We have always worked hard as our parents' eldest children. We were asked to do the things the younger ones could not do. We worked in the yard on Saturdays. We did all the work that our parents did not do. We swept with a broom too big for us. We did the job well just the same. We had heart and confidence because the eldest owns that, that confidence to achieve. I don't know where it comes from. It's just there. Perhaps it is those high expectations that parents have of us from the start that gives us belief in ourselves. Still, that doesn't mean we're respected for accepting their challenges. We do it because we have to, don't we; we always did. We're the eldest. We push those big brooms, we clean the oil off the driveway when we're slightly older children, using that tall wood-handled broom, a bucket of sudsy water, and lots of scrubbing. We rake the leaves with our little sisters and brothers. But we do most of the work, that part of their work they did not know how to do or which they had not the patience to do. And they get the credit, for trying. We must do it well (whatever the job is), just because. There is no room for error. I must edge the lawn, tug out weeds out from the sidewalk cracks with that special pronged device which has no name. When the job is done I get no accolade. Rather I was summoned to the bathroom to wash my dirty little hands.
We, the eldest, in order to make a more perfect family, took on the frequent responsibility of watching our younger siblings. We loved them. But in order to feel older we felt we needed to be closer to our same-age friends across the street or down the block than to the smaller family members. Little kids can get in the way of the eldest's social progress. This does not need cogitation. It has always been the case. Still, parents are likely to rely too heavily on us, especially during the summer months. We'll watch the younger ones at the pool or at the playground. (These were the old ways. Maybe parents are more cautious now.) I developed my sense of my role in the family partly by babysitting my two little sisters. In the only formal photograph taken of the three of us during our very young years, I was, naturally, stood in the middle, taller than either of the other two, and I looked to my left and down into my sister's face and she looked up at me. We smiled. We had the same blue satin hair ribbons. We had the same tans on our forearms and faces from the summer spent outside. We wore the same light blue Easter dresses with the broad white sailor collars edged in thick lace. We were sisters. I knew that. I loved them and all. . . . (No one ever said thank you, big sister) . . . Those little ones, they ask for things. They need what they need. And we're really lucky to be the ones to give it to them. Lucky us. We're the eldest. But it's hard. Too bad parents don't look down into our little faces the way they look into the faces of the littler kids. We all need to be treated with appreciation.
Once, when I was six, I played a spontaneous game of four-square in the living room with my two littler sisters. We were having adroit fun. Here, adoit means we're just good at it. Being spontaneous is its own talent. And we were talented, just like all kids. Too bad I was the eldest. My parents stuck me with the cost of replacing the living room lamp that broke when the ball knocked it over. I was a good little saver. I had pride, as the eldest, in my savings plan. I got five percent interest on my Bank of America passbook in 1963. They were very generous back then. The bank's representative had come to the school and spoken in front of the classroom. He sat in one of our little chairs. He explained matters. He gave us little passbooks. They came with little manilla keeping-envelopes with twine closures. I could record my progress. I liked writing things down. I was already reading my mother's big blue dictionary which she got as a premium from Better Homes and Gardens for ordering a series of cookbooks. (We were always getting books delivered to our door.) I liked the thumb indexing. I still read the dictionary. I try to keep a single sheet of the words I am working on in my pocket at all times. But to get back to the point: I had money saved. In the early Sixties, a third of a hundred dollars wasn't bad. My dad was only earning fifty dollars a week at Western Electric as a CWA union member. So I guess I had more or less about a week's union wages saved up. Pretty good for a baby of six. I could have spent it all on five-cent candy bars. Do you know how many candy bars the eldest could buy with thirty dollars? You figure it out. I liked Hershey bars. But I saved my money. And my parents took it, every last penny. My money confidence hasn't been the same since. I offer a piece of wisdom, hard earned, to parents: It is very important to keep the good intentions of the eldest in place, even if it means having to compensate for their children's occasional lack of judgment. The stronger the eldest feels, the more likely she is to be able to serve the parents well when they get older. That's a real important cultural point if you think about it. We all love our parents. All we ever wanted to do was to make them love us a little more every day.
When you look into the face of the eldest, you have to love what you see. We try harder.
Signed, G. Claire, the eldest of three. (Have a great (eldest) day!)