1/7/2008 11:41

Only Child

For about 50 years, my self-identity was that of an only child. Since then I've thought of myself as someone whose siblings both died. The change in perspective came when my parents grew old and moved out of their house (so that I spent more time with the old memories) and it was reinforced by the 50th anniversary of their deaths in 1955.

I thought about this as I was walking to Fleet Farm in the cold, late November rain (very, very late November, since it is January now) and found that I was missing my brother.

Upon which I began missing my sister, also.

In actual reality, how well does a 3-year-old know his siblings, or anyone? After 50 years, who is it that I'm missing? Not the little children who died and whom I know only vaguely from fragmented memories, photos, and stories, but the adults whom I wish they had grown to be. My longing is real enough, but the people that I imagine have never really existed. I can hope that the sister and brother I imagine are well rooted in the people they really were but I am never sure that they are.

We can have this same experience with people who are alive and in regular contact with us. I mean that the people we imagine them to be have never existed in actual reality.

One could argue that this is invariably so, that we never really know anyone else (perhaps not ourselves either), and that everyone in our acquaintance exists for us as figments of imagination. The difference may lie only in how well-rooted our imagination is in the reality of their lives. People with whom we talk and work, with whom we exchange cards, letters, or email, whom we ourselves see and hear, and about whom we hear from others, provide us with more clues about themselves. Against these clues we can test and correct our imagination of them. Or not. If we do not test our images of people, then I expect that we will find that the real people do not live up to the roles we imagine for them -- something that happens often enough even when we try our best to form an accurate view.

If Phyllis and David had lived through 1955, and through every year since, they would not be limited to the experiences which I can imagine for them. I can only imagine experiences which are similar to my own or to those I've seen in others. They would have had unique, real experiences which I never thought of. Instead of being mostly creations dependent on my limited imagination, my real sister and brother would be able to extend my own experience and imagination by adding experiences from their lives.

This is what I miss and long for: to add our lives together, as much as we are able, and to that extent make each of us bigger than we are. This is what all human community is meant to accomplish.