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Siblings

April 11, 2016

I had never heard of “Sibling Day” until this one: and in choreographed spontaneity, hundreds of images have hit the InterWebNets of happy, quirky, cute brothers and sisters. Given my circumstances I am not sure what to do with this.

I have two siblings. But I have no photos of them to show.

Having survived World War II, my parents knew it was time to have children. They knew because in living the life of Mid-century Caucasian American Survivors, victory after such an extreme threat meant celebration via repopulation – everyone was doing it.

Only my parents skewed older than the typical Boomer-Begating Breeders. Upon return from his overseas naval duties in late 1944, my father was in his mid 30’s – and my mother was well into hers. They avoided having children in the 1930’s because, well, they were having too good a time.

Before the war, my father made a relatively large amount of money as he was in one of the great law practices at 1 Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, having been an excellent student and a favorite of several noted law professors at Cornell.

My mother was talented as a rendering artist, very beautiful to my father, and thus a bride in her early 20’s, earning some pick-up money, but more a life of having great good times with her up-and-coming love mate. It seems none of their close friends had children in those years as all their friends seem to have been found in the Stork Club, 21, the Kit Kat Club and other legendary Jazz Age haunts.

They saw a 16 year old Ella Fitzgerald, became good friends with Cozy Cole and my father sometimes sat in with the bands as a drummer in Harlem, and after drank “hootch” with them as they smoked “gage”.

My mother was quite unfiltered, having been the first born beauty, and went to art school (also Cornell) (tho no meeting there) – she had really no regrets or tragedies, with a doting Dad and a sometimes equally adventuresome Mom. She let her children know pretty much everything about their Roaring 1930’s loves, – living together before marriage, partying all night to come home, shower and go to work, and the many (illegal) abortions her friends had so they could keep living the way they loved to live.

After a hard early childhood when his mother died when he was one, and he was sent to live with spinster aunts in Canada, my father became a very good student. He was almost to Partner when Pearl Harbor derailed everything. He would have been drafted, despite a full decade serving as a reserve in the Army Artillery after ROTC in college. Thankfully getting a Navy commission he spent a lot of time stateside, but the last 2 years he was at sea, and there heard of many, many friends being killed or coming close.

Death was not on the radar in their lives until the War: so having their noses rubbed into it, late in life, they, and all of their friends, knew making babies was now the point of making whoopie (where once it was a terrifying potential byproduct to be prevented by any means necessary).

Almost immediately upon my father’s return my mother was pregnant: no complications amid the universal drinking and smoking that every 1944 mother thought was harmless: coming to term, with the baby about to emerge she went to the hospital: her doctor was playing golf, she was encouraged to hold off delivering as long as she could because he would be back “later” – she was put under (as all were for her class at that time) and awoke to find her first born child, Stevens Winthrop Dickinson was “stillborn”. I have no doubt had he lived, I would not have been born – a complicated sibling relationship.

Whether it happened at the 2nd Tee or at the 19th Hole, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my brother’s neck, and he died before living.

Death screaming at them in all its cruelty, my parents immediately responded with another new life, my sister and she was “Perfect” – she was as beautiful as her mother, healthy and vital. But it had been a rough ride, and my parents waited 5 years before creating their first born living son, his name memorializing their lost son: Winthrop Stevens Dickinson.

Two children in downtown New York did not fit the model of the moment, and my parents followed their friends, again, to the suburbs in 1952. They found a very nice, somewhat debilitated home where my mother could decorate, my father could renovate. They could barely afford it, getting a mortgage from a friend, and they could only obtain its price tag because it was in what they felt was a “second tier” Westchester town.

Once there, my 40 year old mother knew she now had a good 5 years grace period after Win was born and, against my father’s initial reticence, conceived me.

It was clear that in the 1950’s they were exhausted 40-something’s creating a home, maintaining a derailed/re-railed law practice and 2 other children, so they opted for the easy name selection: after my Dad: George Arthur Dickinson, Jr.. I have no idea when, but to distinguish me, in utero, from by father they code-named me “duo”(for “Junior”) and it stuck: like Muffy or Buffy or Skip.

The pressure was increased by my presence. The happy pre-war pre-child years became ever more distanced by the extremities of parenting and home creation, despite my mother being a full time homemaker, and having the children in private schools. Drinking, always there, morphed from celebratory to unrelenting.

Their 3 children’s birth order were split by 5 years, so school was in place before the next birth, so diapers were one kid at a time, so chaos could be controlled. Or at least they thought it could.

Amid a late-in-life radical break from the Jazz Life to Suburban Family Life, with all decisions colored by uncertainty and alcohol, “Perfect” became a defendable standard for most things. “Perfect” as a standard turns “Good” or “Unknowable” into “Failure”. The spiral of feeling out-of-control, of fully swept into a suburban life they never planned for, but fully immersed themselves in, got worse as their children became who they naturally were.

When benign perfection was supposed, my sister got a few B’s and knew my father, never having experienced that, would be apoplectic – he, and the scotch within him, were.

A different private school was tried, then another, a therapist, then a classic Senior Year Bermuda prep school spring break and a Freshman from Dartmouth – and another male love object other than my father snapped all connection to perfection.

Dropping out of an elite girls school a couple of months before graduation was not “perfect” but it was necessary – as it was to head out to California at 19, and finding another man to love, that crashed and then back to another man back home, a covert wedding, revealed, and then a secret divorce a year later – all before 23.

Finding her ex to be a great life partner absent marriage they reconnected and have been together over 40 years. But in a place of conditional love based on performance, control of yourself becomes necessary: so my sister seldom leaves her town, her dogs seldom leave the basement, food is precise, health is intensely monitored: my sister has a life born of conditional love, where performance keys connection. My Christmas Cards need to be what she knows to be legitimate (versus the odd updates I send out usually before Easter).

My brother had a harder time.

His life was mostly C’s, and my ever-more exhausted parents were exasperated, but tempered by my sister being who she was: and let my brother simply do as he could, always knowing he was a disappointment.

So he smoked, he made money, went to public high school, was shipped off to a state school in Buffalo where drink and other distractions meant a never completed life there: college ended after a few years of half-hearted effort. Photography was huge for 2 decades, as was a first wife, that ended, then the Episcopal Church was a centering influence and another wife, and that ended.

Upon the final fiduciary meeting after my mother’s estate was completely resolved, long after my father had died, my brother revealed he had found what I hope is the final track to feeling loved: he came out as always being a woman, but never being able to discern that until after our parents were dead: I then realized that the amazing Playboy centerfolds in every post adolescent bedroom he had were role models (but for me they were the next level above the National Geographic sex-ed visuals.)

Neither sibling had children, despite relationships that could have supported that decision: they had seen the downside of uncertainty being compounded by radical action. My older sister has never had a drop of alcohol, I do not know the limits of my other sister’s intoxicants, but there were many when I knew her as my brother.

I send things to my siblings several times a year: stuff about their nephews, our life, my work. I receive a correct Christmas Card, a birthday card and occasionally a call from my older sister if things are needed. I love trying to help, but you cannot help what is out of your control.

But I have heard nothing from my other sister, who lives but 75 miles away, in 15 years.

My siblings did not ask to be born, they could not follow the rules for love my parents created from what they understood to be correct criteria. That failure to connect meant no other family member, parent or sibling, attempted connection to me. I survived by largely following the Rule Book my parents never imposed. That, of course, burdens my siblings’ view of their younger brother.

Their lives live with me most every day. I hope they are happy, but that, in truth is unknowable, despite being siblings…

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Eileen Banisch permalink
    April 11, 2016 11:10 am

    Wow. Your best ever.

  2. Renee A McIntyre permalink
    April 11, 2016 7:01 pm

    Wow Duo, thank you for your courage!! We can never choose our family of origin, only how we decide to deal with our legacy. I am grateful that you decided to go forward with courage and marry Liz and share two wonderful young men with the world. As a therapist I have shared the journey with many wounded children and help them see that no one is guaranteed “perfect parents” and that if we have to be perfect, none of us would have children. That is why it is so important to create “heart family” people that we can trust, have reciprocal relationships with, and be ourselves. What a wonderful post on a day I never knew existed

    • April 12, 2016 2:34 pm

      thanks for the thoughts: there are more triggers in the instant worldwide web to flash on the dim word of the pre-web than I ever thought existed…

  3. October 6, 2017 9:15 am

    Wow. Considering all, you did exceptionally well. Good on you!

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