When I was a young adult my much older brother physically attacked me at our parents’ house at Thanksgiving. The “reason” is flimsy and bizarre and not worth typing. The event devolved into a huge family fight involving my many siblings (and parents) that had very little, if anything to do with me. Christmas was on its way. My mother made a big point of saying ALL her children were welcome at her home. I knew I was supposed to fall in line as if the incident had never happened and I also knew my pecking order in the family was such that my welfare wasn’t of great concern but there was no way I was sitting down to Christmas dinner with my brother.
In his late twenties my older brother went on a solo journey across the country, an adventure trip that took place over the course of about a year. He met a woman and after they’d been together awhile, she agreed to leave her home and come back with him to live in our town. We were all quite curious about who this woman was, leaving her life and job behind to make such a drastic move for a man, and one she hadn’t known terribly long at that. In her car no less!
On the night they returned the family gathered to see him and meet his new lady. I don’t remember much about that evening except that my brother asked our mother rather grandiosely to “rustle up some grub” for his new girlfriend. Rustle up some grub??! Had my brother really said that?! The only place I’d heard the phrase before was on TV, on Westerns. Our suburban family didn’t talk like that. Also, why the hell couldn’t he get up and fix some food or order a pizza or something? As it was he didn’t have to; our mother did indeed go to the kitchen to “rustle up some grub” for my brother’s girlfriend.
The relationship didn’t last – she returned to her home after about a year – and if you ask me there was a major hint in how it would devolve in my brother’s words and attitude that first night. Perhaps he started demanding his girlfriend, a modern, independent woman with her own career to “rustle up some grub” and so on.
When I was around twenty, my older brother was dating a younger woman who was closer in age to me and my slightly older sister. She was a wild gal, up for anything, the life of the party. She had a headful of naturally curly blonde hair and a husky voice which, as a real talker, she used a lot. She played the guitar and sang beautifully, a gift I have always admired. That year she joined my brother at our out-of-state family reunion, an event known for hard partying and drinking into the wee hours. The next day when most revelers were hungover and hurting, I can still see her – despite having been drinking with the best of them – springing about, bright and early, looking good, and ready to go. I wondered how she did it.
The relationship between her and my brother didn’t last but my sister and I still saw her for awhile. One time the three of us went to the local dive bar. We sat on stools at the bar proper, and over beers she decided to share intimate details of either the last or one of the last times she’d been with our brother. While in bed he’d criticized her lack of uh, enthusiasm, accusing her of “lying there like a wet noodle.” This was information my sister and I never needed to know and I’ve never been able to forget.
For a few reasons, we didn’t ultimately stay friendly with our brother’s ex but I knew she went on to settle down and have a little family, two daughters who looked like her; I saw them as children once at the public pool. But that was long ago. I learned recently online that she’d died. I was sorry to hear this, especially for her children and family’s sake. I will always remember her, though, not as somebody’s mother or wife or as a middle-aged lady but as that wild child who animatedly told us a little too much one day at the bar.
When I wrote my blog entry about the post office the other day I remembered something from years ago. My older brother had become a mail carrier. After he’d been in the job a little while, I happened to see an envelope he’d addressed for his own purposes. The print size looked like this:
This was NOT how my brother would have addressed a letter prior to being employed by the Post Office. I’m telling you the writing was comically large. I didn’t say anything about it because he was almost certain not to appreciate any commentary but I inwardly mused that I’d had no idea mail carriers could be so touchy about the public’s letter-addressing skills!
Many years later I had the opportunity to see another envelope addressed by my brother. The print size was back to normal-people standards.
At times my father viewed his sons as opponents or enemies – whether he could have articulated that or not – and he physically challenged them. I don’t mean the kind of friendly rough-and-tumble that fathers and sons sometimes engage in. Rolling around the floor, happily tussling. No, this was something else. From my older sisters I heard stories of things that happened before I was born (which was well into my family’s existence). These stories, however, weren’t relayed in such a way that I can get a good handle on them. I can tell you only of the incidents I witnessed, but know this, there wasn’t anything friendly about them.
As a little girl, I had a large basement area to play in with my siblings. On that floor there was also a rec room of sorts, a single bedroom, the furnace, my father’s workbench, an extra refrigerator (and eventually a stand-up freezer), my mother’s canning, and a laundry area. I was downstairs, which was generally the safest, most relaxed part of the house, but wasn’t the only one around; in a house with so many people, I was never alone. I heard a commotion, raised voices. My father once again, had been tangling with my oldest brother, in the laundry area by the back door. I saw them. They were facing off. My brother was holding a broom. My father was livid. Yes, they’d either been physically fighting or were about to, but the thing that my father really blew up about was that my brother had “picked up a weapon.”
My brother, it must be said, was no delight and only worsened, but at this time was just holding the broom in front of his body. He wasn’t waving it around or trying to smack my father with it. He said he was defending himself. Those two words – weapon and defending – ring in my head still all these years later. In the moment, I was so distraught to witness this. Terrified. What was going on? This was my family. I probably don’t need to tell you that nobody paid any attention to me at all. No one reassured me or talked to me about what I’d seen. (And here I >>>snort<<< to myself. My status was about par with a household pet, if we’d ever had one, that is to say pretty damn insignificant.)
What I knew after that, for certain, was that something was very, very wrong in our house. In my family. That things could go south on a dime. I was a child, but I knew this wasn‘t right. I knew families shouldn‘t be this way. In retrospect, I wonder if that particular incident was actually more memorable and traumatic to me, a little girl, than anyone else.
Years later, after I moved out at 19, I was back at the house. I encountered my younger brother, then a teenager, who now had the aforementioned basement bedroom. He had a friend over. But he told me a story, of how earlier that day, my father had tried to attack him. I don’t remember what it was over. Trust me, that is undoubtedly the very least important part of the story. It could have been anything. Or nothing. My father was old enough to be a grandfather to the two of us. He was retired and everything that hadn’t been quite right about him prior to retirement had blossomed furiously after. My brother, more sensitive than my older brothers, was in tears as he related what happened.
Our father had come at him in the doorway of the bedroom, with fists up, challenging my younger brother to respond in kind. “I’m not going to fight you, Dad,” my brother said. Since he wouldn‘t go at it with my father, the incident evidently defused. But my brother was left emotionally spent. He, lord him help him, respected my father as well as the fact of his advanced age. I talked my brother down for a long time that night. His friend remained, but was largely left off to the side of our conversation. What could he have contributed past the typical “that‘s messed up, man” kind of commentary? If you didn’t live with us, it was mighty hard to get a handle on the sort of things that were everyday occurrences and the overriding twisted atmosphere that permeated the house. I.e., the reasons I personally left so young.
I just thought of something, a parallel that escaped me before sitting down to write this. Yes, I knew my two incidents were book-ended with my oldest and youngest brothers. But here’s the clincher. My older brother, after another incident with my father, moved out of our house. Whether he was kicked out or went on his own, I don’t know. I suspect kicked out. My younger brother, though, not only stayed put after our father wanted to fist fight him, but always loyal, stayed in residence another 15 years until he married. One brother left, one stayed. Then again, my younger brother was my father’s favorite (yes, I know how odd that sounds, given what I’m telling you, but understand that being a “favorite” of either parent wasn’t the kind of typical boon a normal person might expect).
I left something out of the story as I told it, because I didn’t want to distract from the essence of the tale, but I will add now that my father, while not a tall man, was strong and stocky, and had been an amateur boxer in his younger years (his sons were tall and wiry, favoring our mother’s side). Not only that, but in his youth, beating people up had been his forte. When someone new arrived in the rural area his family lived in, he’d fight them for dominance. Decades after my father left the farm, moved to the city, had a good white collar career, and a raft of kids, stories about this, and many others of questionable ilk, were told by him at our dinner table as if they were amusing anecdotes.
I got my first teddy bear when I was 16. A guy friend – platonic – from school gave him to me. For some reason, I just never had a teddy bear. I owned other kinds of stuffed animals, though. I know I had two small stuffed rabbits. And a misshapen cat my older sister sewed – its head always flopped to the side like someone had wrung its neck. (While the floppy head bothered me, fortunately I never thought about any neck-wringing business at the time.)
The closest thing to a teddy bear was a pink stuffed fox who had the basic shape of a bear. It was definitely a fox though. I don’t want to turn this into a crappy story from childhood – because that’s not the point (not today, kids!) – but the back story of the fox should be told.
It was my seventh birthday. Tradition was that my mother bought the gift, although my father got involved sometimes, especially for my brothers’ gifts (definitely my younger brother’s). Anyway, nobody had got me a birthday present. At seven I was old enough to notice but naive enough to not think too badly of it. At the 11th hour, my mother sent one of my older sisters out to the store to get me something and she came back with a pink stuffed fox. I was perfectly pleased; what the hell did I know? It was cute and I did like it.
I have to say, while my mother had a reputation for not giving the best gifts, and sometimes giving them late on top of that, in all fairness, the missed-entirely event stood out because it was rare. And, if she could chime into this post, or somebody wanted to chime in on her behalf, it would probably be to point out that she had a lot of kids to buy for, so what can you expect. Okay, I’ve been fair and said it, yay fair me!
Moving along. So, I’m 16 and my friend gives me this beautiful, soft, cute as can be, teddy bear. What a great gift! He didn’t know I’d never had one so it was all the better.
I had a mess of older siblings, and in a big raucous family like ours, it was par for the course to have a lot of in-jokes, usually at someone’s expense, although not always. We kids were quick on our feet, tossing out one-liners and punch lines, the more so as we aged as a group and the years between us became less pronounced. Certain lines became part of family lore, to be repeated for years to come. This was one such time.
We’d gathered at the house as we often did, both the kids who still lived at home, and those who’d moved out, but stayed in the area (tellingly – one way or another – none of us ever went far). Hanging out in the living room with my siblings, I had my new teddy bear, dubbed Taddy, with me. I was holding on tight, as this wasn’t a crew to be trusted, especially one of my older brothers, whose comedic exploits – when he wasn’t in a foul mood – were legend.
My brother spied the teddy bear.
“Let me see that bear.”
“No,” I said, “You’ll hurt him!”
“I won’t hurt him,” my brother said in conciliatory tones.
I handed my bear over. My brother, standing, immediately took the bear in one hand and pretended to smack him about the head with the other, complete with added vocal sound effects: “Smackety, smackety, smackety.”
“Taddy!” I cried, jumping up from my seat on the couch to rescue my bear.
Never was I to be so tricked again. For years to come, any time somebody seemed to be up to no good, someone else might slyly insert these code words into the conversation, “Let me see that bear.”
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.