Our family consisted of four boys and our mom and dad. We apparently had a sister that died very early in life. She was born between my next oldest brother and I. Still hoping for a girl, my parents had the name Christine Annette lined up in the event that I arrived as a female. Alas, I was a boy. I was christened Christopher Lynn Cudworth.
I didn’t know about that sister until very late in life. She came up in conversation at some point with my mother and I went, “What? Wait…” and asked to be told about this sibling that I never knew. Growing up in the 60s, there were many family “secrets” that never got talked about.
Thus my brothers and I were left to fight it out in sibling rivalries. We competed at everything we did. From fighting for food at the table to games of basketball, soccer, baseball and side yard football games, we played and we played hard.
Sometimes the competition turned into fights. Mostly it was one punch and over when it was my brothers pounding me. But that one punch sent a message to me that I had better not take it further with them. We were like chimpanzees.
The much more biting form of competition was the verbal repartee amongst us. Teasing was a ritualized form of brotherly torment. My brothers, being full of creative and dark energy, excelled at it. As a sensitive kid, it was the taunts and ridicule at times that hurt the most.
I once read an article in the Utne Reader that suggested our siblings raise us much more than our parents. If that is the case, my siblings raised me to be feisty and possess a strong sense of social justice. All that teasing made me eager to fight back. So I did.
But you can’t grow up without adding in the influence of your parents. My father’s fierce temper and occasional bouts of physical punishment impacted us all. Some of the sibling rivalry stuff was echoes from our father’s wrath and rage. There is more than one way to pass it along.
Yet my father also guided us wisely on many fronts when it came to sports. He refused to let us engage in either wrestling or football. He considered the first a graceless dirge of physical competition and the latter just a stupid way to mess up your body.
I still wrestled my way to a 7th grade championship at the behest of our gym teacher Mr. Davis. He arranged a wrestling tournament because he was a wrestling coach and a gymnastics teacher, so our gym classes involved a healthy dose of both. Being the competitive kid that I was, there was no way I was not going to wrestle given the challenge put forth by Mr. Davis.
So he called us out of class to wrestle our classmates. I remember trying to pin a wriggling friend named Greg to the mat. I felt pretty bad about it, but business was business in my competitive world. No mercy. Beyond that, I know there were other matches, but I don’t recall them so well. They were all against friends. Maybe I’ve blocked those victories out. Perhaps I even wrestled my best friend David. In any event, I beat everyone and earned my way to the final match against a guy named Tim.
Tim had jet black hair and a naturally tan complexion. His muscles also bulged. So while we were in the same weight class, the match seemed unfair to me. He was handsome and the girls loved him. I was a bit homely (by my own estimation) and had barely latched onto a Tier 2 girlfriend who at least wore short skirts. Thus I never thought I could beat him.
Yet Mr. Davis looked me in the eye before the match and something registered in my soul. All that competition between my brothers and I had taught me that much of competition is about mental assertion and momentum, and Mr. Davis somehow knew that. So I wrestled Tim and if memory actually serves correctly, I won.
Life is a series of experiences like that. Sometimes we exceed our own expectations. To some degree, the control group for that experiment is our sibling rivalries. They test us from the moment we’re born. By the time we go out in the world, there is an entire catalogue of successes and failures already filed in our memory.
For example, the biggest achievement I could imagine in my elementary years was coming up with a joke funny enough to make my older brothers genuinely laugh. This was not an easy goal to hit. One had to be alert to the entire conversation and understand most of its context in order to enter with a witty comment. Then, would it be a mature enough comment to register as funny? Would it be quick enough to enter the joke stream at just the right time? The ultimate compliment would be, “Hey Chrissy, that was really funny.” They called me Chrissy. As did my mom. Perhaps they got their sister and daughter after all?
Brothers and sisters
Later in life, we relate to our teammates as we once did our siblings. All those miles of running done between the ages of 13 and 28 years old were spent in the company of a long series of teammates and rivals. And still, it was a prized ability to be able to make your teammates laugh. To entertain. To compete for witty approval.
Certainly soldiers in battle become brothers or sisters in arms. The same goes for athletes who enter the realm of competition together. We bond with them and sometimes that bond lasts forever. We also have sibling rivalries with those teammates as well. Two of my college running teammates roomed together freshman year and one refused to talk to the other within the confines of their own room.
That’s a little messed up, but that’s how rivalries sometimes play out until all the issues can be worked out. It’s a power struggle. That’s why those early sibling rivalries with our familial brothers and sisters are so formative. They teach us how to survive in the face of close competition.
My next oldest brother actually got royally screwed in sports when our family moved from Pennsylvania to Illinois. He was going into his senior year in high school when we moved. That is possibly the worst time of all to change schools. Moving out to the cornfields of Illinois, he lost the two sports at which he had earned starting positions in soccer and baseball. He was also aligned to be on the varsity basketball team.
So lacking a soccer team, he went out for cross country. While he was not a natural runner, he got into the high 17:00 range for three miles on a hilly home course. Not bad for a guy who did not train for running the first three years of high school. He’d been a star goalie back east. He also went out for track that spring and did high jump and long jump. What a gamer.
At that time, I was busy trying to make my own way in the world of 8th grade at the new school. Thus most of my brother’s sibling suffering was appreciated in retrospect. I never saw him compete in a single cross country meet or track event. But the very next year I went out for cross country as well, and made the varsity as a freshman.
My brother could have been vicious or jealous about that. But I recall nothing but encouragement and admiration for my efforts. Because along with sibling rivalry in this world, there’s also thing thing called sibling pride. For all the testing and teasing and torment that can go on between brothers and sisters, there is still love to be found.
And that is all.