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Thursday, April 26 Opinion

In Other Words: The one and only

By Judith Marks-White

As bad a rap as sibling rivalry gets, being an only child seemed more a curse than a circumstantial oversight. All during childhood and throughout adolescence, I bemoaned my only-child status, envying friends who had sisters and brothers to avert the attention from them. I wasn't as blessed. The focus was always directed at me: the child who stood alone -- an entity unto myself -- with no one to blame for the mischief I made; no sister from whom to borrow clothes, or a brother who would fight my battles. Instead, I went solo into the world, wishing that a sibling could be part of my family constellation.

There were very few kids I knew who were only children. When I visited my friends' homes, the cacophonous squabbling resounded like melodious music. I wanted to squabble, too. I wanted someone with whom to pick fights, creep up on when they weren't looking, drive to distraction and annoy as my mood dictated. But mostly, I wanted a friend, a partner in crime, and another human form residing in the same house, eating the food I ate and sleeping in the adjacent bedroom. Someone to whom I could unburden my soul, and most important, save me from the two enemies that lurked among us -- our parents -- who, would, at least, have had the good sense to have produced another offspring to round out the picture.

For a while, I went through a phase where I invented an imaginary friend -- not uncommon among only children. "Annabelle" accompanied me everywhere, and was so much a part of my daily routine that I felt less alone. When I visited my friend Jane's house, her parents welcomed "Annabelle" by setting a place for her at the table. There she sat: my little alter ego, her invisible presence profoundly felt and acknowledged.

But my imagination went even further. My relentless longing for a sibling prompted me to invent a story for my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Bigelow, to whom I announced the addition of an older sister, Phoebe, who went to boarding school in a different state. We had been separated, I explained, because Phoebe's behavior was intolerable. After a few years, the decision was made to send her away so that peace and harmony could reign. Phoebe was clearly the naughty child, while I, the chosen and adored, won the sympathy of Mrs. Bigelow, who dug deeply into her desk drawer to retrieve a piece of candy to soften the blow of my sad tale.

All went well until Back-to-School Night when Mrs. Bigelow, unaware of the situation, took my parents aside and sympathetically relayed my fabrication, adding empathetically, that it was probably all for the best.

Upon their return home, my mother, embarrassed and angry, my father bewildered and amused, prescribed the worst punishment of all: to apologize to Mrs. Bigelow, who, in turn, encouraged my overactive imagination, which might one day hold me in good stead. Recalling that moment even now, I consider Mrs. Bigelow solely responsible for my future fiction-writing career.

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I have since come to accept my rank as an only child. I have compensated for my lack of siblings by cultivating deep and enduring friendships. I've listened to those assuring me how lucky I was not to have been burdened with a "significant other" child. Conversely, others claim I missed out on something enormously valuable and life- altering. Some similarly conclude that siblings are necessary appendages to a well-balanced life. I surmise there are benefits and drawbacks to each perspective.

But when I observe my grandchildren, Andrew and Caroline, interacting with one another, I am certain that my daughter -- also an only child -- made the right decision. After their arguing is done, their gripes overcome and their fences mended, an unspoken bond remains indelibly in place. Witnessing it all from the sidelines, I marvel at the glaring annoyances, the provocative playfulness, the subtle nuances and the camouflaged devotion that define the essence of their sibling rivalry, which I, an only child, never had the bittersweet pleasure of experiencing." .

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com