It’s the first chance I’ve had all day to look at Friday’s cryptic. The kids are quiet, the coffee fresh. I can steal a few minutes. Emily messaged me to say that she’d got Nine Down. I’ll start there. Seven letters, last letter Y: Prince loses right to host short weekday mellifluence. Hmmm. I stare idly outside. One of my twins (Hope) is dancing around the backyard with a toy batmobile. The other (Lily) is chasing her. Seven letters. I bring my coffee cup to my lips.
With a clatter of footsteps, Annie bursts into the room, her face a tearstained model for ‘Distraught Seven-Year-Old’. Christopher trails behind her, his expression grim. Before they’ve even reached the table, they launch simultaneous rants.
‘Christopher won’t stop making the “loser” sign at me and he knows I don’t like it …’
‘Annie hit me! She actually hit me. On the arm, look …’
‘And he keeps making stupid faces and it’s making me crazy …’
‘I wasn’t doing anything and she just hit me out of nowhere …’
‘I asked him to stop, but he just ignored me …’
‘She’s making that up. She just wants to get me into trouble …’
‘SHUT UP CHRISTOPHER! YOU ARE SO MEAN!’
‘Aren’t you going to tell her off for hitting me?’
I wince. I hate this. Why do they have to fight so much? And how on earth am I supposed to resolve it? They’re both looking at me like I know the answer. I honestly have no clue. I take a deep breath.
‘Christopher, we’ve talked about teasing …’
‘Um, Mum, I think you’d better look outside.’
Oh no. Lily has pinned Hope to the ground and is trying to wrench the batmobile out of her grip. Hope reaches up to pull Lily’s hair. Lily prepares to bite Hope’s arm. I rush outside.
Surely the greatest source of everyday stress as a parent is conflict between siblings. There is nothing that bothers me more than when my children bicker, quarrel, wrestle or wage war with each other. Most parents I talk to tell me the same thing, the only exception being parents of one child. On the other hand, I feel as if I can cope with anything the day throws at me, if only my children are getting along.
Jeffrey Kluger is particularly interested in the relationships between siblings and writes about this in his book The Sibling Effect: ‘Siblings are the longest relationships we’ll ever have in our lives. Our parents leave us too soon, our spouses and our kids come along too late.’ It follows, then, that our siblings may have a greater effect on shaping our personality than we give them credit for. ‘Parents serve the same big-picture role as doctors on grand rounds,’ says psychologist Daniel Shaw, of Pittsburgh State University (and as quoted in Kluger’s book). ‘Siblings are like the nurses on the ward. They’re there every day.’
In his apostolic exhortation Familaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II describes the family as a school of social virtue: ‘The family is the first and vital cell of society’, and indeed of the Church. It is from this ‘authentic community of persons’ that we learn to become whole and socially literate. We are not born with the innate ability to get along with others. Our siblings provide us with ample opportunities to exercise patience, humility, understanding and trust.
There’s a quote floating around the Internet at the moment. It’s attributed to Pope John Paul II, often superimposed over inspirational pictures of his face, though I’m finding it hard to track down its source: ‘The best gift you can give to your child is another brother or sister.’ This might be a ‘faux-tation’, but somehow it resonates. While I’m sure there are times when my children might prefer to re-gift this thoughtful present, I know for certain that, in a life filled with generosity and sacrifice, my own brothers and sisters are the greatest gift my parents provided me.
I love my siblings. There are six of us and we revel in each other’s company. Each individual relationship is unique and special, but there is something also in the feeling of belonging and identity when we are all together. I know this doesn’t happen by accident. My mum is the quiet magician who conjures this. Instead of rabbits and silk scarves, she works in Google Calendars and Facebook Messenger and enough taco mince (and vegetarian taco mince) to feed a small army. Of course, for the most part, I take this magic for granted. But I shouldn’t. The deep desire of my heart is that my children will one day love each other the way I love my brothers and sisters.
Ten minutes later, Lily and Hope have served their time on the naughty step, apologised to each other and shared a solemn hug and are now playing happily together. Christopher and Annie have also reached an uneasy truce after my rambling lecture on ‘respect’ and ‘temper’ and ‘kindness’ and ‘don’t hit people’. The coffee’s reheated. The crossword awaits.
Another message, this time from Felicity: ‘I got 3a but still stuck on 9d. Any hints? Is the definition ‘prince’? Or ‘mellifluence’?’ I smile. I’m stuck too. Emily and Felicity are my sisters. Doing DA’s Friday cryptic together (over the course of the week) has become our thing. Actually, we have lots of ‘things’. Spending time with them is a real treat. I think back to our shared bedroom, strewn with dirty clothes. The eye rolls and snide comments of two angst-ridden teenagers, the plaintive remarks of the much-younger sister who longed to be part of their world. We’ve come a long way.
I rub my nose with my pencil. Mellifluence. That has something to do with music, I think. And what is prince? Is it another word for ‘prince’? The Artist Formerly Known As Prince? Prince Charles? Prince William? Prince Harry?
I scratch about in the margins, moving letters around and crossing them out. I’ve got it.
Another message from Felicity: ‘I think I’ve got 9d, but what’s the wordplay?’
I tap out my response, not without a sizeable measure of smugness: ‘definition is “mellifluence”. “Prince” is HARRY, without one R (“loses right”). In the way they are positioned, these letters are “hosting” a “short weekday” = MON. HAR-MON-Y Phew!’
I write the letters into the grid. Christopher and Annie are playing a game of Batman with the twins. For now, we have peace. Perhaps sibling relationships are a little like a good crossword. You just have to be patient, to sit with it, try different things and keep working until you find the right way.
And pray that nobody gets killed in the meantime.
Kate Moriarty is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. You can follow her adventures at laptopontheironingboard.wordpress.com.
This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of the Melbourne Catholic Magazine.