Sisters Theresa and Ottavia are the oldest (Ottavia) and youngest (Theresa) of the five Trentadue siblings originally from Barri-Mondungo, Italy. The two were the closest of the five siblings as well, and that lasts to this day, though Ottavia’s Alzheimer’s means she needs full time care and she no longer recognizes her sister. But there is always that special familial bond between siblings. Photo by Michael Swan

The familial ties that bind

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  • March 1, 2015

In the end, after 70, 80, 90 years on the planet, chances are the people you will have known best, longest and most thoroughly will be your brothers and sisters. They are the people who came with you into the world out of the same womb.

They shared your childhood — ate the same meals, loved the same books and toys, told the same stories, were uncles and aunts to your children, grieved with you at the loss of your parents, shared with you the medical woes of old age.

So there’s no sense talking about family without talking about siblings.

Brothers and sisters are deeply embedded in who we are — which is likely why they come up so often in the Bible, from Cain and Abel to sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany to St. Andrew and St. Peter, brother apostles.
Our world is full of brothers and sisters. Below are three sets of siblings with a special bond.

Theresa and Ottavia

OTSisters Theresa, left, and Ottavia. (Photo by Michael Swan)
Theresa is the youngest and Ottavia the oldest of the five children in the Trentadue family. Ottavia came to Canada as a young woman, already finished her schooling. Teresa was just a girl not yet in school. Despite the 15 years between them, Theresa is closer to Ottavia than anyone else in the family.

That’s because the two women lived most of their lives side-by-side as next door neighbours in a now-disappearing Italian immigrant neighbourhood just off the Danforth in Toronto’s east end. Theresa lived in the bungalow with their parents, Domenico and Maria. Ottavia married Vito Silvestri, the carpenter who turned up nearly 50 years ago to renovate the bungalow’s basement. The two of them lived in the two-storey house next door. Ottavia and Vito raised two children there. Now they have two grandchildren.

For 48 years Theresa worked as an executive assistant at Eaton’s and lived at home with her parents as they aged. Over all those years Theresa and Ottavia went shopping together, cooked meals together, worried over their parents together.

They saw each other every day. Ottavia was the live wire, the instigator. Theresa was the steady one — reliable, competent, diligent.

Over the past few years, a lot has changed. After their mother died, Theresa sold the bungalow and moved into a condo. Four years ago Ottavia’s Alzheimer’s got to the point where she needed full-time care. Last year Ottavia’s husband Vito sold their house and found a condo quite near Theresa’s.

Now Theresa volunteers in the human resources department of Providence Healthcare. Vito drives his sister-in-law to the Scarborough hospital and nursing home and the two of them visit with Ottavia. At least twice a week Theresa spends her lunch hour sitting with her sister. Ottavia doesn’t recognize Theresa or Vito any more. She doesn’t speak and can’t walk.

“That’s not how I remember my sister,” said Theresa.

But that doesn’t mean Theresa is going to stop visiting, or that she will let the visits get her down. The two women, born to Maria and Domenico Trentadue in Barri-Mondungo, Italy, after the Second World War have just this life and it wouldn’t be the same life without each other.

The Flannery Boys

Flannerys-2Sixteen-year-old Connor Flannery, left, with his younger brothers Stephen, eight, and Jack, 13, are students at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School. The brothers are all happy that they are so near each other. As Connor says, “It’s always someone who will be familiar.” (Photo by Michael Swan)


Stephen, Jack and Connor are likely more in tune than most brothers, given that they’re all students at St. Michael’s Choir School.

Eight-year-old Stephen and Jack, 13, will share a piano bench for a duet at a school concert this spring.

As close as they are, the trio of brothers is anxious not to leave out their big brother, Michael — a 20-year-old film student at Ryerson University who did not go through the choir school experience. It’s not that Michael is unmusical, just that their parents, Marian and John, didn’t know about the choir school until Connor reached audition age (usually seven or eight).

Neither are the Flannerys satisfied with being pegged with music alone. Sixteen-year-old Connor last year qualified as a tennis coach. Jack loves hockey and Stephen has picked sailing as his sport. For several years the family has vacationed together on the South Carolina coast, where sailing is a highlight.

It doesn’t really bother the boys that teachers sometimes mix up their names. Nor are they trying to get away from each other. Stephen loves having brothers close by to help him with homework and compete with in games.

“It’s always great to have a brother,” he said.

“It’s someone who will always be familiar,” said Connor. “You will always have your brother there.”

The Billinger Brothers

BillingersSitThe Billinger boys, from left, Doug, Gord and Ted. (Photo by Michael Swan)
Gord, Doug and Ted faced a crisis 11 years ago when their mother died. Losing a mother is hard on everybody, but for the Billinger brothers there was more to it. The boys don’t read or write. They all spent years as actors with Famous People Players and have held jobs at Goodwill and other community agencies. But keeping a house and themselves was something they had never done. Mum had taken care of her boys right into their 50s — right up to her death.

The boys remember that she got the Mother of the Year award.

For the Billinger brothers, the ace up their sleeve was an association with Mary’s Centre, a Catholic agency that supports adults with developmental disabilities. Without Mary’s Centre and a helping hand from Famous People Players, the boys would have been split up and placed in different community homes for the disabled. They had never lived apart.

The brothers have lived on their own in the east-end Toronto home they once shared with their father and mother for more than a decade now. Mary Centre provides them with caregivers who cook and clean and keep the brothers on schedule. Gord calls Mary Centre’s Denise Tremblett “a real life saver.”

The brothers each have their likes and dislikes. They like bowling and golf. Ted, 68, loves neckties and plays guitar. Gord, 60, hates neckties. Doug, 65, struggles with diabetes, but likes his job at Goodwill.

They all dislike the way people talk about them sometimes.

“You still get retarded,” said Doug. “There should be a stop against calling people retarded.”

His brothers agree.

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