From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Swing Set

When my oldest daughter, Anny, was a little girl, we had a swing set in the backyard. It was the kind with ladders on each side and bars across the top. A child was supposed to hang down from the bars, making her way across by putting one hand on a bar, then the other hand on the next bar and so on. At two years old, Anny’s arms weren’t strong enough nor long enough to enable her to do this alone. But she loved to pretend to do it with a parent holding her from beneath. It was extremely hard for me to play this game with her because it necessitated my hoisting her two-year-old frame onto my shoulders. I preferred to push her on the swing or play with her in the sandbox, reserving the bars for a special “Daddy/Anny only” activity.

But one day when Daddy was not around, Anny and I were playing outside on the swing set. For some reason, I left her alone for just a minute while I went inside. I wasn’t gone very long but as I passed the kitchen window, I looked out to see my daughter standing next to the ladder. She appeared to be deep in thought, and for some reason, I waited to see what she would do next. She stood there a long time as if debating whether or not to climb up. She did. But then when she reached the top, she seemed to hesitate, knowing that without a parent underneath her, she wouldn’t be able to swing from bar to bar in the conventional way. So she tried something else.

Carefully, Anny climbed on top of the bars. Crawling along on her hands and knees, she made her way over them instead of trying to swing under them. It was a process that took her about six feet off the ground—high enough for her to get hurt if she fell.

To this day, I don’t know why but I did not run out to stand beneath my daughter, waiting to catch her if she fell. Instead I stayed where I was, in the kitchen, and just watched her through the window. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Years later I was to always see that little girl on the swing set in my oldest daughter. She would always think long and hard before attempting anything new. But if she wanted to do it, she would try. Her methods aren’t always conventional. Often, she has to find a different, more creative way to accomplish things because the usual way is out of her reach. Not everything comes easily to Anny, but she tries. And sometimes she is very successful.

Years later when Anny was six and her little sister Rachael was three, that swing set again showed me what my children were made of. But this time, it also showed me what the relationship between these two sisters was and what it would be for the rest of their lives.

Anny had long since mastered the art of going across the bars of that swing set—over them, under them—forwards and backwards. But Rachael was still at the stage where she needed Daddy’s shoulders to take her across. And she seemed in no hurry to try anything adventurous on her own.

But it happened again. I left the two of them alone and went inside. This time when I saw them through the kitchen window, I didn’t even think about rushing outside to intervene.

I saw Rachael approach the ladder with trepidation and heard Anny encouraging her. “Come on, Rach, you can do it. I’ll be right here and I’ll catch you if you fall. But you won’t.”

Gradually, Rachael climbed up to the top. Then, putting one tiny hand on the first bar, she looked down. Something that she saw in her sister’s face below her gave her confidence. She looked back to the bars in front of her and swung out.

And fell six feet to the ground, on top of her sister.

My heart jumped into my throat, but in another second Rachael and Anny both stood up, brushing the dirt off their hands and laughing. “That didn’t hurt!” shouted Rachael, gleefully. “Of course not,” agreed her sister. “Now try again.”

It took Rachael only one more try to get across the bars by herself. I breathed again and went back outside, where both my daughters made me watch to see what “Rachael can do all by herself!” I applauded the achievement of both the student and the teacher.

That’s how it continued to be between these two. The older one worked hard at something until she got it. Often it did not come easily and she had to find an alternate way of accomplishing her goal. The younger one only had to work a little at something before she achieved her goal, largely because she has always had enough self-confidence to believe that she could accomplish anything she attempted. And a large part of that confidence came from having a big sister who was always there telling her “Come on Rachael! You can do it!”

Apart from encouraging her sister (and the subsequent other two), Anny also felt it was her position in the family to preserve her sister’s innocence. As the big sister, she was the one to awaken in the middle of the night to make sure the Tooth Fairy had not forgotten Rachael the first time Rachael lost a tooth. And when her baby sister Elliana’s goldfish died, Anny was the one to replace it before Elli could realize that it had suffered an untimely demise. Anny has always wanted to preserve the sweet fictions of her sisters’ childhoods even as she, herself, has become an adult.

I have watched these sisters from my unique vantage point as their mother. And as in the case with the swing set, I have often had to stifle the urge to intervene. The sisters fight and argue, make up and share secrets, and often they exclude me from their world.

These moments belong to sisters and not to mothers, however much I may wish to be part of them. But I know that these moments cement the bonds of sisterhood and will carry these children into adulthood, into a place where I won’t be someday. But that’s okay.

After all, I helped create this relationship, nurtured it and fostered it. I really do have an important place in it.

I know where it is, where it must be. It is there, behind the kitchen window, watching.

Marsha Arons

Anny and Rachael in high school.

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