for me to understand the basic idea of being an only child. When it comes to knowing myself through my birth order, I got nothing.
I often ask people about their siblings because I believe you can learn a lot about a person this way, and I usually get a pretty straightforward answer. But sometimes they flinch or take a breath before answering, and then I try to change the subject. Not because I don’t understand, but because I absolutely understand. When people as me, “How many siblings do you have?” I like to answer, “A lot!” Which usually leads to the person hypothesizing about how full and bustling and Brady Bunch-like our house must have been when in reality, due to age differences and distance and divorces and secrets and lies, we all basically grew up alone.
Sometimes I’ll take them on a fun-filled roller coaster ride as if to say, “I’m quirky! Isn’t this wild? Look at all these siblings!” because trying to entertain people with the details of my life is an old habit of mine. This results in me saying things like “Hmm, let me try to remember, well it’s four sisters and three brothers and a couple of strays.” Or, if I’m not in the mood and feeling like that surly middle child I might say, “There are three of us.” Because usually we are in groups of three: Me and two others. Just not always the same two.
I am the ringmaster of this circus of questions, keeping everything under control and organized because I don’t want to make someone who asked an innocent question feel super uncomfortable by asking them a bunch of sad but honest questions in response. Like:
“That I talk to?” “That I know where they even live?” “That I’ve met?” “That I grew up with or like, found out about later?” “Living or dead?” “Biological siblings or just like, siblings in general?”
I could tell an entire story about each of them: My older sister who was once a roller skating champion, and was briefly married to the drummer of an ‘80s heavy metal hair band. My other older sister, who is hilarious and an art director for fancy photo shoots in New York. We like to text each other pictures of food we find lying around on the street in our cities, with captions like, “I made you a snack!” I have an older brother I haven’t seen in eight years. I don’t even have his phone number. I’m not sure why we don’t talk, we just don’t. I have another older brother who I’m close with: I have a picture on my fridge of me pantsing him at the Wisconsin State Fair when we were kids. I had a little brother who was one of my best friends. One day he was there, the next day he was not. I think we all carry around a lot of guilt about that. There are a few random kids that some of my parents had before any of us were around, and gave up for adoption. I’m kind of one of them, in a sense. But the story I want to tell right now is not about any of these people. It’s about the two little sisters I never even knew I had until I was 25.
I spent my entire life wishing I had a little sister. I used to beg my mom to adopt one more kid so that my wish would come true. I lived in a world of boring brothers and big sisters who were much older than me, too old to be of any use. I thought it would be so fun to have a younger sister to dress up and boss around and pass my endless wisdom onto.
What sucks about wishes is that they sometimes come true. But always in a really messed-up filtered sort of way. Through most of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I wished to somehow have a little sister to call my own. Little did I know that I actually had two of them, living one state away.
There was a pair of high school sweethearts in the late ‘70s. She was very short, he was very tall. He came home from college for Thanksgiving break and nine months later on a Tuesday night, I was born.
When I first met her, I walked into the room and we hugged for a really long time without talking. She was wearing a yellow blouse and smelled like cigarettes and I felt really aware of how small she was and almost maternal towards her until we came apart and looked into each other’s faces, and then I almost screamed at the absolute weirdness of seeing a version of my own eyes looking back at me. After I hugged her I hugged him, my birthfather and noticed my own eyes in his face too. It was, in every sense of the word, surreal.
My birth parents were there at that first meeting because shortly after I was born and given up for adoption they married each other, and they are still married to this day. And that is why I have two biological little sisters I never knew I had until I was 25.
We’ve brought photo albums to this meeting. I show them mine first. Me with my redheaded mom and my super tan brother at the park, at our lake house, visiting my grandpa in Myrtle Beach. Me and my dad eating ice cream. Me and my little brother holding up a pair of kittens, me and my older sister pointing bananas at each other. My adoring stepdad hugging me at my high school graduation. My dad in a wheelchair at my college graduation. My friends, my cat, myself. I look at all these photos with them, photos that I have seen a million times, and they all look brand new, because now all I can see are her eyes and his nose and her hair and his face shape melded together in the space I had previously recognized as just “me.”
They are mesmerized by the photos and seem to be in a state of disbelief. They pull out their photo album and show me, all at once, my ancestors, my grandparents, themselves, and pictures of my youngest sister, Maria Kaitlin. She is tall and thin and looks like a ballerina. She seems familiar to me, with her thin lips and faraway expression. Not like someone I have seen, but like someone I experienced being. “She goes by Maria now, but everyone in the family still calls her Katie,” my birth parents say. “What should I call her?” I ask. They stammer. They eye each other. They don’t really know the answer. Eventually when I meet Katie (I will call her what they call her), I find that we are strikingly similar. Sometimes I will look up and see people staring at us in disbelief only to discover that we are both awkwardly chewing the sides of our thumbs or twisting strands of our hair in the exact same manner at the exact same time while staring into space. We don’t look the same. But we do seem to process the world in an identical way. A month after meeting my birth parents, I fly out to Seattle, where this family lives now. I meet Katie. She shyly says hi and gives me a hug, then hides in her room for the remainder of the weekend. I totally get it.
Back in the room where I’m meeting my birth parents, it’s time to show me pictures of my other little sister Sara, the one born right after me. They are hesitant. “So, here’s Sara…” they say. “She’s…well…I mean…well we can just show you…” Suddenly I am at a loss, because all I can see are photos of myself in places I have never been. Here I am climbing a tree I never climbed. Here I am in a fishing boat holding up a fish I don’t remember catching. Here I am in a shirt I never owned at the junior high graduation I never had. Here I am with my tall dad and my short mom and my very thin little sister having Christmas together, opening presents I never received, and I am stunned because it was one thing to see my eyes divided between a man and a woman I had never met before but it is very different to see my entire self (longer face, darker hair, wilder spirit) in these photos.
While Katie hid in her room and my birth parents and I politely asked and answered lots of questions, we all waited nervously for Sara to arrive. A car pulled into the driveway. There was a long wait. A car door slammed. A key turned in the door. The door opened. Sara walked into the room. I walked into the room. I sat on the couch, breathless, or was it Sara? Katie came out of her room for a moment and hugged her sister, the one who wasn’t me. But Sara could only stare at me, speechless. My birth parents stood motionless, trying to figure out what to do or say. Sara walked towards me. She cocked her head and we stared at each other. It was like looking into a mirror, six years younger. I wanted to laugh; it was like a Harpo Marx sketch or the opening credits of Sister, Sister.
Looking at her, there was so much big-sistering I wanted to do. So much I wanted to warn her about, until I remembered that she wasn’t me, she was a stranger who looked like me (slightly longer face, slightly darker hair).
She reached her arm out towards my face, then lowered it as if to hug me, then wrapped it around herself instead. “Do you…like tequila?” she asked in a voice that was nothing like mine at all, even though it seemed to be coming from my face. She had a West Coast accent. “Ah, ya,” I responded, all Midwestern. Our voices were a constant reminder of the distance between us.
“Let’s go drink some,” she said. She grabbed my hand, pulling me into the kitchen. No one followed us. We stood at the kitchen counter and never said a word and just stared, unabashedly, into our own faces as she poured two shots of tequila. Clink, drink. Then two more. After the third round she finally exhaled and smiled. “Ok…hi!” she said, and came around the counter and hugged me tightly. “Holy shit.” I said, terrified, while hugging back the little sister I had always wished for.
A couple days later while waiting in the airport to fly back to Chicago, I found a card that Sara had snuck into my backpack. That’s a very “me” type of thing to do. She wrote that she was honored to share a face with me, and that meeting me made her feel excited about who she was going to become in the future. It was the type of thing a person says that makes you absorb them directly into your heart forever.
I want to tell you that my little sisters and I are really close now, that we visit each other once a year and have sleepovers and paint each other’s nails, but you seem like a smart person and you must already know that’s not the case. We are Facebook friends; we’ve seen each other a few times since that first trip — mostly at funerals for grandparents I never really knew. I know those girls. And I don’t. I love them dearly, but also sort of sadly, and from far away. They are sisters to each other and I am their stray. Identity language is important when talking to adopted people, and because of that these girls can be called my sisters or my biological sisters but I bristle a little when people refer to them as my “real” sisters.
“Real” is reserved for all those kids standing next to me in the photos in the park and at the Wisconsin State Fair and at my grandpa’s house in Myrtle Beach and at my high school and college graduations. The brothers and sisters I don’t share eyes or faces or DNA with, but I do share parents and 37 Christmases and guilt and grief and love and everyday irritations.
Does birth order say anything about what kind of person you are? Sure, maybe. I’d tell you it’s complicated.
How many siblings do I have? I don’t know, a lot.
Brooke Allen is a Chicago playwright and storyteller. Her work has been published on such websites as Story Club Magazine and Role Reboot. She has performed with YBR, Essay Fiesta, Mortified, Paper Machete, Guts and Glory, Write Club, and more. She loves pizza and cats.
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