The heart grows up fonder: A commentary on sibling love as it enters into adulthood

Saturday, February 6, 2021 - 11:38pm

.

Illustration by Eileen Kelly

When I was 10, my family packed up our quaint little Royal Oak home into boxes and embarked on a treacherous journey up Woodward Avenue, the oldest highway in the state of Michigan. It took us a whole 15 minutes to reach our destination: a brave new world that, a decade later, I now regard as my childhood home. Well, our childhood home — Josh, my brother, lived there too.

When choosing between the house on the corner and one nestled in halfway down the dead-end block, my parents opted for the peace and quiet. It was the right choice. There were awesome kids living across the street to play with when we were younger and more when I was old enough to babysit. But when Josh and I first moved in, our favorite thing about the new house was the ice cream store on the corner of the block.

Little people live in little worlds, so we did not yet know that “the ice cream store” had a name. All we knew is that we wanted our parents to take us down for a $2 cone. We made up skits and wrote ourselves songs to perform for our parents to convince them. Josh and I knew from a young age how to join forces to fight for the common good. I’m not sure what it means that our weapons of choice were song and dance.

Talking to other University of Michigan students, I came across many stories that sounded just like Josh’s and mine. As kids, we devised our own unique forms of entertainment bolstered by the support of those around us. If we were surrounded by other kids around our age all the time, then we were inclined to come up with some pretty creative ways to combat the boredom.

For many, those other kids were their siblings. Recent studies have shown that about 80% of Americans have at least one sibling. LSA senior Andrew Kohrman has two.

Korhman described his siblings’ early relationship as “hierarchical.” Each of the three of them occupied a different role. The youngest, his sister Sydney, could always get him and his brother Alex in trouble with their parents. The oldest, Alex, was tasked with conceiving the ways they’d pass the time, including one game which can only be described as an extreme form of dodgeball.

“The game that (Alex) invented for us was he would hit these balls at us and we would try to dodge them, and I don't know how that came to be as we enjoyed it,” Kohrman said. “But he was the one that was always inventing the games for us to play, and he was the one that was always in charge of changing the rules in his favor.”

In childhood, Kohrman came to appreciate his siblings as role models, teammates and confidants. For many of us, this introduction sets the foundation for an ever-evolving relationship that matures, as we do, over time.

My parents met in law school, so naturally in our house, you didn’t get anything you didn’t need without justification. This meant that Josh and I had to put on skits to earn ice cream and do chores to earn allowance. When we grew older and could no longer exchange our cuteness for cash, I walked down to the same ice cream store Josh and I used to frequent as kids for a job. When Josh was 14, he did the same.

At this point, he and I had settled into our own lives. We have an awkward age gap: Being three years apart meant that after I graduated fifth grade, we didn’t go to the same school for six years. We were on different schedules and at different points of our lives. Between dance team for me, rock climbing for him, newspaper for me, musical theater for him and homework for the both of us, working at the ice cream store was the only time we got to see each other.

We each had a window into each other’s lives again. Not only that, but we had a common experience to bond over. I’d say that working together was definitely what catalyzed the close relationship Josh and I have today. Ever since then, he’s felt like not only my baby brother, but also my friend.

For many people, their relationship with their sibling will be the longest one in their life. You bear witness to every one of their accomplishments and misfortunes. According to Kohrman, his siblings know practically everything about him.

“It's a very unique thing for siblings, because they’ve known you since whenever they open their eyes … from day one to now,” Kohrman said.

Korhman said his relationship with his older brother blossomed when Alex left for college. Suddenly, there was an empty seat at family dinners and a vacant room at the end of the hall. Kohrman had to put in extra effort to maintain him and his brother’s relationship. He would call Alex up every once in a while, just to stay in touch.

With his younger sister Sydney, Kohrman had it easier. He says they became much closer when Sydney joined their high school’s marching band and they had a reason to spend a lot more time together. Their relationship was imbued with a common interest and a common friend group, facilitating its evolution into something more significant than just extreme dodgeball partners.

“Interacting with her and then my friends at the same time together kind of transitioned it from sibling to more of a friendship,” Kohrman said.

For LSA freshman Jessica Cho, that transition occurred much earlier. Cho described her older sister Maddie as “protective,” a quality which she admits she didn’t always appreciate enough.

“I always kind of noticed that we were a partnership, like we would stick together, but I didn't see that she wanted to help me grow and help me improve until like, middle school,” Cho said.

Cho looked up to her older sister. Maddie would pick her up from school every day, and that became a time for the two of them to catch up, debate or just chat. It was at this point that their mom got remarried, so there were a lot of changes happening at home for the two of them. Between turbulence in their family situation and the general tragedy that is middle school, Cho came to understand that Maddie was her rock.

“The respect (I felt for her) sort of transitioned my intimidation (around) her into appreciation,” Cho said. “But at the same time, the intimidation is still there.”

Cho moved in with Maddie about a month and a half ago. Nowadays she and her sister are on opposite schedules. Maddie is working as an EMT and Cho is in her second semester of college, so the two rarely have time to spend together. Still, they’ve established a tradition of family dinners which serve a similar purpose to those middle school car rides home.

“From her job, a lot of the stuff (Maddie) sees can be very traumatic, and she is good at handling that and processing that and sticking through it in order to help people,” Cho said. “And she does the same thing for the people that she cares a lot about. And I think that's one of the most notable things about her.”

Research into sibling relationships confirms that these lived experiences have lasting effects on how we experience our lives even after we leave home and enter the world as individuals. Psychologist and therapist Martin Lloyd-Elliot described the relationship between siblings by saying, “We’re all immersed in the unique culture of our particular home situation. Inevitably, any siblings who share that environment with us have an enormous influence on our overall experience of the world and we carry this forwards, often unconsciously, into our adult lives.”

I know this to be true. I’ve been on my own for three years and counting but continue to think about Josh daily. I left my childhood home for South Quad, trading the ice cream store down the street for Moon Cafe. And while Josh and I stopped working together, we stayed in each other’s lives. Sometimes I’d ask about the job, sometimes about his shows. He’d tell me about girlfriends, and I’d tell him about school.

He’s a high school senior now, leaving the nest himself next year. He wants to go to Chicago. I recently told him I’m sure they’ll have ice cream there too.

I tell him all the time about how proud I am of him. He is patient and observant. He is level-headed and self-assured. It astounds me how easily he makes and keeps friends. I am so grateful to be one of them.

There is no one in my life who occupies the same place as my baby brother. The relationship between siblings is unique. Kohrman described it as a cross between an acquaintance and an old friend.

“We know basically everything about each other, but we don't do the thing where we talk on a daily basis,” Kohrman said. “Our relationship has definitely become more distanced than when we were all living together, but we still stay in touch.”

For many, college is the first time in their life when their sibling is beyond arm’s reach. Cho noted how fleeting our time with our siblings can be. This quality was part of what she said made her begin to appreciate the relationship more.

“We kind of realized that we would eventually have to look out for ourselves on our own,” Cho said. “But in the meantime, and while we spent time together, we could look out for each other.”

It’s easy to take your siblings for granted. This Feb. 14 will be my 20th Valentine’s Day, most of which I spent without a partner. But that doesn’t mean I was alone. There are so many other forms of love to celebrate this time of year, and we have to remember to cherish those too.

So this week remember to hug your brother, kiss your sister and thank them for helping make you who you are today.