My cousin Matt was six months older than me. We lived side by side. He had two older brothers that were much further away in age than we were so we were close. We went to the same elementary school and were separated by one grade. I was chunky, curly haired, pale, wore glasses, read books every chance I got. He was thin, funny, witty, sarcastic, people liked Matt. People still like Matt. I’ve never met anyone in my entire life with a bad word to say about him.
Last week my son did something at school to humiliate my daughter in front of her friends. They haven’t been at the same school in two years and it’s an awkward adjustment phase for them. I listened to the story about what happened and then I told them a story about Matt.
He and I went to a very small elementary school and the boys in Matts class were a little rough around the edges. In the entire time I was there I remember actually being picked on less than five times. How odd is that? Once or twice the boys in Matts class said things that were inappropriate to me but that was once or twice in all those years. Furthermore Matt had two older brothers that scared me. I’m sure all they did was normal older brother stuff but I was an only child and very unused to their behavior. Matt somehow made sure to keep me away from them. In particular I remember one day one of the older brothers wrestling with him and holding a pillow over his head and telling him he did something he wasn’t supposed to do. I was really terrified. Once again I realize all siblings fight but I was totally unaware of that relationship. After that incident I do not remember being in the same room with them. However, I do remember Matt steering me clear of them. He had to know I was scared without me saying so. The thing is he never even let me know he knew I was scared.
In particular I remember Matt getting upset anytime one of our other cousins or neighborhood kids got too rough with me. Never mind I outweighed them all and was no sickly little girl. Once or twice I remember him letting the other boys know, “you never hit a girl.” I even may have hit him a few times by accident and he never retaliated the way he did with the boys in our group. I even remember begging him to forgive me once for hitting him with a tennis racket. I don’t remember why I hit him or if it was an accident. I just remember apologizing a thousand times or so.
Most of what Matt did was not done in a way that I noticed. I never thought of him as someone who looked out for me until a year or so ago when my husband and I are comparing notes on elementary school and I said, “I enjoyed it. I never got picked on and-” My husband interrupted me, “what? You never got picked on? Everyone got picked on.” I said, “I did once or twice but not really.” My husband said, “Wow. You must’ve been pretty cool.” I said, “No. Actually I was a nerd. High school (which was much larger and there was no way for Matt to be everywhere I was) was much harder.” My husband asked, “Then how did you not get picked on?” and I began to wonder how this was possible. It was almost as if I had someone to convince the other kids to leave me alone. Matt had this way of distracting other kids and when that didn’t work he knew what to say to make them lay off. I don’t know how he did it but I know he did it.
I messaged his wife when I had this realization and asked her to ask him if he made sure no one picked on me when we were kids. She said he just smiled when she asked him about it. Matt was a childhood hero and I didn’t even know it until over twenty years later. I didn’t even see what he did for me because he just did it and he’d done it for as long as I could remember. He just took that role as a brother figure and accepted it. He never complained or drew attention to it. It was so subtle I almost missed it.
I told my 6th and 8th grader this story last week. I told them about how a brother and sister should act. I explained that I had such a limited knowledge of that relationship and what I knew came from my cousins. I said Matt could’ve joined in and made fun instead of standing up for me. Easily that could’ve been done. He knew I peed behind a tree in the yard even though I was the only girl in the group. He knew I couldn’t run as fast as him and he still let me catch him from time to time. He knew all sorts of things he could’ve used to humiliate me but he chose to not use them. I explained that was how I wanted them to behave. I explained that having a sibling is something so special.
I explained that what I know about having a big brother came from Matt.