Brotherly Love

When someone asks me if I have any siblings, I usually joke that I’m an only child. Then I feel compelled to explain that I have 3 estranged brothers; 2 older step brothers and one younger natural brother and that it’s a long (and painful, though I’ll rarely admit it) story.

I always marvel at the sibling relationships I see Dave and my friends have. I knew it must be good. I knew I was missing out on something. But frankly, I didn’t really get it. Until now.

Riley is a little over 3 years older than Aidan. When they were about 4 and 1, Riley was being terrible to Aidan. I remember sitting on the floor of our playroom in Austin watching Aidan desperately try to get his brother’s attention and Riley swatting him away with disdain.

I was overcome with sadness. This was not the relationship I wanted for them. Echoes of my childhood rang.

I stopped Riley and pleaded with him:

This is your brother. This is the only one you’ve got. (Obviously, I’m not as psychic as I think I am.) He is your blood and he will be your lifelong best friend. That guy will always have your back no matter what. Don’t treat him like this. I was terrible to my brother. I feel awful about it. And now we have no relationship.

Riley’s response, his wisdom beyond his years:

Then you should call him. You should apologize.

FUCK! What choice did I have? I had to set the right example for my children. I called my brother in Hong Kong, explained what had happened, swallowed my pride and apologized.

I wish I could tell you there’s a happy ending to that story, but my brother and I continue to have no relationship. The primary reason being that I believe him to be suffering from undiagnosed mental illness.

However, the foundation for that dysfunction started out of the gate. When I reflect back on the constant fighting and true intent to inflict grave injury, I am sick.

But we grew up in a household that only had two potential outcomes; band together and survive or every man for himself. In the absence of nurture, my nature dominated. The mother in me is nauseous to think of that little boy that I tormented and abandoned. My only consolation; hey, at only 2 1/2 years older, I was just a kid too.

So like we all do, you try to do better for your children. Not to be too self congratulatory, but I think Dave and I did a good job of celebrating their individual accomplishments but not lording them over the other child. And we insisted on an all for one and one for all mentality.

Things between Riley and Aidan were pretty good until Riley hit middle school. There are just some evolutionary tendencies that you have to fight through. Even with their substantial age difference, Aidan was almost always as big as Riley, his athletic ability dominating. I think that upped the competition between them.

It wasn’t until Riley hit about sixteen that the alpha male war was over and they could coexist, each secure and comfortable in the spectacular individuals they are. And when Aidan came to the same high school, the love affair was in full bloom. Riley seemed to take true pride in claiming Aidan as “his”.

This past weekend, we all went to visit Riley for Parents’ Weekend. At Riley’s urging, Aidan stayed in the dorms, seamlessly integrating into the student body. After what I estimate to be 20 hrs of straight partying minus a power nap in between venues, I was softly interrogating Riley.

Was Aidan fun?

He’s always fun.

In that exchange is everything I ever needed. If I can’t be a sister, at least I can be the mother of brothers.

There is of course the third wheel that is never a third wheel. Maybe no one was more excited to see Riley than Tyler who leapt into his arms upon sighting.

What a crazy dynamic that relationship overlays; part brother, part party trick, part son I think for the big boys. He was a huge hit with the college kids. What? Your first fraternity party wasn’t at age 7?

But leaving…ouch. Tyler, our tough guy, Mr. Too Cool For School, was inconsolable for over an hour when we dropped Riley off for the final time of our trip.

Brotherly love. What a gift to have nurtured. What a gift to behold.

Not My Immigration Story

In an another effort to distract mid-term voters from the issues truly affecting the American public, the Trump Administration has placed the wedge issue of immigration front and center. I’d like to add a story to the those that have personalized this issue. I can’t call it my story because in truth, I was just a witness to it. In reflection, that’s something I am ashamed of. Not that I didn’t try. But that I wasn’t successful. That I didn’t persevere.

For clarification, I am white and the third generation of my family to be born in the United States, California specifically. I have been told the harrowing story of my great-grandfather emigrating from Poland at the age of 12. I have been to Ellis Island and proudly found his name. He was educated and knew enough English to communicate his actual last name and have it spelled correctly as he began his life as an American. Penniless and a child, he overcame great challenges to achieve the American Dream. His progeny continue to benefit.

In stark contrast to Pop’s childhood, my Sunday evenings were ritualized by pizza at our favorite Italian restaurant and picking up our live-in housekeeper at the Winchell’s down on the boulevard. One night, as we left dinner and headed to collect her, my mother prepped my brother and I. Not only are we picking up the housekeeper, but she will have her son with her. He is 10 years old (in between my younger brother and I). Up until this point, he has been living in El Salvador with his grandmother, believing her to be his mother. He was brought here by “coyotes”. He doesn’t speak English.

Door opens, cabin lights come on, mother and son get in the car. That’s it.

Over the next 8 years, the boy lived in a room in my house with his mother 5 days a week. The room was large, but off the garage. We walked through that room to enter the main house. We never knocked from the outside before entering. Our washing machine and dryer were in the room and it also functioned as our family’s makeshift office.

I remember the excitement of setting up our new Apple IIe in that room. I spent hours on that computer. In their personal space. I did ask him a few times if he wanted to try it. Instinctively he’d look at his mother. She’d sternly tell him no with her eyes. Eventually I stopped asking.

The bathroom he and his mother used was actually our powder room. The only shower available for their use was in the ensuite bathroom of my room. Looking back I wonder when he had time to sneak in a shower. It was never while I was home.

Summer breaks seem particularly painful in retrospect. My brother and I spent a lot of time in front of the tv and swimming in our backyard. I definitely asked him if he wanted to watch something with us or cool off in the pool. I remember questioning him directly, but those eyes answering us both back. And so he sat inside.

The boy was shipped off to the local public schools deemed a disservice to my brother’s and my intellect. At some point during high school, the boy was having trouble with some kids at school. To hear my parents tell the story, he was going to join a gang and my father credits himself with scaring him into staying on the straight and narrow. In piecing together the spotty details in my memory bank, I think the boy was being bullied because he was smart and a good student.

My brother and I went to university out of state. The boy went to a state school locally. I have no idea if he continued to live in the room with his mother.

What must he have been thinking all those years? Why did it never occur to me to ask? He never seemed bitter or jealous. We had cordial exchanges, but never conversations. A boy, essentially my age, lived in my home and I had no meaningful relationship to him. We both accepted the caste parameters set by the adults around us. I am ashamed that the situation didn’t bother me at the time, that I didn’t question the unspoken rules and that I didn’t stick up for what should have been his equal rights and access to kid stuff entertainment available in the house he was living. It certainly couldn’t have felt like a home to him.  

I’m sure you’re wondering what happened to the boy. During the Reagan Administration my mother helped the housekeeper and the boy become citizens. I now think about the boy being enrolled in school, an “illegal” and probably without a legitimate birth certificate. But that supposedly substandard public education, followed by graduation from state school led to a incredibly successful career at a major accounting firm. I suspect he’s at the partner level.

The boy (now a man) and I are Facebook friends. But there is still no discussion. Without that modern convenience, I would have no tether.

A boy lived in my house. He had an amazing escape from a war torn country. He lived a life on the outside of privilege. I know nothing of it.

I Invented Diet Coke

I invented Diet Coke. No really, I did.

I was with my soon-to-be stepdad, then-to-be adoptive father, but that’s a story for another day. It was the summer of 1980 and I was 8 years old. He was walking me up to the grill that bordered the pool at our swim and tennis club. The ordering window was high up and in deference to the pixie sized clientele, 3 large, boxed shaped steps covered in cheap carpet stood square in front of the opening. I’d climb on up and almost always order the same thing; a cheeseburger, a Cactus Cooler and for dessert, a half of a cantaloupe filled with lemonade.

I know you have many questions about this order, namely why would an 8 year old consider fruit a dessert. I can only tell you that I was the victim of a persistent and effective brain washing campaign. My husband jokes that given the choice between a brussel sprout and a piece of candy, I would choose the brussel sprout. He’s right. As for the lemonade in the middle, I don’t know what culinary genius introduced me to that palate pleaser, but I highly recommend you try it.

I know you want to hear about Diet Coke but a few more thoughts are flooding back to me. Namely, a cheeseburger outside on a hot day kinda sucks. I remember opening the foil and a wave of steam rising up and enveloping my warm, slightly sunburned face, sticky with layers of sunscreen mixed with chlorine and other delectable molecules contracted from a public pool.  Starving, I would quickly take a bite and the scalding grease would drip down my chin. The ketchup on the burger would have had just enough time to heat up and burn my tongue. I’d take a swig of the Cactus Cooler, perhaps the finest soda in the land, but it wasn’t quite cold enough and the carbon dioxide bubbles would expand in my throat and get stuck above the blob of meat and cheese and bun. And yet, if given the choice for my Last Meal, this would be in high consideration.

Back to my invention…

We walked in silence from the chaise lounges to the grill. I was considering my order. Maybe I’d mix it up a bit. Sometimes I’d substitute a scoop of chicken salad with 1000 Island dressing on the side. The kind that’s so thick with corn syrup and pickle chunks that it has to be poured from an oversized syrup dispenser and clipped off by the sliding metal cover snapping back into place. And for the drink? No distraction there but I did have a fleeting thought that escaped my lips.

“Hey, how come there’s Diet Pepsi, but there’s no Diet Coke?” His retort came sharply, “what do you think Tab is, Stupid?”

Two years later, Diet Coke hit the market. Just the right amount of time for some zealous young Coca-Cola exec to have overheard my idea, pitch it, formulate it through R&D and bring it to market. “Just for the taste of it.” You know, because we already have Tab.

I’ve been back to the club in recent years and the carpeted steps are gone. Some dumbass kid probably fell and the club was sued. Now that’s stupid.