Tag Archives: little brother

Visiting my brother’s group house

My oldest brother moved out of the house – after a history of increasing unpleasantness between him and our father – when I was a child in grade school. Our family was rather conservative, religious, and conventional. My brother, who was artistically inclined and never the rough-and-tumble son our bullish, alpha father would have theoretically wanted, was having a go at the hippy life much to my father’s disapproval. I’m sure my mother didn’t think much of his lifestyle either, but this was her favorite child and she saw it as her role to run interference between the two, albeit not very successfully, so he got a pass in quite a few things. Still, my father ruled the roost and rebellion was not well received, especially the counter-culture kind.

My brother left after one last ugly conflict, of the sort where I was awoken one night to hear my father and brother shouting at each other on the front lawn, coming to – or about to come to – blows (not for the first time), while my mother hollered at them to stop, saying “the neighbors would hear.” Laying awake in my trundle bed in the room I shared with my sister, I was so scared.

He moved into the city and lived in a group house with his girlfriend and roommates. After a little time had passed and enough smoke had cleared, our family, that is, my parents and their three youngest children of which I was one, went to visit. We put on our church clothes for this little foray. Father in suit, mother and girls in dresses, little brother combed and cleaned up, the whole bit. And drove to a sketchy neighborhood downtown where the big old rental house was located. My life was a sheltered affair; I found the whole thing shocking, from the fact of my brother leaving us to his new arrangements. Group house? What is that? When my brother pointed out his room that he shared with his girlfriend, I took note of the solitary mattress on the floor. Mattress on the floor? Just one?! What was this?? I didn’t know about sex, not at that point. I just knew something was up.

We sat, in our good Sunday clothes, in the dark, high-ceiling living room and made small talk with my brother. It was uncomfortable. There definitely wasn’t anything for children to do there. From the outside, we must have been quite the sight. I remember a long-haired roommate passing by and giving a nod. Otherwise, whoever was in the house at the time, steered clear. Who could blame them?

Other details are lost to me now, but I was most impressed with the Chore Wheel I saw tacked to the kitchen wall. It had all the housemates’ names written around the outer edge, and a smaller circle with various chores written on it, inside, and it manually turned so that once a week, a new chore would line up by someone’s name. How ingenious! This I could appreciate.

It was the only time we ever went there.

Halloween

P_20141028_091915

When I was a kid, while there was talk of razor blades in apples and poisoned unwrapped candy, it was still the norm to go trick or treating on Halloween. Or should I say trickortreating because we said it as if it was all one word, and frankly, I didn’t understand either “trick” or “treat” in this context; I knew only that candy was going to be extracted. We played no tricks.

I loved it all. The costume. The unusual privilege of a night trek – supervised by an older sibling when we were little – on a cool October evening. The excitement. Examining the haul at night’s end. Sadly, examining was pretty much the extent of the fun with the candy. After selecting one piece each, my siblings and I had our loot confiscated by our mother (the kill-joy who was forever going on about “rotting your teeth” and who “pays the dental bills”) and never directly accessed by us again. Had I any sense, I’d have been sure to have hidden a stache of candy or minimally EATEN a bunch of it whilst on our outdoor excursion. Nope, not me.

Many other kids roamed the town at will with their oversized pillow cases crammed full of candy, but we were permitted only a short range. Not only did we never tote pillow cases, there’d have been no point, given the modest amount of goods we could expect to accumulate. Mecca was apparently the apartment complex down the road because all the savviest, greediest kids bee-lined to them since they could hit a dozen doors in a matter of minutes. These kids knew their time management. I doubt I need to say apartments with strangers were definitely NOT in our permitted zone.

There was one particular house in the neighborhood that was also verboten. It was never explained why it was off-limits, but every year our mother made a point to tell us not to go there. Till the one year she didn’t. I’m sure it was an oversight, she simply forgot to include it in the list of rules & regulations for our jaunt. My sister and I were considered old enough to take our little brother and go without older-sibling supervision and were for once, opportunistic enough to take advantage of our mother’s omission. There were much creepier houses and people we visited on Halloween who were considered acceptable (for instance, anyone who belonged to or attended our church, no matter how otherwise weird, demented, scary, or otherwise troubling, was always okay).

On approaching the usually-forbidden house, we saw the lady sitting just outside the door with her candy. She was delighted to see us and knew who we were. I remember the candy as being good stuff, not cheap and scanty. Maybe she noticed we never came by other years, or maybe not. All I know is to this day, given her pleasure in our visit, I’m glad we went there. Come to find out years later, the woman was an alcoholic and that was why our mother told us not to go to her house for trick or treating. The whopping irony of this is that prohibition wasn’t exactly practiced in our own house. Okay then!

P_20141028_093834

One summer, on a trip back from the neighboring state my parents hailed from and where many of our relatives still lived, our family stopped at a roadside market to buy apples. In addition to a bushel of apples, there were free apple masks for us kids. Apple masks you inquire? Oh yes, seriously. They were simple illustrated cardboard creations, with eye and mouth holes cut out and an elastic band attached to go around the back of the head. Not high-tech but we kids were excited to get this unexpected gift on a boring apple quest.

That year, my sister and younger brother came up with our own idea – our older sisters & mother usually had a hand or more in our costumes – to use the masks and go as a matching trio of apples. Who else would be going as apples? We dressed all in red, donned our masks, and off we went. Those apple masks…they were a problem. Being a flat piece of cardboard, they didn’t stay in place well and slid around. Worse, saliva and breathing dampened the inside area around the mouth opening, so that over the course of the evening, the cardboard became moist and started to shred. This was not a pleasant sensation. Finally, we were most insulted when a neighbor exclaimed over the “little tomatoes!” Tomatoes?! We were apples dammit. Sheesh.

I’m not sure how old I was when I stopped going trick or treating. I hadn’t gone in some years, when I talked my best friend into going out when we were 16. See, I had these masks… No, not the surely long-gone apple masks, but plastic green Frankenstein masks I bought for fun. We dressed in big, black overcoats and clunky boots to accompany the masks. (We weren’t going to be the sullen, unimaginative teens who show up sans costumes on Halloween demanding candy.)

It was a great time and the evening went off mostly without a hitch. If asked by a homeowner how old we were, I pleasantly said “ten,” offering that we were big for our age. People good-naturedly went along with it. Except one house. We were surprised when a boy we knew – a popular, “cool” kid one year older – answered the door. He wasn’t having this “ten” business and demanded to know who we were. He wanted the masks off. We giggled but got uncomfortable. We were both out of our league with this boy, someone too popular to even speak to either of us under normal circumstances (so deep ran this feeling that once, years later, I about fell over when this young man said hello to me in passing on the sidewalk).

We didn’t want to be outed from our Frankenstein disguises. In fact, we wanted the hell out and literally ran away across the lawn into the night – I don’t remember if we got any candy first or not. I hadn’t counted, however, on my telltale hair, noticeably blonde and recognizable, paired with my Irish best friend’s thick dark hair, showing from behind, and most certainly giving us away. Because with a superior, somewhat triumphant tone Mr. Popular called after us, “Oh, I know who you are…” Busted.

P_20141028_092843

Jamie & the Big Ears (or I trick my little brother into playing “right”)

My next oldest sister and I were close in age and loved to play together with our dolls. It wasn’t simple play (the way we, to our surprise, saw many other children play with their dolls), but elaborate with plot lines. Our dolls had names, identities, and families, as well as a town. At first, I tended to borrow ideas and story lines from my very imaginative and well-read sister. Soon enough though, I came into my own and began to initiate more plots and stories.

We had a younger brother by several years. In time, he joined our play in the dingy but spacious family basement. Our mother felt a little sorry for him because he was left out of our games and so bought him a Jamie West doll, for Christmas I think. Jamie was one of a Western series of dolls. My sister had Johnny West and I had Jane. Johnny and Jane were adults and about 12″ tall, but Jamie was smaller and either their son or brother; I don’t really remember and we didn’t stick to the toy-manufacturer proscribed family anyway. It wasn’t like us not to rename our dolls too, but in the case of the West family members, we didn’t. Maybe it was because they came with a last name; most dolls came only with a commonplace first name and no last name, so changing their names wasn’t a big deal. At any rate, the Wests kept their names.

The dolls were hard plastic figures with bendable limbs. Their clothes were molded to their bodies, so Johnny was permanently dressed neck to foot in dark brown, Jane blue, and Jamie a lighter brown. Jane’s body always bothered me. It seemed wrong that she was forever locked into her hard blue plastic ensemble and so limited in her fashion choices. Her hard plastic yellow-painted hair irked me as well. Where were her flowing tresses like my other dolls had? It was hard to warm up to Jane and assign her a personality.

The dolls did have rubbery clothing accessories to wear including vests, chaps, and hats, but they got beat up or lost fast. I unwisely popped off Jane’s rubber hands early on (I had a habit of pulling things apart to see how they worked) and permanently lost them. My sister lost Johnny’s cowboy hat outside in our back yard, only for us to find it some time later with ants nesting inside. Ewww.

My brother and the doll Jamie joined my sister and me in our doll town. He came with a wheeled horse and fancy buckboard (a word I know almost entirely for this reason), which we coveted and gave us a little incentive to be welcoming so we’d get to play with it too. Merely having a doll though, did not teach our brother the intricacies, ins, and outs of playing properly in doll world. Frankly, my child-self will tell you, he did not “work” Jamie right. Dolls were supposed to act like humans, with human capabilities and limitations. This meant they walked from place to place, could not hear through walls, etc. Our brother did not grasp these concepts and so Jamie would be spotted hovering mid-flight over another doll’s (home-made, cardboard) house, spying and eavesdropping.

Jamie took to being a trouble-maker and gossip, and repeated things he theoretically heard (that our brother in fact heard), to other dolls. There’s always one, isn’t there? I embarked upon a plan. I told my brother if Jamie agreed to wear big paper ears that I would make, taped to the sides of his head, he’d be “allowed” to hear what other dolls said through walls, roofs, and such. My little brother, not knowing any better, thought this was a fine idea and agreed.

Now, when mutant-eared Jamie went strolling down the street or went into my dolls’ restaurant, the other dolls screamed, dropped what they were doing, and ran away in terror. My calculated plan work. My brother didn’t think Jamie’s ostracism from doll society was worth bionic hearing abilities, so the paper ears came off and Jamie returned to his former place in doll society – but no longer flew over houses or eavesdropped through walls.

The bizarre soundtrack to my childhood

P_20140429_090738My childhood was strange. One of the reasons, in a way which made things interesting at least, was having a mess-o-older-siblings. This meant I had access to pop culture and other artifacts of their time I might not have otherwise had, or not quite so soon or as young. It was a trickle-down thing.

Music came to me early because of them. My parents listened to music and owned records, but from what I saw, I wouldn’t say that they loved it or that it was the “soundtrack to their lives.” I can think of no piece of music my mother loved, but I do remember my father going nuts for Linda Rondstadt’s “Blue Bayou” (which frankly threw me, and seemed to be a one-time thing).

My brothers & sisters, though, listened to music a lot and a variety at that. And one of the things that happened as they moved out of the house, was that they tended to leave things behind (they later came and took things back but that’s another story). The leavings included a bunch of cast-off 45rpms (they’d moved on to albums and lost interest in the 45s I guess). I am now the happy owner of a couple Beatles 45s, a Simon and Garfunkel, a Turtles, and one of my favorites, which actually was abandoned by an older cousin, Tommy James’ “Dragging the Line” (did you know REM redid it? It does not disappoint. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qpD75bN-n4) I don’t get to hear them often, unless I happen upon a holdout clinging to his record player (it’s usually a guy).

But that’s not all. I hold in my little paw a 45 of Spike Jones and the City Slickers “Rhapsody from Hungary”. This was the soundtrack to my childhood. And let me tell you, it is freaky stuff. We – my sister closest in age, and my little brother – loved it. It’s not a song. Not by any normal measuring standard. A man and a woman are talking, in a peculiarly seductive way to one another, clinking their wine glasses, when suddenly that gives way to a lot of noise. Glass breaking, a cowbell clanking, banjo playing, a chicken bawking, gunshots, horn sections, and traffic sounds. [Lookee what I found! I’m so excited I can share it with you! www.youtube.com/watch?v=45zZbn_3deU]

We had a ritual. We listened to the record in our basement, on a monstrous old combination b&w TV/radio/record player housed in a wood console (now there’s a word you don’t hear much anymore), the kind that has doors on the front. The record player unit squeakily and sometimes reluctantly, pulled forward out of the unit so the little record could be popped on and needle set. As soon as the noisiest part of the “song” kicked in, that was our cue to run wildly around the basement in circles (or ovals really). We could make a complete circuit around the basement stairs. Sometimes we just ran, other times we tricycled madly in succession for the duration. We had no idea what the song meant (still can’t say I do) but thought it, and our routine, were hysterically funny.

Was this strange? If I could go back in time and watch 2 or 3 three kids running or biking around and around in wide circles, laughing maniacally as they did so to the rather twisted “Rhapsody from Hungary”, till they collapsed out of breath, I’d be thinking this is very ODD.

Odder still, the flip side of the 45 is Peter Cottontail. You know: “Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail, hippity-hopping on my merry way….” C’mon, everybody, jump in anywhere! Well, maybe you don’t know that one. Perhaps sadly, I just wrote that line from memory. There’s another line in it that I imagine at least one or two of my siblings could also still sing, in the appropriate rabbit falsetto (I’m sorry there’s no audio to WordPress, or not that I’ve discovered how to do, or I would sing it for you): “Whooped weeeeeee. Whooped weeeeeee. Di-ditty-di-di, dum-dum!

What’s a merry children’s song like Peter Cottontail doing on the flip side of Rhapsody from Hungary? Maybe that’s the strangest part of all. Or maybe that the YouTube link shows a record cover (that I never saw before) referring to these songs as “kids the classics”. If you want or have warped kids, I guess they are…

Ah, Petrouschka… Whooped weeeeeee. Whooped weeeeeee.