Gustave Caillebotte, "Jeune home au piano," 1876
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

Brothers in Arms

I can’t remember ever being bored as a child in the summer, just as I can’t remember feeling oppressed by the heat or smarting from a bee sting. Perhaps children never really feel bored—though judging from my godson, they do get restless—except at school, that boot camp for boredom where we are obliged to complete tasks that are either too hard or too easy, and only become prone to boredom later in life, when they begin to perceive and name the gap between the more interesting things they could be doing at a particular moment and the unrewarding things they are stuck with doing, or when, more sadly, they cannot imagine an interesting thing they would want to be doing.

It is equally likely, however, that my inability to recall long periods of summer boredom is simply due to the fact that my mother and my Uncle Leonard and my grandfather were so good at occupying me. Someone must have bought the watercolors I painted with, and the books I read and puzzles I put together when it rained. Someone must have arranged the day trips to my cousins’ houses and rented the boat to go crabbing and driven us in the evening down to the amusement park.

Someone—my mother, I remember—bought us laces the summer we discovered braiding. Alex, an older boy down the block, had shown us the keychain he had braided out of colored plastic laces. He didn’t have any keys to attach to the chain, but it didn’t matter. It was beautiful, with its tight ribbed sides of royal blue and lemon yellow, the laces extending beyond the last knot to a fringe of brightly colored lashes.

My mother drove us the next morning to the local Woolworths to buy a kit of laces for our own chains. I think she was happy to oblige us, as parents today might be to download a gaming app for a tablet. It was a cheap solution for keeping us occupied, with the added advantage that, unlike an iPad, it was something we could do separately, and this reduced the occasions for a fight.

Summer was the high point of our fighting. We had fewer occasions to do so in the city, where our days at school and separate circle of friends tugged us apart. Here in the country, however, with mostly common friends and endless time, we found ourselves in each other’s company more than either of us wanted.

My mother said that Charlie and I fought like cats and dogs, and in a way she was right. We tangled with each other as if we were of different species, fiercely and unremittingly. Our bickering was unredeemed by those moments of affection that mark other brothers, whose fights, like their fierce loyalty, are just another expression of the intensity of their bond, rivalry colored by love.

Competition there was, of course. I envied his skill at sports, though he was always a middling athlete, and his outgoingness, too, the way he joked with adults and how they warmed to his daringness. Perhaps he resented the achievements at school I had left for him to contend with. Ah, you’re Stephen’s brother, the teachers would say, expecting from him a level of performance he would always fall short of.

Since we refused to compete, we each carved for ourselves an identity that admitted no common interest, ability or taste. He liked cream soda; I wanted root beer. Charlie played baseball; I rode my bike. His favorite summer game was Parchesi, mine Scrabble. Sugar Pops, Raisin Bran. Getting into trouble, staying out of trouble. Trombone, flute, how could we ever play a duet? Whether by nature or, more likely, by will, we were, as my grandmother used to say, “contrary”. Even my family seemed to take the cue of our opposition as Charlie became Leonard’s favorite nephew, and I the beneficiary of my grandmother’s favors.

It was more than competition, though. Though we must have shared good times together as children, I can’t remember ever liking Charlie. I know that my memories of my middle brother are refracted by the events that led many years later to our final estrangement. When I think back to our childhood I see him merely as the first incarnation of the ungenerous and disloyal man he grew to become. The interpretative errors introduced by memory, however, are only part of the answer to our enmity. He was a mean boy, as my youngest brother Daniel, who suffered Charlie’s taunts and sadism more than I did, confirms.

I was rarely physically punished as a child, and when it was, it was always because of a fight with Charlie. The threat, however, was always there. It took the form of a burnished brown leather strap, the bottom third of which had been cut into strips like fat linguine. A hole had been punched at the top of the strap so that it could be hung on a peg on the kitchen wall of our house in the city next to the Knights of Columbus calendar for the year, a perverse amulet that warded off not the evil eye but the discord of bickering young boys. There was one at the summer house, too, though it could have been the same one, packed in a box along with the bathing suits and beach sandals and pajamas, and loaded into the car in preparation for our summer sojourn.

The slap of the lashes stung my calves for a minute or so, perhaps a little more in the summer when we were always in shorts. I wasn’t afraid of the pain. I knew my mother—and it was almost always my mother, as my father rarely punished us, not out of greater leniency but because of his discomfort with confrontation—never wielded the strap with force nor persisted beyond a few lashes, and then only on our legs or buttocks. Still I feared the strap, if only for the souring of my mother’s mood which would linger long after the blush of pink stripes on my legs had vanished and which made her inaccessible.

My grandfather had made the strap. He fashioned it with the same attention to detail and devotion to craftsmanship as he made a stage for our finger puppets, the way he fixed the flat tires on our bikes and hunted down the inner tubes we played with in the sea. I wonder if he thought, as he carefully cut the leather into strands of perfectly equal width, of how our flesh would smart as the strips whacked against the soft flesh of our calves, the same flesh he would rub calamine lotion in to soothe the burn of the poison sumac we had trampled through in the woods.

It was an odd object for such a gentle man to fashion. I never heard him raise his voice to his wife, and never heard him curse or swear. He seemed forever to be in a good mood, which I now find startling considering the chronic pain he must have suffered because of his bad leg and shorn hip. How could a man like that have made a strap? Perhaps for him and the world of neat order he laid such stock in, discipline was just another part of cultivating growth, and he approached it as methodically as he pruned and trained the tomato plants he raised at the side of the garage.

Contrary to my mother’s expectations, the laces occasioned yet another fight, its cause inconsequential like all the others and unremembered. Charlie may have teased me about my clumsy braiding or started whipping the laces across my arm. Whatever instigated the fight, it must have lasted a while and was loud enough to bring my mother out of the house to the patio under the oak trees, strap in hand. I could hear the clacking of her flip-flops as she approached.

In a rare if not unprecedented show of solidarity, Charlie and I, instead of standing still to take our punishment, ran several yards away to the garage at the top of the driveway. We were laughing as she came after us. For a moment, perhaps the only one, we were brothers in arms.

I lost track of Charlie as I ran down the incline of the driveway. I heard my mother utter a scream and for a moment there was nothing to hear. Then I heard her crying. I looked back and saw her, collapsed on the grass median of the driveway.

I stood there at the side of the road, edging slightly away from the property as I watched my grandfather hobble out of the garage with his cane toward my mother, who still lay on the ground sobbing. I wanted to run away, less ashamed than terrified that I was the cause of this. How could I, a boy of eleven, bring her to this?

I would have welcomed the punishment now as I stood in the street, not knowing where I could run to or if I should. The strap would have felt ordinary. I knew what to expect, how it would feel, what would come after. My mother’s collapse, on the other hand, was something new and frightening.  She seemed fragile and foreign, my mother and not my mother at the same, a woman like the one I had seen the lifeguards pull out of the ocean the week before, who had been knocked under by the waves and lay in the sputtering surf a few yards from where I was fashioning a moat for my sandcastle on the beach.

I hated Charlie for drawing me into this, but I knew I was at fault, the older brother who ought to have known better, the soldier of Christ who has supposed to turn the other cheek. Instead, I became a co-conspirator.

The closest I came to Charlie was the day we brought our mother to her knees and to the tears I had never seen her shed.


Featured image: Gustave Caillebotte, Martial Caillebotte Playing the Piano, c. 1876.

I collect images of famous brothers—this is one of them—nothing as grand as an actual painting, though if I had the money I might buy one. They are just reproductions I pin to a Pinterest board, and when I do, it is always Daniel I think of.

The Caillebottes, Gustave the artist and his brother Martial, the photographer and composer. The Goncourts brothers, who wrote novels together and chronicled the art scene and literary society of 19th century Paris in their marvelous journals and who never spent a day of their adult lives apart (they are buried together in the same grave in the Montmartre cemetery). The twin Bruckmans brothers, artists both, Lodewijk Karel and Karel Lodewijk.

The gallery is a way of remembering and forgetting. The intimacy of these portraits is a testament of the love I have for Daniel, and the love I wish had existed between Charlie and me.


3 responses to ‘Brothers in Arms

  1. I always love the images you choose to illustrate your pieces but I found this one especially striking so enjoyed your note about collecting paintings of famous brothers. It’s a marvellous story – so rich and evocative with themes and associations plaited together in such a satisfying way. But what I particularly wanted to say was how well you captured the mother as well as the experience of being a brother and son. I have been that woman, I thought to myself. I am always impressed by male writers who can write believable women. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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