On a recent excursion with a couple of my siblings, the conversation turned, as it often does, to our childhood, with its spectrum of both sweet and bitter memories. And as sometimes happens during these conversations, I had to hear, with just the ever so slightest tinge of resentment in their voices, about what a bully I had been to them when they were growing up.
I was a shy, introverted child in school who spent most of my free time drawing in the art room. Also, I was a quiet girl, and if anything, a target of bullies myself. But at home, although I deeply loved my siblings, I could be bossy and mean and I guess I am going to have to keep hearing about it for the rest of my life, no matter how much I apologize as an adult for my behaviors as a child.
I was the first-born – an almost immediately and repeatedly displaced first-born – who reacted with the typical, normal, first-born jealousies and tyrannies that occur when the oldest child is dethroned by younger, more adorable sisters and brothers who demand and get the attention. That would have been enough, but what compounded this issue was the unfortunate fact that I was the oldest child of parents who had both been the youngest children in their family order, and who had harbored deep resentments towards their respectively over-bearing oldest siblings. Any normal jealousies or assertions I exhibited , even as a toddler, were met with a swift over-reaction by my parents, who identified as the victims in any altercation between my sibs and I and dealt swiftly (and sometimes unjustly) in what I can only think now, as an adult, must have been a form of grossly delayed and misplaced retaliation. So much for family dynamics.
Subsequently, until I was old enough to understand what was happening and stop reacting, my younger sibs got the trickle-down and became the target of my impotent rage at this unfairness. While I will freely admit (and regret) some of the teasing and meanness that I acted out on them, not all of it was out of the ordinary for normal families, and not every event was my fault. My totally adorable brother could tease me to tears and always got away with it because he was younger, and thus, how could anything really be his fault? One of my sisters – Charlotte – who had been a very beautiful child with large, innocent looking eyes – was a master at “the set-up” and had instigated plenty of events that left me getting the bum rap. Of the many stories, one that came back to me again after this last sibling visit concerned the story of Buck and the Turtle.
On my side of our shared childhood bedroom I kept my beloved collection of model horses, which I was very invested in and totally absorbed with. Being one of those young girls who was a total horse fanatic, I had named each of them, in addition to giving them pedigrees and personalities. I could spend hours engrossed in the fantasies of my little horsey world. One of these horses was a jointed model whose legs would “walk” when you scooted him along the carpet. If you pushed on his withers, his head would drop down as if he was grazing. His body was made of chestnut-colored plastic, with a flax mane and tail that you could comb. He came with a saddle and bridle and a little horse blanket. I had made bandages for his legs out of toilet paper and tape so he looked like a polo pony. I named him Buck.
Also in our room was Charlotte’s turtle. Does anyone remember those little red slider turtles you used to be able to buy for about twenty-five cents? Every kid I knew had one. They came with a shallow plastic bowl you filled with water, with a raised island in the middle for the turtle to bask on, some gravel on the bottom, and a little green plastic palm tree. What she had named it now escapes me, but she kept it in our shared bedroom, which had taken on that reptilian smell that turtle bowls tend to get when they are not too clean. The turtle itself had started to get some kind of moldy green fungus all over it. Because of this, my sister had decided to wash the turtle and scrub the slime off it’s back with a toothbrush.
“Ewwww! You used your toothbrush on the turtle?” I asked, making a skeevy face.
She looked right at me, and with a crooked, defiant smile she said, “No, I used yours.”
Not hers, but mine. She brushed the turtle with my toothbrush and then put it back in the bathroom holder. What was worse, there was the possibility I might have actually used it myself, after the turtle. To add further insult, when I started to freak out about it, she was very smug and she laughed at me, which I think is what kind of put me over the edge.
So I went a little bit ballistic (wouldn’t you?). I yelled at her. I raised my fist in the air and I bellowed “I could just smash that turtle!” (of course I could never do anything like that, but it was a figure of speech, to show how angry I was).
“No you’re not, no you’re not going to smash my turtle!” she yelled, and with that she rushed over to where Buck was proudly posed on top of my dresser, grabbed the horse and swiftly broke off his head.
Well…..I am actually laughing as I type this now, decades later, but at that crucial moment I was just devastated. And so there she is, screaming at me while holding her slimy, moldy turtle, and there I am, holding my desecrated toothbrush and my decapitated horse and screaming back at her, taking swings at each other, when my father, who hated the sound of whining, screeching kids, angrily ascended the stairs.
The bottom line was this: Her turtle was unscathed. My horse was broken and I might have brushed my teeth with infected turtle slime. But guess who got in trouble? Me. The older, not-as-cute, always-must-be-her-fault me. It was always me. And there were so many instances like this, an entire repertoire of years of injustices, where Charlotte would do something, then whine or start screeching and I would be the one in trouble.
I ended up being overly punished by my father without him ever even knowing the story, only because since there was an argument, it must be the oldest’s fault. Afterwards, I glued Buck’s head back on with some weird glue we had in the house, which dried a bright whitish-yellow and looked terrible. His head would no longer move freely and when you pushed down on his back, he could not graze anymore. Buck was never the same again and I seethed with the unfairness of it all. In the aftermath, in my frustration, of course I was mean to my younger, helpless siblings, including Charlotte, because there was no place else to go with it. They suffered the fall-out, just as I did.
I was a teenager before I figured out what was happening and was able to disengage from these situations. Also, by that time, my sibs were old enough and big enough to fight and tease right back. Which they did.
I would love to change the history if I could. It would be wonderful to hear about some of the good stuff, the positive impact I may have had on my younger siblings, if any. Clearly family dynamics are what fuel many of us into careers in the field of mental health.
It is interesting that the story of Buck and the Turtle occasionally still pops up in my mind, and that it can make me laugh, and simultaneously bring tears.