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Being a younger sibling is like living half your life in the recycling bin.

I shared or had to reuse everything: a room, hair ties, knee socks. My bed was a trundle, the Adam’s Rib of furniture, so it was literally attached to my sister’s.

I answered to the name “Nancy” more times than my own for most of grammar school. The nuns were getting closer to retirement by the early 90s, and after so many years, I imagine it was probably hard to keep little white girls in French braids and identical tartan jumpers straight. I was also the third of (eventually) five children in an Irish Catholic family and, while we are each unique in our likes, hates, allergies, and shoe sizes, like most biological siblings, we probably blended together if you squinted slightly.

The usual impression is that younger siblings hate the hand-me-downs and the sibling-based biases to an extent.

Not me, I reveled in little sisterhood. If we were shopping and Jenn got a new dress, I knew that in a few years and a few more inches, I would wear it too. When I needed To Kill a Mockingbird for tenth grade English, I knew there was an annotated copy already in our house. Sharing those items never made me feel less than or without an original identity. Instead, I was adding my own experience and energy to already lived-in things; the sisterhood of the traveling everything.

Then and now, I find that I often want to give second life to things.

As a kid, magazines and newspapers were recycled into thematic scrapbooks. Tiny slips and carefully torn out spreads were preserved in collages behind the clear pages: Princess Diana tributes, homages to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reviews of Titanic and Legally Blonde. In my college dorm room, I made intricate murals, combining photographs and scraps between film posters, each one carefully mapped out before being fun-tacked to the walls. Just recently, I took the cards from my wedding and made them into a book.

These days, for the sake of my orderly, clutter-hating husband, I do make an effort not to hold on to everything, but I’ll admit, it’s difficult to break.

The hand-me-down habit is part of my DNA.

So many resist or resent the concept, but I miss sneaking into my sisters’ closets for a Friday night outfit or “borrowing” a pair of my brother’s socks for practice. Since I can’t do that anymore, I’m selective with what I share between my children, and I pass on clothes and toys to my siblings’ children in the same way we traded things down with each other not that long ago. They may seem like trifles, but there is great love living in those little items: a bomber jacket, Superman’s cape, sparkly tutus. Hand-me-downs are ingrained into being a younger sibling or cousin. I can’t seem to get away from it. Like family, I inherit it. And then I pay it forward.

Marybeth McDonough

Marybeth knows the correct movie quote and the filmography of the actor who said it; she does not need to look it up.

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