The day Mom and Dad brought him home they came in the front door rather than the back; the front door was ordinarily used by guests or the postman, except during parts of winter when after a deep snow the path to the back door might be poorly shoveled or the giant icicles that hung from the roof on that side of the two story house had fallen, smashed, and refrozen into a jumbled and uneven obstacle course. But this was not an ordinary day. After sixteen years as a single child I had instantly been appointed to the lifelong position of big brother.
I knew he was coming, of course, and had agreed with some measure of enthusiasm to this major change in our family. The idea of having a little brother was one that had appealed for some time. It seemed all my friends either were big brothers or had one and I imagined all the things I could teach him; how to hit a baseball or run with a football, or the ribald songs of adolescence. I had gone with my folks not long before to meet with the agency's person in charge who had interviewed me alone. When I exited his office my folks spoke excitedly and simultaneously.
"What did he ask you? What did he say? What did you say?"
Whatever I said had been good enough since everything proceeded, so far as I knew, smoothly. Yet agreeing to the abstract idea was not the same as the actual reality, and my folks must have been still somewhat uncertain as to how I would react. I had not met him nor seen a picture and really knew nothing about him other than his age.
Entering through the front door and into my life was a skinny little fellow with blond hair, bright eyes, and a smile. His name was Richard and he was five years old. He carried all his possessions in a single brown paper bag.
I liked him immediately. He had an expressive face, happy with a joyful and spontaneous grin which seemed to cause his entire countenance to beam. He may have been overwhelmed, but he was not reluctant as I welcomed him with all the warmth I could muster and brought him upstairs to show him my bedroom which was now our bedroom. I pointed out which of the twin beds would be his and put his solitary bag on it.
He did not have a lot to say that first day, but was agreeable with whatever my folks, now our folks, suggested and did not whine or sulk or demand. The folks seemed relieved after I had spent some time with him and told them everything was fine for me. The day passed quietly, carefully, and seemingly successfully.
Bedroom sharing did not last. He would be up at the first hint of daylight, get out of bed and begin pounding a toy hammer on a set of wooden blocks, immediately stop when I asked him in a thick, hardly awake voice, only to resume again in a few minutes. Patient explanation delivered during normal waking hours by me and by our folks that it was far too early for noisy activities was met with immediate agreement only to be forgotten or ignored the next morning. And the next. After several days our folks agreed that the shared bedroom was a failed experiment and moved him to a spare bedroom next to theirs.
The circumstance of his arrival and the difference in our ages might have hindered or even prevented the normal bonding that should occur between brothers. I made certain to spend time with him, playing ball, wrestling, various games, and simply paying what attention I could to him. At age sixteen any resentment I might have felt at a younger age regarding the abrupt competition for parental attention did not occur; my teenaged self was happy to have their attention directed elsewhere. But there was no growing up together, no secrets shared, no hiding beer. In just two years I was off to college, never, excepting vacations and parts of summers, to live at home again.
We bonded nevertheless, gradually, progressively, happily. A bond that has grown and strengthened with the years, more than half a century now. He is a confidant, unquestioningly and unquestionably loyal and for many years a source, a sort of mole I suppose, to let me know what was happening with our folks. He is a family historian and at times for me somewhat of a moderating influence. We demand little of one another yet know support is there, will always be there.
After decades so many memories are dim or faded, or entirely gone. One wonders what causes some to remain clear and bright. Is it the retelling that preserves them, or are they retold because they are recalled?
When he was six our dad took him fishing. Dad had begun fishing with me at about that age and it had been a special activity just for the two of us, something we did together until my early teens. I suppose he thought to reprise that experience with his new son. I sometimes went along and was there the day the little fellow hooked his first fish. The scene, all these many decades later, still appears clearly in my mind's eye. Our dad's excited instruction to "hang onto him" and to "keep your rod up." Dad's rush to pick up his Kodak 8mm home movie camera. The fumbled grasp and the camera tumbling up into the air as our dad desperately tries to catch it, the camera spinning in the air in seemingly slow motion just beyond reach and falling into the water with a sad and impotent splash.
Dad had the camera repaired but it never quite worked properly after that.
After my college freshman year I was living in my first apartment, a summer sublet, taking some classes and enjoying very much the new freedom. Our folks came to town one weekend day and after a pleasant visit during which they expressed approval of my summer living arrangement, left the now eight-year-old Richard in my care for the afternoon as they went off for a tournament of contract bridge.
It was a particularly hot and humid day and without air conditioning, begged for beer. I drank one or two and offered my brother a taste. He may or may not have liked it, but he was with his big brother and drank perhaps half a can. Not very much but enough that his little body felt the effects which were still present when our folks returned. They made it quite clear, and succinctly so, that it was not a day for them to be proud of their older son. An uncomfortable moment for me at the time, but all these years later and our folks gone it remains a reminiscence my brother and I periodically enjoy with a retelling and a chuckle, the memory well worth the momentary discomfort.
It was four years later when I enlisted my now twelve-year-old brother to help me carry some things including a bulky mattress up into a new apartment. I was getting married in just a few days and this was to be our first home. It was a sweltering summer day. The stairway was angular and narrow up to the third floor of the old building. We had a particularly difficult time, were hot and tired, and caused quite a loud commotion. A second floor tenant opened her door to complain. I do not recall it, but my brother has described to me more than once the inelegant terms I used to suggest she return inside.
All the same, despite the beer episode or perhaps including it, I took my responsibilities as big brother seriously, including the inherent duty to render a bit of teasing and the occasional tickle. I was home for a visit when he was in his early teens. Our dad was working too late that day to be present for dinner. Mom had served us each some pie for dessert as I continued some good natured pestering. My brother, who was normally very tolerant in such circumstances, for whatever reason this time had quite enough.
I saw it coming and made no move to stop him or get out of the way. I sat still as he wordlessly picked up the plate filled with a generous piece of pie -- our mom always served large portions of everything -- and calmly mashed it into my face. My brother was and remains a fan of The Three Stooges and having paid close attention to their technique, added the rotary move of twisting his wrist several times to grace me with the full effect.
I sat there laughing, pieces of pie falling from my face. My brother sat there with a look of comfortable satisfaction. Mom had a different opinion. She immediately sent him to his room with the ominous words trailing after him.
"Wait until your father gets home."
Well, my brother could wait but I had plans and left to meet a friend at a neighborhood bar where we would spend most of the evening drinking twenty-five cent draughts. But I later wished I had stayed home to watch the scene.
Our dad was a man who could be serious in his parenting when the situation demanded, but also a wise and loving fellow with a wonderful sense of humor. Upon Dad's arrival home my brother was summoned from his room and Mom described his assault in detail.
"I wish I had been here to see that and had my camera," Dad said, apparently overlooking the results of the camera's prior aqueous adventure.
Originally appeared in the print publication "Meat for Tea: The Valley Review."
Article © Harvey Silverman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-07-20
Image(s) © Harvey Silverman Collection. All rights reserved.