In the supermarket this morning, I watched a little girl, probably about five, showing her little sister, about age three, how to push a shopping trolley for groceries. The youngest was clearly immensely pleased and very proud to be given instructions for carrying out such a grown-up activity. The older sister was very kind and patient. And definitely in charge. It was like watching myself in a time-lapse episode.
Photo from Kid Costs || Child Support Budgets
By the time I was a year and a half old, I had a younger sibling. By the time I was thirteen, I had four younger sisters, four younger brothers, and a great deal of authority countenanced by my parents. By the time I was a teenager, “Terry said I could do it” held as much justification for my younger sibs as permission received directly from Mom or Dad. I took them swimming. I took them shopping. I helped them with their homework. They sat on the kitchen cupboard and “helped me” make cookies, which meant they got to lick the spoon and anything left in the bowl.
I’ve often thought of the effect this subtle but constant socialization as the oldest sister has had on my psyche. I was the oldest. Whether I was intrinsically the smartest might be questionable, but I was always the most experienced, always the biggest. I didn’t ask my sibs for advice. I figured things out for myself. I always knew better. And I didn’t just know it. All my brothers and sisters knew it. They would no more say to me “Don’t tell me what to do” than they would have said it to either of our parents.
I have, as we all moved into adulthood, relinquished my absolute sense that I always know best. I sometimes do ask various brothers and sisters for their opinions and advice in areas where their expertise greatly out-ranks mine and take them seriously. I’ve learned a lot from them.
But I realized some time ago just how much of an oldest sister I still am. I got caught in the middle of a conversation with two men squabbling with each other, and I spontaneously more or less scolded them and told them to stop. The wife of one of the men looked at me and said “You sound just like Father Patrick!”
I have since been reflecting on how much like a Catholic priest I am capable of being. I assume an authority based on years of living in a world where my word was never questioned, was always accepted as right, where my authority was never resented but rather accepted as a sign of my concern. And like most Catholic priests I have known, however kind and wise many of them have been, I don’t expect to be told what to do or what to think. Discussion, yes. Dictation, no.
Rather like the girl in the supermarket who by the age of five was already “the oldest.”