Wednesday, December 28, 2005

December 28, 2005: My Brother's Visit

Stephen left on the 26th. I am not so true to myself when I am around my brother. We weren't always like this, of course. Stephen and I are two years apart, but we may as well have been twins, the way we were paired together. I have few childhood memories that do not include him--next to me, in front of me, behind me. In nearly every photograph in the family albums we are together, sides touching and heads tilted together, almost level. One shows us, around ages four and six, in a silver-colored recliner watching television, a bowl of popcorn on a single TV tray across our laps, four legs sticking straight out beneath it. Our smiles are identical, bottom rows of tiny teeth white and eager.

We were our parents' second family. Seven year separate Stephen from the youngest of our three older brothers; sixteen years stretch between my oldest brother and me. Their childhoods were spent on an orchard in southern Illinois when our parents were young and poor; we share none of their stories of tractors stuck in mud or crops ruined by hailstorms. We grew up in New York, with a scientist-professor for a father and a bridge-playing Welcome Wagon hostess for a mother. Our parents were middle-aged before we entered kindergarten. We know now, of course, that our parents' lives were much different, much more complex than they appeared to be, but back then it seemed that our father went off to work each day in a brown cardigan and our mother baked and cleaned.

Our older brothers drifted here and there, sullen around the dinner table, out with friends at night. Stephen and I stayed together, holed up in our attic playroom or outside in our tree house. We liked quiet. In my memory few words were exchanged between us; I can't even hear the sound of my brother's voice. Instead we communicated by anticipating each other's wants: We will color our pictures first, then play with Tinker Toys later....Give me the purple car....

But of course memory plays tricks--children do chatter. We did have voices, and we must have used them; but our quiet natures found a peaceful rhythm in each other. We rarely fought. My mother swears Stephen hovered over me like a guardian angel from the moment I arrived. Throughout my childhood he presented me with carefully made gifts. A rag doll with black yarn hair and thick red lips. A two-story doll house, complete with shingled roof and wall-to-wall carpet. A wooden diary bound with leather ties, my name etched jaggedly onto its cover with a woodburning tool.

His generosity overwhelmed me. By all right he should have kicked me around some. He should have pinched my arm at the dinner table or thrown my baby doll in the toilet. He should have left me behind to walk home along after school or tormented me with stories of kidnapers and monsters. After all, not only did I usurp his briefly held position as baby-of-the-family, but I caused more than a little commotion as the first girl child born to either side of the family in nearly forty years. Everything I had was new--clothes, dolls, china teacups; he faced a childhood of hand-me-downs and broken cars. Grandparents bought frilly pink things for me, brown itchy things for him. One statement made regularly to my parents characterized my existence: "You finally got your little girl. You must be so happy! You must spoil her rotten!" So I accepted each of my brother's gifts gratefully, but more than likely with a certain amount of nonchalance. My station in life was to be the receiver of all good gifts.....

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