FIRST PERSON My Brother, My Friend

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, a relative becomes much more than kin.

I DON’T KNOW HOW IT HAPpened, exactly. I just remember somebody asking me if I wanted to bring a friend to something, and I said, “Well, maybe I’ll bring Tommy, ” and then thought, “Hmm. I guess he’s a friend now. “

Frankly, Tommy’s move from brother to friend represented a substantial promotion; he wasn’t any great shakes as a brother. Before I could even walk, he’d tie a string around my neck for reins, then try to ride my back. Only my mother’s vigilance kept me from being permanently squashed; nothing kept him from making my first 16 or so years miserable. He’d tease, hit, and trick, making me cry in a million ways-you know, the usual big-brother repertoire of sibling mayhem. I’d run to my mother, and, of course, she’d say, “Don’t let him know it bothers you. That’s why he does those things. ” Now, what kind of monster does things just to make people cry?

Later, starting high school, scared and nervous, I’d eagerly seek a familiar face during passing periods. Oh, boy! There’s one! My brother! And he wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. Then, a few years down the road, as I prepared to go through rush week at college, he walked into the kitchen one day and said, “Oh, by the way. You better not eat anything at the rush parties. “

“Why not?”

“Because you make noise when you eat. “

“No, I don’t. “

“Yes, you do. You’re doing it right now. “

Hey. I was eating mayonnaise on soft white bread. I was making noise?

“If they offer refreshments, say, ’No, thank you. I make noise when I eat, ’” he said, leaving the room with a shrug and a sigh. “Whatever you do, don’t eat in front of the sorority members. “

I really hated rush. Couldn’t eat a bite.

However, looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t hear a burst of heavenly applause to mark that exit line because that was the very last time Tommy was ever mean to me, although he still had a way to go before earning the title of “friend. ” When I was in my 30s and going through harrowing times, it never occurred to me to call on him for help, and whenever I needed to talk over something momentous with an empathetic companion, I looked elsewhere.

Evidently, something kept our relationship on a distant plain. I liked him, all right; mainly, he was someone to whom I happened to be related. But since then, we’ve gradually grown closer, probably to his surprise as well as mine, as we’ve subconsciously dug deeper into our common ground. I don’t know how two people who started out so different ended up with almost matching tastes in literature, travel, food, in people even, all dovetailing nicely into the comfortable, comforting fit of friendship.

The thing is, I’ve never believed you should hang on to kin-folks you don’t like, any more than you’d pal around with non-relatives with whom you have little in common. Traditionalists, I’m sure, consider bloodline enough, believing that kinship comes with automatic obligation and responsibility, but not me. Oh, the continuity of kinship is nice and reassuring, but only if the price is manageable. A friend’s brother continues to darken the edges of his life, complaining, borrowing money, and pulling my friend down into his own emotional depths. He causes more aches and pains than a persistent virus, yet my friend keeps going back for more. “Why?” 1 ask him. “Why do you keep calling him?” He shrugs and says, “Because he’s family. “

It’s amazing what some people accept from family that they wouldn’t tolerate for a minute from friends. It’s as though being related gives people license to act any way they want to. And you, the recipient relative, must take it because-they’re family. As I write this, another friend anxiously prepares for her father’s move to her house. An unre-formed alcoholic, the man was a frequently mean and selfish presence in my friend’s childhood; yet she feels obligated to take him into her home. Why? For an emotional replay, this time with her own children and husband in the cast? This man, and my other friend’s brother, they’re family; for sure, they’re not friends.



“I KNOW YOU LOVE ALL YOUR SISTERS, BUT IS there one who’d be your friend if you weren’t related?” I asked one of my walking companions. “Definitely, ” she said. “And the difference is that I don’t hide things from her or try to protect her. And we talk straight with each other. “

Well, I hide things from my mother and my children; they’ll remain the most loved- and protected-of relatives, but I hide almost nothing from my brother. Lately, our talk sometimes looks to the past, and I’m surprised that he has the same memories as I do, that certain family occasions and situations touched him in the same way they marked me. I’m just as surprised that he grew up to be the center that holds the current family together Growing up, I always thought of him a little to the side, not because my parents placed him there, but because he preferred the distance. He seemed immune to parental displeasure and threats, while I scarcely broke a rule. Yet now, he’s the one who sees that we all convene regularly. He quizzes my son about his travels and girlfriends, and he keeps up with my daughter’s grades, friends, and activities. I suspect he would even if her father were alive. He not only remembers to attend the big events, but he knows when an English lit paper is due to be returned and calls to ask what she made. He knows more about his niece and the events marking her trail from childhood to womanhood than my own father, let alone my uncles, knew of mine.

Sometimes I wonder if the tie is more fragile than I usually assume. For instance, suppose Tommy married again, someone besides Jan, whom I love, well, like a sister? (Like a friend?) Or suppose I marry again? Or suppose one of us moves away? My neighbor says a long-distance move defines the difference between friends and relatives: No matter how strong the intention, you eventually lose touch with your friends. But not with relatives. Family bulletins-weddings, deaths, births, divorces-keep the bloodlines intact. Well, I’ve totally lost contact with a cousin whom I considered almost a sister during our childhood, but I’ve also lost touch with some once-treasured friends, too. All I know is that when I moved to Baltimore a few years ago, my brother was the one I missed the most. My relationships with my parents and my son could withstand the distance, but Tommy… well, we were just getting to know each other. The relationship still held a newborn’s fragility.

There, in Baltimore, a host asked his guests which book had influenced us most. “A Mencken Chrestomathy” I answered quickly, “because it taught me to question what I’d taken for granted. ” Just as quickly, I remembered Tommy had given me the book when I was in high school and he in college, thereby initiating a wide-eyed sense of discovery equaled only by his revelation to me that Gov. Allan Shivers wasn’t Jesus. Wow. You’re not turning into a lib... you’re not going to vote for... Does Daddy know? I couldn’t believe my own brother was so worldly, so sophisticated.

I got tickled remembering all that, then remembering him telling me not to eat at rush parties, and then I remembered the only time 1 got the better of him. When our first children, born a month apart, were but a few weeks old, 1 told Tommy that the pediatrician had run some new test on Jon that showed his IQ to be between 140 and 160. Had they given baby Kim the test yet? Naturally, at Kim’s six-week checkup, Tommy demanded the new infant IQ test. “Of course, I know what I’m talking about. Doctor. My sister just had her baby… ” That’s when he must have caught on. Sure wish I’d been there.

Anyway, for whom else in the world does the mention of mean old H. L. Mencken summon forth such warm memories?

“I really envy you. You and your brother have such a nice relationship. ” So my many-siblinged friend Melissa said a couple of years ago, and I realized she was absolutely right. That we do. Still, fora while I continued to envy her and my other women friends who have sisters. Having a sister must be like having a permanent best friend, always on call, I said to one lucky enough to have that kind of relationship with her “baby” sister. Then, just the other day, it dawned on me that I’ve already got one. Not a sister. A permanent best friend, always on call.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments