I used to be a cool older sister. I had all sorts of secret older sister knowledge. So when I told my little brother Gabe that I was a witch and I could fly, he believed me. That was pretty awesome.
I was seven, and he was four.
“If you don’t unload my section of the dishwasher, I’ll put a spell on you!” I said.
He got nervous.
I hated unloading the dishwasher. I still do, actually.
I have two younger brothers, and we’ve always gotten along. Which is probably weird. I’m not sure. For a long time, I loved being their older sister. I felt like it was an important role. I was the one who told eight-year-old Gabe, my youngest brother, that purple sweatpants were a bad idea.
I was like, “Listen, you’re a cool kid, deep down in there somewhere. I know sweatpants are really comfortable, but girls do not respect them. I promise. One day, you might be a cute guy. And you should prepare for that time in your life.”
The following day, I broke the news to him that “Star Wars” shirts were out of style.
“What have you been telling Gabe?” my mom said, furious, when suddenly he wanted to go clothes shopping.
“He said he wanted to look cool,” I explained.
“He doesn’t need to look cool!” said my mom. “He’s only eight!”
“Oh, but he does,” I said mysteriously.
Jake was a lost cause. He didn’t care what looked cool. He cared about food, video games, and maybe one other thing that I’m forgetting.
Once, I overheard another kid picking on him, for his weight. “Lard-ass!” the other kid was saying.
“What did you say?” I said, rushing over. ”Get the hell away from my brother, you little creep!”
The other kid, impressed by my older kid-ness, slinked away.
I was a good older sister. I was cool.
And then one day, everything changed. Or maybe it happened more gradually than that. In any case, my brothers got cool. Jake suddenly started working out every day. He shed the extra pounds and became hugely muscular instead. Gabe wasn’t just over “Star Wars” T-shirts, he was into being totally stylish. He was cocky and funny and confident, and he started trends at his high school, where he was known for improving upon the formal dress code. He briefly trained in MMA fighting, for his man cred.
“What are you wearing?” he said, teasing me. “Is that some sort of grain sack?”
“No, it’s a dress. It’s cool.”
“Um … I don’t know if cool is the right word,” he teased.
Suddenly my brothers were both taller than me. They were both unfairly good-looking. (I mean seriously, that’s not OK—I’m the girl! Where are my sexy genes?) They were both supremely confident and witty. All of the girls they met were in love with them. All of the guys they met were trying to impress them.
It occurred to me that compared to my brothers, I was not cool at all. I was in college, and I had some friends, but I wasn’t popular. I studied a lot and cared intensely about getting A’s, and my sense of humor … well, it needed a little exercise—there were a few atrophied muscles. I got offended by everything. I did not like being teased. I was slightly awkward and very sensitive and earnest. And I was a lot shorter and less commanding than I’d expected to be (the doctor said 5′ 7″! What the hell happened?).
One year, I came home for winter break and realized I no longer knew how to interact with my brothers. And that feeling has persisted until … well, it’s still persisting.
Now both of my brothers are in college. Jake is graduating in a few weeks, and heading off to grad school. Gabe’s going to be a junior. Every time I see them, they are funnier, more comfortable, and more confident.
I can’t keep up.
It’s embarrassing, but the truth is: I am not on their level. I am not as quick-witted. I am not as well-dressed. I can’t rap to save my life (Jake performs as a rapper for fun and sometimes Gabe joins him on a track). I do not know the latest awesome music. I do not know the latest awesome anything, come to think of it.
So often I am at a loss of how to behave around them. I’m at a loss of who to be. Who am I, as their older sister, if they can’t look up to me? And how can they look up to the girl who cried when she got a B on her transcript? The girl who now writes earnestly about body image on the internet.
A couple of months ago, Gabe called me. He was having a little existential crisis. He was feeling inadequate. He was worried that he was being too social, and not studying enough, and he wasn’t sure what he was good at.
We talked for a long time. And even though I tried to be cool for a few minutes at the beginning, I eventually just listened. I tried to reassure him that there’s time to figure things out. That he has the skills he needs to face life. I tried to give him the benefit of my few extra years.
I don’t know if it helped, but he kept calling me, when he needed to talk. And eventually I realized that the last thing that he needed was for me to be cool.
Jake and I talk every couple weeks now, and I try to be there for Gabe, when he resurfaces from leading his frat or partying hard or cramming last minute for a Calc test.
I may not be cool, but I am still their big sister. And there’s a chance—though probably a slim one—that me being their big sister had something to do with how cool they are today.
Should I just take credit?
OK, I will.