Family of Four
March 13, 2013
We all have beliefs that are so deeply rooted that we don’t even realize that they are merely preferences, not absolutes. Here’s one of mine: a family is four.
I come from a family of four; it may be as simple as that. But in general I prefer symmetry: Palladio, Islamic textiles, matching sets. Eight Wedgwood plates, four squares in a windowpane. Asymmetry offends my sense of order. You don’t play threesquare. There is no threetop at a restaurant. How do you choose teams when you are only three? How do you take a vote? How does a kid fight back against his oppressors when he is outnumbered?
When I was growing up only children were relatively rare, but in middle school I had three friends who were onlies. This statistical anomaly must have had to do with the fact that all of their fathers had died, and the school we attended was designed for children who might need extra nurture. As a result I always associated being an only child with tragedy, though I was confused about the nature of that tragedy, focusing not on the loss of a father but on the subsequent absence of (hypothetical) sibling(s).
Then in high school I was friends with an only child whose father was not dead, but an artist. Like the kids I had known in middle school, my friend received financial aid to attend our school. Which was probably how being an only child also developed a one to one correlation with (relative) impoverishment.
I felt sorry for the only children. It was like being a Freudian: all I could see was the lack. My swim team was full of big Catholic families, and they appeared to me to be grossly oversubscribed: packed station wagons and shared bedrooms and ValuPacs of Fritos. Two children in a family was a neat and tidy arrangement, like a tailored jacket.
Siblings are like strangers who ended up on the same Greyhound bus. Maybe you while away the long hours from Louisville to Naples conversing about anything and everything. Maybe you share your snacks, repel the creeps and crackpots, watch each other’s stuff when you go to the bathroom. Or maybe not. Maybe you turn your face toward the window and ignore their tentative overtures. Maybe you try to tell them about Jesus, or they harangue you with some theory about how JFK really died, or you steal their ipod when they’re not looking. It just depends.
You don’t have any control over the bus, either. Maybe it’s going to New Orleans, and has a bathroom and air-conditioning that works and comfy seats. Or maybe it breaks down somewhere in Indiana during a snowstorm in the middle of the night. Maybe the driver falls asleep and flips the bus halfway between Phoenix and Palm Springs and you try to get the roof emergency exit to open but it’s stuck and the engine is on fire.
My brother was born when I had been alone for six years, and I fell upon him the way a hiker in the Copper Canyons might fall upon a spring. At last I had a traveling companion. Our bus was deluxe, but it had some serious problems with its wiring.
There is material evidence of our bond: a photograph of me in my green leotard, curled up in the crib with a rheumy-eyed and cranky Scott, reading him a book about gymnastics. A poem I wrote about him (my one and only love poem) in which I rhymed ‘funny’ with ‘money’, ‘like’ with ‘bike’. A red velveteen Little Lord Fauntleroy suit I picked out that I then had to coax him to wear. But most of it is unremarkable and unremembered: sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving. Watching the spelling bee. Holding hands on the beach. Riding the bus.
The winter I was ten, and my brother was four, I announced to my parents that I would be filling the Christmas stockings that year. This followed a Christmas in which my stocking had contained a small plastic bag of hot chocolate mix and a plaid ribbon. My stated aim was to spare my brother a similar holiday disappointment, but my mission was broader than I realized at the time.
My mother conceded the responsibility of the stockings without complaint; it may, in fact, have been a relief. No one thought to put me on a budget, and so I bought stuffed animals and GI Joe, books and Hot Wheels. I filled my own stocking with chocolate and perfume and soap and books and earrings from Stewart’s department store, anything I could think of. The first year was a success, so I became the permanent Christmas stocking manager. Long past the year Scott stopped believing in Santa, I continued the lavish tradition.
When my brother was old enough, he took over the task of filling my stocking. I was apprehensive. I’d become so accustomed to filling my own wants; how could I trust someone else to do it? He was a teenage boy; how could the gifts be anything but disappointing?
The Christmas I was twenty-two, Scott ate at a bunch of different fast-food restaurants and collected the plastic cups, because he had noticed I had no drinking glasses in my new apartment. My stocking was filled with plastic cups. To my astonishment I loved them, the movie tie-in cup and the Uof L football cup, the garish, ironic, awesome cheapness of them. It was my favorite Christmas stocking ever. Go figure.
There was a deprivation more serious than the absence of trinkets from Santa from which I had hoped to shield my brother, and in my misguided way I had thrown He-Man and Crabtree and Evelyn at the problem. But then without realizing it, without even knowing what he was doing, my brother showed me that I had it all wrong. He knew, before I did, that ‘it’s the thought that counts’ isn’t just some bullshit that cheapskates say. A plastic cup from Hardee’s, if it came from my brother, was worth a lot more than those stupid cloisonne earrings I had bought for myself with my father’s credit card.
My brother came to New York for Thanksgiving, when he was a sophomore at Bowdoin and I had upgraded from my firetrap room on the third floor of a building next to Rat Rock to a studio apartment on the same street. I was double booked; my second date with Jonathan was scheduled to take place at the West End on the night my brother arrived. I didn’t want to blow off either one of them, so I made Scott and Jonathan sit together and make awkward small talk and eat bad bar food, because the West End sucked by then, or maybe it always had, even when Kerouac went there.
The next day Jonathan went to his grandparents in Connecticut and Scott and I went to Thanksgiving at the Williams Club. He didn’t know that you don’t get free refills in New York City and I didn’t want to be cheap and controlling, so we spent about twenty dollars on Coke and then, feeling like imposters who had infiltrated Edith Wharton’s drawing room, we escaped, walking through chill and exhaust past the Morgan Library and into midtown. There was girl trouble and I offered all the wisdom of the year I had spent in therapy. On Sunday I put him on the 9 train back to Port Authority, and I worried about how he was going to find his bus in that melee of people without me to help him.
My brother’s two oldest children are four and two, and best friends. When he describes their relationship to me, the way that his daughter follows her brother, believes everything he says, and how his son will confidently share with his sister the truths of the world as he finds it, truths that are often completely wrong, I think of my brother, when he was little, holding my hand as I attempted to lead him somewhere, not really knowing where the hell I was going, either, and I think of Jasper, with no one to lead and no one to follow, making his own (I hope) sure-footed way.
Let’s hope Jasper is a Modernist, comfortable with asymmetry and with making family where he finds it.