Click here to read to read my personal essay “Thanksgiving en Suisse” in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column.
Thanksgiving en Suisse: Does love for family mean letting go?
By Kavita Ramdya
The term “sibling rivalry” exists for a reason; it is a phenomenon that has plagued many families, small and large, since Cain slew Abel, jealous that God accepted his gift of animal sacrifices over Cain’s less-appealing produce. Of course, fratricide is a rare occurrence, but it is notable that sibling rivalry occurs early on in the Old Testament’s story of mankind’s origin.
There are many scientific theories for sibling rivalry: evolutionary biologists might propose that siblings compete for parental love and resources, Freudian psychologists suggest that sibling rivalry between brothers is a way to assert masculinity in the eyes of the mother, and chemists might say it’s due to the fluctuating hormones that young children and adolescents experience growing up. But in my reading I’ve never come across my problem: the problem of loving one’s sibling too much. Mine is a love that burdens me; while friends feel the lightness of not worrying about their siblings, what I interpret as borderline not caring, I carry the weight of wondering when my younger brother will e-mail or call. Inevitably, when he does it feels like what I imagine it is to win a medium-sized lottery: a happy surprise that causes an upsurge of euphoria followed by a quick, crash landing and a reality check. Plus, the lottery win, although a nice surprise that improves my quality life for a short time, is not enough to change my life forever. That would require much more.
Traditionally, the family–my parents, my brother and I, and our spouses–spend Thanksgiving Day at my Aunt Kathy’s house in Stonybrook, Long Island. She has a God-given talent for baking a corn casserole that inspires year-long wishful thinking which is only briefly satiated on Thanksgiving Day. My brother and I sit shamelessly on Aunt Kathy’s coach with half a plate of corn casserole crowding out the other tempting yet ordinary dishes (cranberry sauce, rolls, turkey meat, roti, daal – oh, yes, Aunt Kathy also serves Indian food to celebrate our family’s origin in the subcontinent).
For years Thanksgiving was and still remains my favorite holiday for many reasons: it is an opportunity for us to celebrate America’s position as a beacon of light for immigrants (my parents and their generation migrated from India), it has no religious connotations and it is without the risk of going into credit card debt. And, of course, there’s Aunt Kathy’s corn casserole.
Since moving to London, Thanksgiving has shifted in priorities for me: it is now an opportunity to see my brother, study him, talk to his wife and put on the appearance of seeming breezy and worry-free, unconcerned without being flippant, cool and easy without seeming uncaring. Although he is only eighteen months younger than me, whether due to my being a woman, developing the domineering psychology of an older sibling, pausing before leaping into having children of my own, or any number of reasons (hey, it could even be because I’m a Leo!), I watch and listen to him the way I imagine overly-concerned parents do their kids.
There is no one I am less gentle with than with my brother and it has always been that way. With him I don’t speak gingerly, beat around the bush or employ euphemisms to indirectly suggest what I’m thinking. That’s not to say that I am rude. I made a conscious decision early on to introduce him as my “younger” rather than “little” brother. I eagerly read scientific writing and reviews of scientific books so that I can learn something about his field, neuroscience. But, I admit, I am unforgiving when it comes to giving him advice. For example, before meeting his wife I risked making him uncomfortable by telling him to, unequivocally, always wear condoms. A devoted yogi, I once suggested he have a colon cleanse.
Although I haven’t done a Google or Amazon search yet, my guess is that there are few self-help books about learning how to love one’s sibling less, so I am on the road alone. Ironically, my husband is an only child, but I’ve always known that had he ever had a sibling he would probably be “worse” than me if being overly loving is ever a negative emotion. I’m willing to admit that it is.
That road means breaking the habit of calling every Sunday evening to check in on him. It means questioning whether he really needs to read the article about evolutionary psychology in the most recent Economist magazine. It means trusting that he will call or e-mail, that when we say “good-bye”, we will see each other again when he is ready. Although it used to bother me that our relationship, if we were to have one, would have to be on his terms, I’m slowly but surely getting used to it.
This Thanksgiving my husband and I are spending the holiday with brother and his wife in a more “exotic” location than Stony Brook: Lausanne, Switzerland, where they now live. Yesterday he e-mailed me with a request for almond butter, a hard-to-find “delicacy” in Switzerland. I responded to my brother’s request with an underly-cool, overly-enthusiastic “Done. I’ll bring as much as I can fit in my backpack!” and pressed send before quickly realizing that I had done it again: I fell into the trap of wanting to add value, provide, and express how badly I want to be involved in his life. Because, really, it’s not like the almond butter could be used for cooking a dish like my Aunt Kathy’s corn casserole. Thanksgiving in Stonybrook won’t ever be replicated en Suisse, but at least it means having the opportunity to love less.