#53 My Brother: My Mother’s Only Child

The only family photos more adorable than my brother as a toddler are of my nephew, the then blond version of his dimpled father. But now I’m speaking of my brother who was a chubby little angel with the smile of smiles. There are no pictures without that eager dimpled smile.

Then about 2½ years into his grin of a life, I was born.

“What? Who the hell is this in my room? My room. When is it going away?“ Still he smiled. “What do you mean you want me to kiss it? It’s a lump. Does nothing. Oh no, now Dad’s holding it. Look over here; I’m smiling over here, big smile. Where’s the camera thing? I have a cowboy hat here. Oh no it makes noise. It can’t do a thing. What’s the deal, the dog, my dog keeps looking at it. What in the name of Hopalong Cassidy is going on here? It better stay away from my stuff.”

“Oh, now we’re talking. The camera that moves, it’s whirring. I can wave; I’m waving here, smiling here. This is more like it. No! That’s my wagon, my wagon. They’re putting it/her in my wagon. All the lump ever does is fall over. What? I can’t believe this. Yes, I’m smiling. I can’t believe it. The camera’s rolling and you want me to what? You want me to pull her/it in the wagon? Yeah, fine. This is my wagon, and I’ll pull that thing, but don’t blame me if it falls out, falls over, or whatever. I’m waving. Grinning. But she’s nothing. It’s not fair. Why do you have me pulling it? I could pull my buddy Skipper down the street. He’s cool to pull in the wagon. Or he can pull me. But this lump? I’ll do it, I won’t like it, and I’m smiling.”

“Oh no, now she/it’s trying to stand. Dad’s got the camera, here I am. Here I am with my little hunting suit. I could walk with my air gun like I’m going hunting. Mommy no, what are you doing? You’re helping her? Ha ha ha. Mommy’s just dragging the lump on the ground. Oh this is just awful, now she can walk better.”

“Today Mommy wants me to take it/her outside. Oh, I’ve got it. Stairs, I’ll take her up stairs. My buddies and I got stairs down solid. Oh this makes me mad. I’m not sure what a week is, but that’s what it’s going to take to get her up this flight of steps up to my buddy’s apartment. Do I push? I know. I can go up and pull it.”

“It’s getting really hot. One step, she/it stops. Another step, she/it stops. Why am I stuck with her/it? Oh now it keeps twisting her arm. Ooops!”

And backwards I went, down a flight of outside stairs. There was a gash in the back of my apparently hard head. I was put on the linoleum floor under our kitchen table. I remember the black and white pattern and looking up at the underside of the table. A doctor came. There were stitches. The important thing, no blood got on any furniture.

Ours is the first generation raised on television. Our parents had their dinner together in peace while we stared up at Roy Rogers and old Hoppie. The brother, who wouldn’t be seen with me outside, sat at the same table our dad made and stared at the same screen.

Ever hear of Kate Smith? She was that rotund singer, mostly of God Bless America. Kate Smith had a television show and one day someone demonstrated cutting hair. So I cut my hair, a rather avant-garde look. And, another reason for big brother to hate the funny looking lump, now wearing a bonnet.

I adored my brother. When he took tap lessons, I wanted tap lessons. But no, it was ballet for me. When he had to wear glasses, I wanted glasses. It wasn’t long before I got them too. When he went to school, I wanted to go to school. Eventually I too got to board the bus. There are movies of us getting off the bus, with our huge leather brief cases looking like miniature accountants. He was always smiling. I always looked slightly confused, several feet behind him.

I wrote about the one violent time my father beat my brother. Immediately after the beating we posed for a picture with Dad on my brother’s bike. As always my brother is grinning.

There was one neighborhood punk who started a fire in the bird sanctuary across the street. Then he threw gallons of paint all over the house of an elderly couple. All boys in the neighborhood were sent by their parents to clean up the mess. I sat on the top of the tall slide my father built, because I could watch over the fences. I cried because my brother was being punished for something he didn’t do.

One time we all went to a beach, probably Jones Beach. Somewhere we did some clamming, and my brother brought one home. A pet clam. Only I think my dad explained it might be a pretty lonely life in that bucket of water and sand in the garage. So we all piled into the car and scrammed back to the beach. My memory is of my brother tossing back his pet clam. But it hit a rock!

My mother had migraines all her life. I remember once going to her room to comfort her. She pushed me to the floor. During the time when we lived in New York a helicopter took her to a hospital. My brother had migraines too.

When we returned to North Carolina my brother was a member of The Boy’s Club. This must have been the greatest torture for him up to that point. We were named king and queen of some festival, actually wearing formal clothes, crowns on our heads, and riding in the back of a convertible car in a parade. It was no fun for me either by the way. He was downright handsome and he smiled. But when the cameras were gone, I returned to standing several feet behind him.

Some summers we went to join Dad in Cape May while he trained for the Coast Guard rifle team. He rented the top floor of a house for us. One afternoon, they told my brother to take me out for a while, which had resulted in stiches for me another time. But I was about seven now. We were to go to a comic book store and the ice cream parlor. But my brother couldn’t tolerate being seen with me and dragged me back to the house. We went up the stairs and into the apartment. If my brother and I had gotten along better, we wouldn’t have walked in on our parents having sex.

My brother learned at a very young age how to behave as though he cared about his sister in front of Dad, or in front of a camera. But when neither camera nor father was there, I was scum. My brother consistently made it clear that I was stupid, awkward, embarrassing, dull, oh and fat. My father never heard these words, therefore when he’d tell me how pretty I was, I couldn’t believe him.

Back then we were still sharing a room. Some fights were so physical; I have scars on my face from my brother’s fingernails. Yet I adored him. Also we were raised in the south in a military family. There’s no more polite combination. But when Dad was gone, polite brother disappeared. Dad was gone a lot.

Soon after our move west Dad was gone an entire year so my brother had nothing to stop him from saying or doing whatever he wanted to me. Once doing chores in the kitchen, we fought. I could never stop the hatred he spewed at me so I picked up a sharp knife. Or maybe he picked up the knife.

Our mother never had kind things to say about Dad, and the language got meaner when he was away. In our family of four, when one person was absent, she complained about them. Didn’t matter who it was. And yet as volatile as they seemed to be, Dad was devoted to her.

By Jr. High I wasn’t even to acknowledge my brother in the hallways because I was stupid ugly fat slime. Even though we got out of school at the same time, I was to go another direction. There was only one direction home, up. So I took a sort of zig zag route.

My brother studied hard. He was not only athletic and a good student, he was brilliant about how to behave at home. I was too stubborn or stupid to learn from him. No matter how late he’d been out, he’d stop at our parents room, stand in the hall and chat for just a bit before going upstairs.

Once he brought some high school friends home. He didn’t know I was upstairs so I heard them talking through the heating vent, a wonderful tool of youthful education. They were just as afraid of girls as girls were of them. A few of my friends would come to the house just to be around my handsome brother. But he ignored them with the same chill he did his sister.

Since my mother said ugly things about Dad in his absence, as teens we picked up the habit. It shouldn’t have been allowed but we learned that it fed her.

I was allowed to start wearing a little lipstick. One evening my brother, mother and I were going out the front door. He said to her, “Are you going to let her go out looking like that?” She said nothing. I just walked behind them, as nothing.

My brother didn’t create his opinion of me out of nowhere. He isn’t that creative.  When I was about seven she was already calling me crazy. Many times he was there when she’d screech, “what ever did I do that was so bad to deserve you?” And there was the most common spew, “You wouldn’t be so ugly if you’d smile.” He learned as a very little boy that it made her feel better to make me feel bad.

When I got to High School my brother was a senior and my father was a teacher. Awkward? What was even scarier, my mother threatened to work there that year. I dreaded the possibility. It was a serious threat but only an effective threat.

I’ve described my mother’s violence toward me. But until he got taller and strong, she hit him too with wooden paddles. Dad never saw that. On some level it must have made me feel almost equal to my brother.  

In high school I barely dated. And my brother wasn’t a busy dater either. He was handsome, smart, athletic but aloof. He had one girlfriend who asked me what made him so cool to her? I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Hey, I had to grow up with him.”

One of my classes assigned an essay about someone we respected. I wrote about my father. But teachers and counselors recognized that I wrote it as fear rather than respect. He controlled his temper after that.

I do not remember one time when Dad said a bad thing about my mother. They fought. He’d storm out. But never did he try to influence us to feel anything but love toward her.

Through High School, most days I was home first. I’d get things ready for dinner, but had a couple of hours to myself. That’s when I learned to treasure alone time, or safe time. I’d play piano or put on music and pretend to conduct. But the best was turning on an afternoon movie. We got mostly Canadian stations and I loved the English movies. If I heard someone at the front door, I’d shut off the set, and rush up to my room.

When my brother chose Washington State University, he turned down an alternate appointment to the Air Force Academy, disappointing Dad. I remember no discussion about what he wanted to study. It was assumed that he would be a doctor, lawyer, something to live out the life our Dad never had. There was no assumption about me, but not unusual for a girl in the 60’s.

Father and son also had a strain over hunting. They were both expert marksmen, but my brother didn’t want to hunt. These were pressures I never had to carry.

My brother was given a new car for his High School Graduation. A Dodge Dart was no Mustang but it was new and all his. So that fall he drove across the state to join a fraternity. As much as he tortured me, being left at home with our parents was no dream come true either. As a female and the second child, rules were lighter. What the heck trouble would the polite and perfect daughter get into?

I have the only letter I ever received from my brother from college, or any other time in our lives. The outside of the envelope just said “secret admirer.” He knew my father would get a kick out of that. The letter was a secret all right, asking me to get him out of going on the family vacation that summer. Of course I did. So my parents, another couple from Minnesota and I, went across Canada. Oh joy.

In High School my friends and I were stuck with the title of virgins. We were the brainy ones. I’ve already said in the introduction to these essays that I didn’t know how to learn, and I didn’t know how to learn to learn. I didn’t know to ask for help. I was smart enough to get grades acceptable for most any college. I’m learning the reason why there was information I simply could not let in.

Because my father was a teacher, he had our IQ records. In one of my mother’s angry spurts she told me my number, and said how much smarter I was than my brother. That should be encouragement, right? No. She screamed that I should have beaten his grades. That was the entire sum of any discussion about my grades in that household, ever. I was never asked about homework. I was never asked how I was doing. When both parents had to go in to meet with my Chemistry teacher about my less than scientific leanings, her response was how I had embarrassed her.

This is as good a place as any to state that I learned about how families were supposed to be in books and movies. I feel sad now when I see a parent going to a child’s room to say good-night, or reading to a child, or helping with homework. In the last house we lived in, not one family member, not my mother, not my father and certainly not my brother ever entered my room. In ten years.

I had wonderful friends but we were all going different directions to college. I had no choice: my brother’s school. My father expected that my brother would watch out for me. He was so dear and he just didn’t know. In all of my growing up with my brother and mother I was mute. So how could he know?

When I graduated from High School, unlike the car my brother got, I was given a set of Samsonite luggage, sea foam blue. The clear message from my mother was the leaving part. She was not subtle. And not for one instant did I question why I didn’t get a car too.

My brother made me sit in the back seat when he drove us to school that fall. He never said one word, for over eight hours. He left me at a motel the night before I checked in at the Rush Week dorm. He just dumped me. Not even good-bye or good luck. So the next day I had to get a cab to wrangle the trunk, and luggage to my new life. He wasn’t about to let his fraternity brothers know he had a sister or even worse that he might be kind to her.

I did not join a sorority. My alphabetically assigned roommate during Rush Week and I both were rebellious. I would have probably benefited by finding a modest sorority with some structure. But that was not what I chose.

About two or three weeks into the start of my college career, I woke in the hospital. A surgeon stood over me explaining that he had removed my appendix in an emergency, and that he left a horizontal scar for a bikini. Was he kidding? I was just barely allowed to cast off the Coast Guard safety yellow bathing suits we all had worn for about 16 years.

My brother visited once, when I was unconscious. My parents called to tell me that the doctor assured them they didn’t need to make the drive. Hey, I spent two weeks alone in a hospital at nine. This was nothing.

One day in the hospital, I was studying, hopelessly behind in my classes, when my brother appeared in the doorway with a plant and a fraternity brother. Holy Crap. Fortunately I had on a bathrobe and slippers. They were there about 37 seconds never actually entering the room. It was a nice plant.

Later I worked in the dorm’s dining room, as many of my friends did that first semester for spending money. One day when I was working in the kitchen I had word that my brother was there to see me. Something had to be wrong! I rushed downstairs still wearing the fashionable hairnet. There was my brother and a fraternity brother, the cute one. They were there to ask for my student ID so the friend could get a ticket for his date for the Father’s weekend football game. As soon as they scored the ID, they disappeared. One problem. My father was coming to see me that weekend. I had to buy our football tickets. At least my ID had a date.

I heard from my brother only one other time. He took me to the buffet on Sunday night at the Union building. Finally he was going to talk to me, be seen in public with me. After 18 years he was going to be brotherly. At last he’d see what a great sister I was. He didn’t completely ignore me, until he asked to borrow money. I gave him everything I had, $91. He never paid it back. I’m pretty sure I had to walk back to my dorm.

He went to school in Oregon the next year. I don’t remember how I got to school that semester. My father wanted me to have a car. My mother disagreed. Which is to say I didn’t get a car. My second year was an even greater disaster.

I went home again to my parent’s house and took some local courses until I enrolled at UW summer session, the day my father died.

There were many shocking things about that day. But one of the greatest was my brother’s grief. My mother’s grief over the man she seemed to barely tolerate was baffling and theatrical. But my brother, who also had nothing nice to say about Dad, ever, was genuinely gut wrenchingly grieving. My father’s friends were up in his room, consoling him. I tiptoed in and sat on my brother’s couch. I’m sure he never knew I was there. I watched him sob and he said there was no reason to go on in school. He was only doing it for Dad. It was the first and last time I ever saw him express emotion.

There were many shocks. My mother telling me her mother committed suicide when her father died, my mother threatening to do the same, and my brother sobbing from his deepest pore. My mother informing me she would never help me with a life. Still, I didn’t cry.

I’ve described that I stayed home with my hysterical mother when my brother went back to school in Oregon. After many months, maybe even a year of daily dismal dreary mother complaints about my brother never coming home or ever calling her I had to do something. I had saved as much change as possible. I got into the VW and drove to another side of town to find a phone booth. I called my brother’s place in Oregon begging him to come home or to write her. Her suicide threats were daily. I sobbed on the phone with my brother asking him to help me with her. He uttered something about doing something. I drove back to the house for more merriment with my mother. He never so much as sent a post card to her. I used to think he had a stronger survival instinct. But it was something else.

A couple of years ago my nephew met a man who had been a student of my father’s all those decades ago. He was kind in describing Dad because he knew my nephew had never met his grandfather. He told my nephew a story I never knew. The day of my father’s death, this man, then a boy, bravely came to our house to see if there was anything at all he could do. He was sad and he just wanted to help.

It was my mother who opened the door to him. I never knew he was there or who he was. For decades he remembered what my mother did and said that awful day.

“Who do you think you are? How dare you come here at a time like this?” And she slammed the door in his face.

There it was again. Shame? Yes, some. Responsibility for her behavior? Maybe. For my nephew that man’s story gave him a teeny clue into what she was capable of. But for me, here was one time when someone else, someone I’ve never met, experienced it. Someone else saw the “self“ she so expertly hid from the outside.

That lovely boy had no idea what he had walked into, and it’s taken over 60 years for me to begin to grasp what I was born into. I thought she simply hated me. Oh if it were only that simple.

Yes I want to know the man’s name so I could write him to apologize, and thank him for his two acts of kindness.

To this day my mother blames me for a less than happy relationship with my brother. Or so I’m told.


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