Tuesday, December 30, 2008

All my younger sisters in the same room

We sat chatting about Christmas presents, about parents and about DVDs. Andrea has just finished work and called over, the younger girls were drinking coke and giggling at stories of me as a small child. I'm sitting with my four younger sisters. I met two of them for the first time today.

I'll always remember finding out I had other siblings. Growing up in a two child family as the eldest, I sometimes wished for an older brother or even a twin. For a time I almost convinced myself that maybe, somehow I was a twin - that's what too much Highway to Heaven will do for you. To go from two to finding out I was part of a much bigger tribe was pretty awesome, literally.

Mary Ann and I were sitting in the hotel in Roscrea where we were to have our first formal conversation. I'd got my rehearsed "I'd just like to say thanks for putting me up for adoption, it can't have been an easy thing to do but I ended up in a very loving family and I'm very happy and I wanted you to know that." speech out of the way, and once said, I couldn't find much else. I was struck by the physical similarities in our faces - family traits had always been a fascination of mine, simply because it wasn't something I could share in growing up.

When I finally braved the question of other children, she told me of her family. Married after I was born, she'd reared a good strong country family with her husband, out in the wilds of Offaly. Shyly she produced a scrap book of photos and invited me to have a look. "Here's your brother, John" she said, pointing to one strapping young chap, "And here's your other brothers there." The photos were stuck on with sellotape, taken apparently from family albums. It's part and parcel of the Advice on What To Do when Meeting your Adopted Child procedures. Bring some photos. Make them aware of the current situation. Tell them about yourself. Props always help.

Turning the page she pointed to three young girls by a church wall. "They", she said "are your sisters." Whatever about being told I had brothers, finding out I now had sisters was almost a bigger surprise. Brothers, you see, I'd expected. Hoped for in fact. But sisters? I'd already got one of those, and she'd caused me enough trouble, so I didn't think I'd be "lucky" enough to get any more, I type very diplomatically. But I looked at those photos, thinking that in a different Ireland these could very well have been the brothers and sisters I'd grown up with.

(Even at 5, Andrea was difficult to be around :-P)

It's not that Andrea and me didn't get on, as such. We loved each other and grew up very close as young children, but once distinct teenage personalities came to the fore, that was it. At the time I met Mary Ann, Andrea and I got on great, living over 100km from each other and seeing each other once every few months. Magic.

But more sisters I had. I met Maureen in January of 2004 and was enthralled. We'd never met, never known of each other a few months before, but blood beats distance and I saw we shared a lot of similar personality traits, reactions and even mannerisms. She was my first personal experience of sibling semblance and it was an overwhelmingly positive one.

There was no awkwardness between us, other than the natural one of people becoming friends. When introduced to other people, I was her brother - there was never any explanatory talks of family history. Me, I'd have complicated thing unnecessarily, as I'm wont to do, but she immediately accepted and acknowledged me, regardless of which house I'd grown up in. When talking together, we'd talk of our mother but my mam and her mam, the distinction doubtlessly confusing to anyone not familiar with the situation. When asked it took me a while to realise I had more than one younger sister.

I met the others in ones and twos, sometimes in Offaly, more times in Dublin. The biggest test came when I was invited to a family wedding, where I'd meet them all en masse. Anxiety struck before then, let me tell you, but I was welcomed as a family member, introduced as a brother and treated like a friend throughout - a far better experience to some of the adopted family weddings I'd been invited to.

We're never going to be the Waltons, the Ingalls or Camdens, nor do we want to be. It's the differences between us that make it interesting - I grew up in a rural-urban setting, they in a rural one. They blossomed outdoors on their farm, I recuperated indoors lost in books. They are strong men in physical work; I type. The affinity we share is in kinship. There's no semblance of posturing, no sense of superiority through legitimacy. While we're related, we're not really family, in the traditional sense of the word. It's almost deeper than that, a fraternal bond based on genealogy more than genetics. We enjoy seeing each other when we can, but don't force it. We just let things happen as they happen.

Fast forward almost five years to today, when I meet my two youngest siblings. Our paths just haven't crossed until now - they're a lot different to the two small girls I saw in a photo five years ago. Eileen is in fourth year of school, loving practical subjects like Home Economics but hating maths - a lot like me. Brigid is in second year, giggling shyly as she tells me her favourite subjects are Tech drawing and lunch time. We're nervous around each other, of course, me probably more so than they. I've fallen very much out of practise of meeting new people, of giving a good impression and this one is important to me.

Though I meet them on neutral ground, in a local café for coffee beforehand, I do want them to see the house I grew up in, to meet my parents, to show just how ordinary I am, how similar our childhoods have been in many ways. My folks - ever welcoming and supportive - have met Maureen before, but I introduce them now to Michael and the girls. Andrea arrives to meet them all for the first time - she hasn't met any of that side of the family yet. We talk about everything from GAA to Home and Away, from Harry Potter to mobile ringtones. Once I relax, I'm grand. It takes a while though.

At one stage mid conversation, I look at the four girls and realise I'm quite lucky to be the older brother of four rather lovely young women. Family, though it is what you make of it, is important and this Christmas has emphasised that for me in more ways than one. I didn't grow up with these girls, but they are my family, they are my sisters and now they're part of my life. It's not a case of adopted families, biological families, half brothers and sisters or any such terms. We're in each other's lives because we want to be.

We part ways later in the evening with hugs - they have a long drive ahead of them. I'm delighted it's gone so well. On my walk home I'm texted "It was lovely to meet you bro, you're very sound". Can't ask for better than that, eh?


  1. I'm thrilled for you that the day went well!

    What a wonderful way to bring in the new year!


  2. Aw. I'm welling up thinking of you meeting these younger sisters :) You all look happy to be together in that photo.
    You are already a big brother to Andrea but I know from experience that being an older sister/brother to someone much younger who looks up to you is an altogether different experience and I'm delighted you've a chance to experience that x