You see, I have a brother too.
But I haven't written about him because I haven't seen or spoken to him since our mother's funeral in 1999 and even then we didn't really speak. He just said something to whomever was nearby that he hoped he never had to come back to our home town ever again. My sister hasn't spoken to him either. And you know what? We have no idea why that is. Despite several attempts over the years to reach out and to find out, he has not responded. So we gave up.
We know we have a brother out there somewhere who wants nothing to do with us.
I have let it go. I haven't written about my brother because I don't think of him that much. He doesn't play any kind of role in my life now. He has never met my daughter, his niece, and only met my son once when my son was four. I asked my son recently if he wanted to meet him again, and he replied, "Why would I want a relationship with someone who doesn't care about his family?"
So like I said, I don't think of him that much. And when people ask me about my family I sometimes forget to mention I have a brother. But I feel guilty about that...and shame. Guilt and shame that I am part of an estrangement. That somehow I am guilty of something that has caused it. That I could have done something to fix it.
When I was little, I loved the TV show "Father Knows Best." I thought our family was just like that family: the wise father, the attractive mother, the older sister called "Princess," Bud, the older brother, and then the youngest girl, "Kitten." Me. My mother even called me "Kitten" sometimes.
But for all of my thoughts about my happy childhood and my middle class middle American upbringing that I likened to "Father Knows Best," it wasn't supposed to include the estrangement of my brother. And yet I have to remind myself that I am estranged from him, which is not usually the happy ending you expect from a happy childhood and a "Father Knows Best" kind of world, complete with dog.
It's a word that feels very odd to say about my brother, considering the seemingly Norman Rockwell upbringing I and my siblings had - parents who stayed together, church every Sunday, stay-at-home Mom, home-cooked meals, dinner together around a table every night. Estrangement is the kind of thing that happens in families where there is abuse or divorce or some bad thing that happened, right? But nothing like that happened in our family. Despite that, though, my sister and I have to accept the fact that we are estranged from our brother, and it is highly likely that we will hear nothing from or about him until we hear he has passed away, if we outlive him. And I feel some shame about that.
So what happened? How does estrangement happen? Could I have done something?
When you think about it, it's surprising more family members are not estranged from each other. Just because we have at least one parent in common, that doesn't mean that we will have anything in common with our siblings, and yet our expectations are high about what a happy family is. We expect that we are all supposed to love each other and be there for each other no matter what.
But when you consider that many of us are born at different times in our parents' marriage, sometimes in different generations years apart, that we may be of different genders, that when we become adults we have our own families and might have moved far away, that is a pretty high expectation that we would not only love each other, but actually like each other. Just as in friendships, the relationships need to be nurtured or they drift away. That is especially true if siblings move far away, have different life experiences or have lifestyles and beliefs that are very different from each other.
Families are strange institutions with their own hierarchy and roles.
Birth order plays a role in how close siblings might feel to each other. I was the youngest, my brother was in the middle and my sister was the oldest. My sister was nine when I was born, my brother was 5. They probably weren't particularly happy to have another sibling to contend with.
(I don't look particularly happy in this picture either).
Those two were always closer, and I was more of the outsider, the "spoiled brat." My sister got married and left home when I was 12 and my brother left when I was 14, so as the last kid left at home, I enjoyed some of the perks that my sister and brother didn't. There were always comments about how spoiled I was, especially when I got a canopy bed and my own pink Princess phone.
My brother being the middle child and a boy, though, had its own barriers. I don't think my mother liked boys very much or at least didn't understand them, partly because she had five brothers of her own and was probably tired of all of that testosterone. My sister was very accomplished and was held up to us as the standard. I was the resident drama queen. He was squished between the two of us girls. Add to that a mother who was not easy to please and resentments will occur.
Likewise, I think the state of your parents' marriage over the years plays a role in how close siblings feel to each other.
My parents were 40 when I was born and by that time I think things were not so good between them. Though they stayed together for over 60 years, it was apparent to me at the end that they were not particularly happy. So I believe that the three of us kids had very different experiences with our parents.
By the time I came along, my parents were probably not only tired of each other, but tired of raising kids. Later in my parents' marriage, when my brother and I were still living at home, my Dad wasn't home that much. Though he and my brother shared a love of fast cars and guns, my Dad was gone in the evenings. He worked extra jobs to afford his "toys," though I also think some of that was to get away from his wife too.
Also, when parents pass away, the family unit often falls apart.
In most families, the mother is the person who gets everyone together for holidays and the like, and often when the mother dies, if no one else really cares and steps up to make sure everyone still gets together, the family unit falls apart. I met a woman recently who was a twin in a family with another set of twins and a sister. Five children and they all live near each other and yet not only are they not close, they rarely see each other. She shared with me that when her mother was alive, they would all gather at the family home for Sunday dinner. Once she died, no one else took on that role and they all drifted apart.
I can speculate all I want about my brother's estrangement. I will probably never know the reason. We can't know what's in the hearts and minds of others, and it's possible that he doesn't even know the reason himself anymore.
But despite age differences, geography, disparity in lifestyles and beliefs or whatever leads to estrangement, the one thing siblings will always share are memories of each other and the life they shared growing up.
My brother used to love to torment me.
His bedroom was across the hall from mine and he liked to try to shock me and get a reaction. One time he called for me to come into his bedroom. He was sitting at his desk reading a school book and had me come over to look at something in the book. He asked me, "Do you know what that is?" pointing at a diagram in the book. I shook my head no. "That's a mammary gland!" and then he broke into loud laughter. I'm not sure if I knew what a mammary gland was, but he just thought showing me that was the funniest thing.
He also used to like to tie me up into a straitjacket that he made out of one of his sweatshirts. Then he would tie me to the end of the bed to see if I could escape. I think this might have had something to do with a fascination with Houdini, but it was also a source of amusement because I invariably wriggled out. He would like to show this off in front of his friends as in "See what the little twerp can do?"
One vivid memory involved hockey in our backyard. Our Dad would freeze the back yard in the winter so we could skate on it. My brother would let me play when the neighborhood kids came over to skate and he had me play goalie. One time he told me to put on this special headgear because that's what goalies wore. So I dutifully let him put it on me but couldn't figure out why all of the teen guys were laughing at me. My brother had put a jock strap on my head!
So it was that kind of sibling stuff.
When my brother was a teenager, my mother and he did not get along well and I think some of that affected my later relationship with her because of all of the disrespect I witnessed. He was so bad, he called her Witch Hazel (a Looney Tunes character) and would come home from school and say, "Hi Haze." The name probably came from the fact that when she was mad at him she would chase him with a broom. One time my mother was chasing my brother with the broom and he was headed for the one room with a lock - the bathroom. Wanting to stay in my brother's good graces, I yelled "Run, Lynn!" Not a good idea. My brother made it to the bathroom to lock the door so, frustrated, my mother turned around and whacked me instead! I have since learned to stay out of other people's arguments that included brooms!
But despite all of that, I, of course, loved the attention from my handsome, older brother, even if some of it was negative.
And it wasn't all negative.
We did things together: we went to the beach, we went horseback riding together, he let me sleep with him on Christmas Eve so we could go down and see what Santa brought together, we played ping pong and board games (though with the board games, if I was winning he would often say I was cheating and tip the board over!), and he would also impart his teen version of wisdom to me on what guys liked, how I should dress and what I should act like.
One very strong happy memory is sitting on the steps over at our grandparents' house. They lived kitty-corner from us and we were over there all of the time helping them out and just visiting. My brother was a teenager and I was around ten or 11. We were sitting on their front steps and he was passing on some words of wisdom that I no longer remember, but I was giving him my full attention, and after our "talk," I remember him saying, "You know, kid, you're not so bad after all."
It is so sad when families fall apart and siblings no longer speak, especially when you consider all they shared growing up, and unfortunately, it happens more times than we would think.
But it seems to me that the way to insure that siblings remain close is nurturing the importance of family to our children from a young age.
I have some cousins who are all very close and have stayed close despite the fact that both parents have passed away. Yes, most of them still live in or near the town where they were raised and they are all relatively close in age, which helps. But we already know that living nearby or being close in age does not automatically create closeness. No, I believe that the main factor for their closeness was their mother, who was a fun person to be around, and who, I think, probably nurtured the idea that the siblings should be close and look out for each other, which they are and which they do.
But if that doesn't happen, no matter how close in age we might be or where we live, our interests and personalities could be very different. And if we don't get along or have bad memories, then how likely are we to spend time with our siblings? Just because we are related doesn't mean we like each other. Relationships with our family members are really no different from our friendships. Just as it is with friendships, it you don't work at them and nurture them, they fall away.
However, if the parents consistently emphasize the love in the family, the importance of being there for your family and what each has in common rather than the differences, then I think siblings will remain close throughout life.
When I do think of my brother, I feel sad about the fact that we are estranged, and I even feel ashamed that our family fell victim to estrangement. I know my parents would be very sad if they knew, but when I really think about it, it's not surprising considering the different paths we have taken and the fact that our parents have been dead for so many years.
I don't think there is anything I could have done. He chose his path. He chose to disconnect.
I may never know why my brother cut himself off from his family. At this point, the reason for the estrangement has probably been blown away by the winds of time. But my memories remain. Memories of a time when we were not estranged.
I write this to close the gap in the family circle and include my brother in my blogging reminiscences.
My parents would have liked that. I also write this for all of you out there who may be estranged from a family member too. Perhaps it's not too late for you to make contact again. If so, then do it. But if not, there is nothing to be gained by feeling ashamed or guilty. Unless you know in your heart you had something to do with the estrangement, then it's not your fault. Even with members of our own family, sometimes we just don't know them, what drives them, how they viewed the life you once shared.
We may be estranged from our family member(s), but that does not negate the happy memories and where we once were: in a shared life.
I write this to honor those memories, and in turn, I honor my parents.
Now when I think of my brother, I choose to remember him and me sitting on those steps at my grandparent's house and his telling me I wasn't "so bad after all."
I wonder what memories he has of me.
Thanks for Reading!
See you Friday
for my review of
"The Magnificent Seven"
The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)
and the latest on
"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before
I Die Project."
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