Only Child : Writers on the Singular Joys and Solitary Sorrows of Growing up Solo
Only children don't have to share bedrooms, toys, or the backseat of a car. They don't have to share allowances, inheritances, or their parents' attention. But when they get into trouble, they can't just blame their imaginary friends. In Only Child, twenty-one acclaimed writers tell the truth about life without siblings--the bliss of solitude, the ache of loneliness, and everything in between.
In this unprecedented collection, writers like Judith Thurman, Kathryn Harrison, John Hodgman, and Peter Ho Davies reflect on the single, transforming episode that defined each of them as an only child. For some it came while lurking around the edges of a friend's boisterous family, longing to be part of the chaos. For others, it came in sterile hospital halls, while single-handedly caring for a parent with cancer. They write about the parents who raised them, from the devoted to the dismissive. They describe what it's like to be an only child of divorce, an only because of the death of a sibling, an only who reveled in it or an only who didn't.
In candid, poignant, and often hilarious essays, these authors--including the children of Erica Jong, Alice Walker, and Phyllis Rose--explore a lifetime of onliness. As adults searching for partners, they are faced with the unique challenge of trying to turn a longtime trio into a quartet. In deciding whether to give junior a sib, they weigh the benefits of producing the friend they never had against the fear that they will not know how to divide their love and attention among multiples. As they watch their parents age, they come face-to-face with the onus of being their family's sole historian.
Whether you're an only child curious about how your experiences compare to others', the partner or spouse of an only, a parent pondering whether to stop at one, or someone with siblings who's always wondered how the other half lives, Only Child offers a look behind the scenes and into the hearts of twenty-one smart and sensitive writers as they reveal the truth about growing up--and being a grown-up--solo.
Kathryn Harris (The Kiss), John Hodgman (The Areas of My Expertise) and the New Yorker's Janice Thurman (Isak Dinesen) are just three of the noteworthy writers who contributed to this collection of essays on growing up sans siblings. Editors Siegel and Uviller have gathered the 20 original pieces into general themes: childhood, family relationships, the desire-or lack thereof-for a sibling and the unique joys and perils of being an adult "only." The gems of this volume are the authors who trade analysis for storytelling, such as magician and author Teller's life-affirming "New Year's Eve 1997," Peter Terzian's "Postcards to Myself," Rebecca Walker's "Blood of my Blood" and Alysia Abbott's "A Pair of Onlies." Though other entries are weighed down by too much therapy-speak, some provide resonant psychological insight, as in Sara Reistad-Long's: "Having Mom and Dad waiting in the wings had made me appear enviably confident, but I suspect that when my supporting cast takes its final bow, I'll stumble more than most." Though the book's topic proves too narrow to sustain its nearly 300 pages-as Thomas Beller notes, it's "hard to know how to separate the only from the childhood"-many only children, as well as those who sometimes wish they were, will find much to appreciate in this volume.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 25, 2006
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Excerpt from Only Child by Deborah Siegel
Postcards to Myself
When I was in second grade, I brought home books from my elementary-school library with titles like Fair Is Our Land and Beyond New England Thresholds. These books had glossy pictures of colonial towns with sheep grazing in the commons and forts where cannons were fired on the hour. I pleaded to be taken to these places, to monuments, writers' homes, battlefields, and living-history museums. I planned prospective itineraries on road maps and selected appropriately priced motels from our AAA Guide. I had no brothers and sisters whose wishes needed to be taken into account. How could my parents refuse?
We were a family of four: my mother, my father, me, and my mother's mother, who moved in with us not long after I was born. I grew up thinking of my grandmother as a sort of surrogate sibling. I was her only grandson, and she doted on me, pouring my cereal each morning and picking up my toys every evening. When I came home from school, we would sit together on the lumpy couch in the den and watch children's public television shows. But my mother and father didn't invite my grandmother to join us on our vacations, and she didn't ask to come along. Perhaps there was a silent understanding that travel allowed my parents and me to revert temporarily to our original, two-generational state. We became a family of three.
On the road, I would sit alone in the back of the car, surrounded by pillows and books and stuffed animals. There was no one to fight with, no one to draw an invisible do-not-cross line down the middle of the seat with, no one to play billboard lotto with. Still, I didn't miss having a sibling. My parents were up front, taking turns behind the wheel and reading the newspaper. We all looked out the windows at the passing landscape. I read out loud descriptions of the attractions we'd soon be seeing, from brochures that I had written away for months in advance. I rode in a bubble of contentment, happy to be away from my school and our street and our small domestic worries. Still, I counted the hours until our arrival- how long it would take to check in to our hotel, how long before we came across a souvenir stand, how long before I spotted a rack of postcards.
I bought my first postcards- on our first family vacation, a long weekend in Washington, D.C. It was 1975, and I was feverish with the American Bicentennial. Every morning, I stood at the living-room window and recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag in our next-door neighbor's yard. I sang patriotic songs around the house and wore a plastic tricornered hat at the dinner table. I helped my parents pick out wallpaper for my bedroom- a pattern of colonial cartography. It was my greatest wish to visit the District of Columbia. I wanted to see the marble of the Capitol building shining like polished teeth. I wanted to walk the Mall.
My parents were only too happy to grant this wish. My mother was a childhood bookworm. My father was a second-generation Armenian-American who grew up with other children of immigrants. English-language books were scarce in his early life, and his parents placed little value on education. His father told him that he should take up a trade. But the GI Bill allowed my father to go to college, and he became a high-school math teacher. His great hope was that his son would be a scholar. And now, here I was, begging for a trip that most kids my age would have thought perilously close to schoolwork.
We drove to Washington, a seven-hour trip from our home in upstate New York. At the Jefferson Memorial, we admired the statue of the president. I read aloud the inscriptions on the walls, excerpts of his letters and writings; some of these passages I already knew by heart. My father's face showed boundless pride as I precociously sounded out the long words: tyranny . . . inalienable . . . providence . . .
I was to be rewarded. Taking me by the hand, my father led me down a staircase to a souvenir shop in the basement. There he brought me to a white pegboard display, with rows of little wire racks that held thick stacks of small, brilliantly colored pictures. These were postcards, my father explained. Did I want any, to keep as mementos?
I wanted many, and I wanted them badly. Together we picked out about a dozen: the district's rotundas and pillared porticoes; the Washington Monument, that alien-looking obelisk; cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin; aerial views of the green-and-white city. One card was a grid of about twenty miniature scenes, a postcard like a quilt of smaller postcards. (This was soon to become my most cherished specimen.) My father handed a dollar- all this for a single dollar!- to the kindly white-haired woman behind the counter. I clasped the bag of postcards for the rest of the day until it was wrinkled and fuzzy with the sweat from my hands.