Growing up, I felt the pangs of sibling competition and reacted in both negative and positive ways. On the one hand, I felt out-classed in the area of mathematics and science by both my siblings because, quite simply, they were better at those things than I was. On the other hand, I could write better and read people better than either of them. As a result, they went into the sciences; and I was first a teacher, then a social worker, and, finally, a writer. We use to say, at work, that we were social workers because we didn’t do math. Oddly enough, the genius husband of a good friend, while watching me do some necessary record keeping for an organization we both belonged to, pointed out to me that I was really quite good with numbers. Once that possibility was opened to me, I found that he was right. It has taken a silly turn in my household where my husband, an accomplished mechanical engineer (a breed known to be non-verbal) does the crossword puzzles while I work the Sudoku.
Not all rivalries are sibling in nature. In our family, competition was everywhere. It seems to have been born out of a sense of self that dates back for generations on both sides. My great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Meader Johnson Rixie was born on the Isle of Wight just as the US was recovering from the Civil War. She and her family were my last immigrant ancestors to come to this country. She soon learned that among the old settlers, you needed something that set you apart and made you worthy of attention.
She was fond of telling her story to her children and grandchildren. The Isle of Wight is located off the southern coast of England in the English Channel. Its rolling meadows and quaint sea towns made it right for sheep herding and tourists. The most famous of the latter was Queen Victoria. She loved the little island and visited often coming across from Hampshire on the royal yacht. When she arrived, the schoolchildren would come to the pier in Ryde and greet her. One child would be chosen to go forward, present the queen with a bouquet and make a curtsey. In 1874, that child was my great-grandmother, Sarah Ann Meader. It must have made quite an impression on her as my father said that she acted like she was on a first name basis with the queen for the rest of her life.
Her daughter, my grandmother, was widowed when her children were young and she had to go to work to support her three children. The oldest boy, Charles, went to live with the paternal grandparents. Sarah took over the care of my Aunt Stella and my father. Sarah didn’t care much for boys. She found them noise, dirty, and difficult. Sarah had only girls whom she had raised with good English manners and equally good English sense regarding skin care. She jumped at the chance to pass on her expertise to her granddaughter. As a result, Aunt Stella grew up with a rather inflated idea of who she was. It didn’t hurt that she was also petite, cute, and a great dancer. She could Charleston well into her 70’s and did at the slightest hint of interest. This attitude was accepted in the family as just being Stella.
One of the favorite family stories of her volatile temper, she told on herself with great pride. When she married Uncle Jimmy, she had already turned down a number of suitors. He was an Irish Catholic with a biting sense of humor and the fatalism that haunts the Irish. They married in the midst of the depression. Wedding gifts were practical and much appreciated. It seems that Aunt Stella had warned her husband before the ceremony that she sometime had migraine headaches. He did not take the warning seriously. They came back from their honeymoon and were busy putting away their new dishes, a wedding gift. These were apparently depression glass and had been carefully collected into a complete set. As she stood on the counter putting the last of the dishes into the cupboard as he handed them to her, Aunt Stella said that she was glad they were finishing up as she was developing a headache. Uncle Jimmy said that he thought maybe those headaches were all in her imagination. You could have heard a pin drop for a second, then the dishes started flying. She slammed every one of them into the sink as she yelled at him that her headaches were real, and he better not forget it. Needless to say, the word got around to his family that she was a delicate lady who needed to be treated with kid gloves. This was accepted by all but one of the family, her brother-in-law’s wife, Beryl, who considered herself to be every bit as precious and delicate. So the rivalry began. While the two were openly friendly and enjoyed many good times together, the competition was always just under the surface. Whatever Stella did, Beryl would out do; and the same was true of Stella trumping Beryl.
Beryl never had children and Aunt Stella had only my cousin, Mary. When the two women were nearing the ends of their lives, Mary took them both in so that they would not have to go to a nursing home. In order to do that, Mary had to hire a daytime helper. The family agreed that Alice would be ideal. She was Aunt Stella’s house cleaner for years and knew the family well. She agreed to take on the job.
Things seemed to go smoothly until Mary came home one day to learn the truth. According to Alice, these two old ladies fought over everything as they each tried to vie for the most attention. Alice had had enough and wanted to quit. Mary asked for a few days while she addressed the issue with her mother and aunt. Alice agreed to give her a chance to settle them down. Mary sat the two women down and read the riot act to them. She let them know that they had tried Alice’s patience to the breaking point; and that if they lost her services, she would have no recourse but to place them in a home.
Miracle of miracle, it worked. Alice reported a week later that the ladies were behaving beautifully with a minimum of discord. She would stay on as long as they continued. Mary breathed a sigh of relief as she sent Alice on her way that evening. She also sat her mother and aunt down to tell them the good news and to compliment them on their good behavior. They accepted the praise with beaming faces. Beryl said that it was all true and that they had only had three little arguments that very day. Aunt Stella agreed then threw in for good measure, “and I won two of them.”