I’ve never been a mother, but I’ve been mothering most of my life. When I was a little girl, my best friend Madeleine and I had imaginary children. We kept a list of all the children we knew – my baby brothers and baby cousins, her brother’s girlfriend’s children – and we would pretend they were our own, shopping the Sears catalogue for clothes for them. We would keep empty chairs for them in the school cafeteria so they could sit near us. When I turned 12, my mother would leave Madeleine and I to babysit my toddling brother Mark and newborn baby brother Paul. We would push them through town in their strollers convinced that all the neighbors would be scandalized believing these were our children. And, in many ways they were. When there is a 12-year difference between you and a younger sibling, you end up being a second parent in a lot of ways.
When Paul was very little and would get upset and retreat to his bedroom, I would go upstairs to comfort him, donning a black-and-yellow bumblebee puppet on my hand and talking to him in my funny “bee” voice, until Bumble would bring a smile to my face. As my brothers grew older, our family went through a series of financial and legal problems that led my parents to be away in court a lot. My brother John and I were left to care for the two younger brothers – “the boys” – treating them to a lot of homemade ravioli and pizza.
As the youngest and the eldest my brother Paul and I have been, if not polar opposites, at least on opposite ends of the poles. Being a parental figure means you are also subject to some acting out and it probably wasn’t easy on my pre-teen brother when I moved home from college, but in many ways we are alike and although we’ve had our share of sibling rivalry, neither of us has ever forgotten the days of Bumble. Now he often works the night shift as a cop while I am teaching late and I pass his car on the road, calling or texting just to say, “I see you.” Once when the light was out on my car, a fellow cop ran my plate, called Paul up and he tracked me down in a snowstorm, taking me to a parts store to fix the bulb. He was no longer my baby brother. He was taking care of me.
It was Paul who also gave me the gift of my nephew Christian when as a teenager he became a father. Seeing a teenage pregnancy as a gift might have been a challenge at the time, but Christian proved an unexpected miracle. I have truly experienced the joy of motherhood in being his godmother, watching him grow and mothering him alongside the other women in his family.
It was my brother Paul who first introduced me to pugs about the same time he had Christian. He and his then girlfriend Chesne, Christian’s mom, saw a litter of pug puppies one day and he begged to bring one home. He named her Buffy because she was fawn or buff colored and like Nana in Peter Pan, she became a guardian over the soon-to-be-born baby Christian. When she died at the age of 13, Christian said, “She raised us all.”
Now my baby brother is off to boot camp having joined the National Guard. He leaves tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. and like a mama I worry over the little boy I used to try to make smile. I’m very proud of him, but I like it when my brood’s nearby, when, like in the television show the Waltons, you can call out in the night, “Goodnight John-Boy,” and they can answer with a hushed whisper because you’re close enough to hear.
Children and siblings grow and as any parent knows there comes a time when you have to let go. After all, I’m in my forties, my brother in his thirties and we’ve both gone on to live full lives, but you don’t have to be a mother to know you never stop worrying because when you’ve loved and nurtured anyone from birth, seeing them through tears and smiles, they, like the Hallmark cards say, wear your heart on the outside. They go off into the world and you hope all the “bumbling” you did to get them there will help see them through.