Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Chair share

Some time not too long after kickoff for Sunday’s Super Bowl, I came across an unexpected sight: my two children nestled together in an oversized , cushioned wicker chair.

We were at a very large party, one we attend every year. By the host’s estimation, there were 40 to 50 kids in her house and two-thirds that number of adults. It was a big house, but it was also a lot of people. When the buffet dinner was served just a few minutes before game time, people helped themselves and found a spot wherever they were comfortable, based on their level of interest in the game: serious football fans parked themselves in front of one of the three TVs playing throughout the house; mildly engaged fair-weather fans (as in “I’ll pay attention once the playoffs start”) stood in a loose circle around those gathered in tight by the TVs; those who cared more about eating than watching sat at a table or at the rec room bar (in case it’s not clear, this big house is extremely well furnished).

There was room for everyone, but wherever you went, there were a lot of people. My 8-year-old and her 12-year-old brother had filled their plates, with a little help from me, with chicken wings, hot dogs, rolls, salad and chips and wandered off in search of a place to perch. But I didn’t expect them to choose the spot where I found them a few minutes later: together in a wide comfortable chair.

With the overbearing interest that mothers devote to the sibling relationships of their children, I wish I could have overheard the conversation or witnessed the choreography that led to their sitting down. Did one of them say, “Here’s a chair big enough for both of us!”? Or, more likely, did one grab the chair and yield half of it only at the other’s insistence (which I knew would have taken the form of stern threatening if it were Tim and nails-on-chalkboard whining if it were Holly)? When my sisters and I were my kids’ age, we used to call this “chair-sharing,” and as I remember, we often did it with jollity, although my guess is that there were other occasions with chair controversies that I’m conveniently forgetting.

In any case, it pleased me beyond reason to see the kids elbow to elbow, eating their Super Bowl fare. Tim and Holly are four years apart in age, and in general they get along fairly well for siblings. When people comment on this, I often say that being as far apart in age as they are and different sexes, there’s very little for them to compete over. Nonetheless, the flip side of not having a lot to fight over is sometimes not having a lot that binds them. They enjoy different hobbies and sports, play with different toys, and aren’t particularly interested in each other’s friends.

But like most parents, I put a great deal of stock in finding evidence that they care deeply about each other. When I was growing up, I didn’t really understand why it bothered my mother so much when my sisters and I quarreled, which we did fairly often: where the three of us were each two years apart and all girls, we had none of the safeguards that protect Tim and Holly. As I remember it, there was plenty over which to argue.

And I didn’t see why my mother cared. It was between us. But now I get it. It’s not just the annoying sound of kids sniping at each other: it’s the profound awareness that when all is said and done, siblings are often each other’s last resort. When friends and partners fail you, it’s only normal to look toward your siblings. And so as children grow, parents naturally look for evidence that their children are building that kind of support system for each other and take longlasting comfort from believing in a bond that will sustain their children through whatever each one is destined to face.

I may be putting too much stock in the simple act of finding my children sharing a large chair, but still, the sight stayed in my memory long after the dinner was over and Tim had gone off to play ping pong with a friend. I don’t know what kind of negotiation if any led to the chair-share, but whatever it was, whether intrinsically harmonious or initially explosive, the kids worked it out themselves. And seeing this fleeting moment, two kids sitting pressed up against each other as they eat chicken wings, gave me a welcome pang of hope for their shared future.

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