On a cold December morning in 1963, I and the rest of Mrs. Thiele’s morning kindergarten class took our places on what passed for a stage in the front of the classroom to perform our Christmas program. Amongst the handful of parents in the audience, I spotted my Mom and my almost 21 month old little sister, Jenny. Soon afterwards, Jenny spotted me, and was so surprised and thrilled at seeing her big brother that she broke free from my Mom, ran up to me, and gave me a big hug. The festivities were just about to begin, and there was no way she was going to leave my side. My Mom tried to gently cajole her back to her seat, but Mrs. Thiele, ancient and sweet, told her it was okay if Jenny wanted to join in the fun.
And so she did, sharing the stage with my classmates and me and even getting her own pair of paper antlers for the stirring reindeer scene, where we all held the antlers to our head and did our best reindeer impersonations, running and jumping about in our own un-choreographed interpretive dances. As Jenny enthusiastically joined in, her hands holding her paper antlers to her head and a determined look on her little face, I remember feeling a combination of embarrassment and pride, embarrassed by her disruption, and proud of not only her convincing portrait of a young reindeer but also of her devotion to her big brother.
The program continued, with Jenny participating in every part of it, until it was time for the moving conclusion, Mrs. Thiele’s reading to us some Christmas story from some big book. Those of us in Mrs. Thiele’s class, veterans of the kindergarten experience that we were, understood that story time meant sitting silent and still. Jenny, the 21 month old rookie, didn’t grasp this, and kept making noise and running about with her antlers, not ready for all the excitement of the morning to end. She was disruptive enough that my Mom finally had to remove her, despite her loud cries of protest, which got louder and continued from the hallway long after they left the classroom. As Mrs. Thiele tried to read above the slowly fading echoes of my sister’s crying, I could hear the snickering of some of the other kids, and I found myself feeling defensive and sad for my little sister. I shot a disapproving look at a couple of the laughing kids, and was surprised when they suddenly stopped.
I think that this was the first time I realized that I, the youngest of three boys, was now an older brother. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the awesome power that comes with the position. I realized that not only would my little sister believe whatever I told her, but that I would decide which toys we played with, and that I would make up the rules to whatever games I decided we’d play.
As I wielded this power over the years, a funny thing happened. Although always reluctant to admit it, I found that I enjoyed my little sister’s company. I found that she and I laughed at things that nobody else laughed at. As time went on, it became clear that she is much more talented (born with an incredible artistic gift that completely missed me) and smarter than me, yet she still played the role of little sister, sharing in my interests and obsessions.
Flash forward to the 21st century: now in our middle ages, Jenny and I remain close. We still laugh at things nobody else laughs at. I still enjoy her company. I am proud of the person she has turned out to be. Caring and strong, she looked after my Dad in his last few years, and made sure that he had everything he needed. I have difficulty imagining what his last years would have been like without her.
Despite the fact that she is a very formidable presence who can stand up for herself, I find that my big brother instincts remain intact, and I still feel the need to defend and look out for her.