Our siblings. They resemble us just enough to make all their differences confusing, and no matter what we choose to make of this, we are cast in relation to them our whole lives long. — Susan Scarf Merrell
I sat at a table in the shade, sipping a latte and listening to the desperate whine of the massive Great Dane tethered to the bench behind me. Like most Saturday mornings in San Diego, the air was warm and the sun shone brightly in a cloud-free sky. People at other tables were enjoying the summery February weekend in their own ways; they read in silence or chatted about the perfect weather in low voices, like reverent parishioners marveling at a glorious temple. Amid the normalcy that was the patio at Peet’s Coffee & Tea, there sat two loud, vivacious, contradictory men — one with a full beard, the other clean-shaven; one straight, one gay; one Republican, the other Democrat; one with a career in military-war-gaming, one with a career in landscape design; one my father, the other his younger brother.
“I don’t understand how you can have something that gets to be the size of a human being that only lives for seven years,” said Uncle Jimmy.
“Great Danes only live for seven years?” I asked, saddened by the idea of the beauty behind me expiring before its time.
“Well, they don’t drop dead right at seven,” he answered. “That’s the average. Ooh! Hang on a sec.” He flipped open his buzzing phone and Dad rolled his eyes at me conspiratorially, as if to say, “Yes, Jimmy, we know you’re popular.”
“Hello?” Uncle Jimmy said into the phone. “Oh, hi. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to talk to any losers in New York, I’m in Southern California.” He caught my eye and shot me an impish smile, then continued into the phone, “Oh, oh, it’s raining there? Yeah? What’s the temperature?” When he was finished taunting his friend, my uncle returned his attention to the table. “What was I talking about?”
Dad seized the opportunity to poke fun at his brother and said, “Uncle Jimmy had a stroke; it’s hard for him to remember things. He was actually having the stroke while getting his hair cut, which is why it looks like that.”
“Well your hair looks like it’s thinning,” Uncle Jimmy retorted.
“I have the guy thin it out when he cuts it because it gets too thick,” Dad shot back. It was the truth — like their father, my dad, 58, and Uncle Jimmy, 49, both have full heads of thick, lustrous hair.
Uncle Jimmy burst out in a staccato of mocking laughter, as if to say, “Believe what you want, man, but you’re going bald.”
“That noise he’s making is also a tragic result of the stroke,” Dad said to me. He did a great job of looking honestly sympathetic as he shook his head at his brother’s “ailment.”
Uncle Jimmy stretched his arm to show some love to the whining dog by massaging its muzzle. He launched into a story about hitchhiking with a few of my cousins from Bay Ridge to Breezy Point, an Irish-Catholic beach-bungalow community in Queens. “These kids were beautiful — blue eyes, blond hair. They were prime rape children,” he said of my cousins, his sister Carol’s kids, who are only a few years younger than him. “At first, we tried to be discriminating — if a car looked sketchy we’d pass it up. But after standing there for two hours on the side of the freeway, if a nude person with blood on them and holding a knife pulled up, you’d get in. Nothing ever happened to us, though.”
“Hey, see that building over there?” Dad asked. Uncle Jimmy and I craned our heads in the direction Dad was pointing. “That’s going to be turned into condos.”
“That’s amazing, Cliff,” Uncle Jimmy said slowly, the words heavy with the weight of his sarcasm. He suddenly sat up in his seat, and I caught a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “Did I tell you about your father with the chocolate pudding?”
“There’s nothing wrong with ravioli and Hunt’s tomato sauce,” Dad interjected. “I like my pudding.”
“Right, almost as much as you love a free meal,” Uncle Jimmy taunted. For a few minutes, they playfully argued, talking over each other’s words to weave a verbal tapestry of functional dysfunction, each sentence an amusing thread punctuated by a tiny dig.
When they happened to take a breath at the same time, I jumped in, “You mean that he likes the pudding or that he can’t stand to share it?” I can think of nothing that brings my father greater gastronomic pleasure than a meal of ravioli (from a frozen bag), a can of Hunt’s tomato sauce (which he blankets with pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and oregano), and a box of Jell-O chocolate pudding (prepared on the stove and chilled in the fridge).
My father’s face was a mixture of embarrassment and pride as Uncle Jimmy told the oft-repeated story of how my dad, as a teen, would strive to be the last person awake in his family — it was only after Dad was sure of his three siblings’ slumber that he would creep into the kitchen of the two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Brooklyn and make his pudding, joyous in the knowledge that he would not be pressed to share his beloved chocolate goo.
“I don’t know why everybody’s so obsessed with my eating habits,” said Dad.
“Perhaps because they’re so strange,” I suggested. “You know, the whole ‘things on the plate can’t touch each other,’ and how onions freak you out.”
“Hey,” said Uncle Jimmy, in a satirical tone, “you want to know something about that building over there?”
“I’d rather hear about the new condos than listen to the details of the kidney stone you passed at the JFK airport,” I teased.
“But seriously, honey,” Uncle Jimmy said, “It’s very rare that four siblings — Mr. Single Gypsy, Ms. Married with Six Kids in Staten Island, a lesbian, and a gay man — can go to Ireland and have a really wonderful time.” A few years ago, Dad and Uncle Jimmy made the trip with their older sisters, Aunt Carol and Aunt Diane. When I asked him what he meant by my father being a “gypsy,” Uncle Jimmy said, “He lived in his own world. He was a gypsy in his sense of self and his being always very self-sufficient. He was in his own little spaceship, but it happened to be in our apartment.” My grandparents never left the compact apartment in which they raised four children. I asked my uncle if the tight quarters made him closer to his brother. “We weren’t close at all,” he said. “I was a little brat baby and he was out of there.”
“Well, I got married when I was ten,” Dad said. “So we actually weren’t living together for long.”
“Long enough for me to learn not to try and touch your pudding,” said Uncle Jimmy.
“You guys are so horrible,” I said. “You tease each other ruthlessly.”
“There’s an expression, Barb,” said Uncle Jimmy. “It’s called ‘Irish wit.’ What happens is, I tease your dad and your dad teases me, and we laugh about it. We learned that from Grandmere. When we lost our mother, we lost a chunk of humor.” Dad nodded in silent agreement, and Uncle Jimmy continued, “Irish wit is a wonderful neutralizer for painful or uncomfortable things happening. You really lose out in life if you can’t laugh at yourself. But,” he said of my grandmother, “if there was a theme and a vein that she pushed for, with all of her sarcasm and joke, it was kindness. Your father, he may be cheap and hoard his pudding, but he is generous and kind with those cancer children. I have a saying: ‘Generous people are happy people, grateful people are happy people, and victims are never happy.’”
“Jesus, you are brothers,” I said. “That sounds exactly like something Dad would say.”
“You get out of life what you put into life,” said Dad. For the next 20 minutes, while I slowly finished my coffee, and as people went about their Saturday mornings, I listened as the straight man and the gay man, the Republican and the Democrat, the gypsy and the footloose and fancy free, exchanged aphorisms that, despite the vast differences between the men voicing them, were nearly identical.