A book unfolds more than one story. As relatives react to my latest book about my parents, I am astounded by what I never realized about my two, older brothers. Wayne and Steve were six and four and a half and years older than me. I still easily recall listening to both my mother and father scold them about watching me and taking care of me. I considered Wayne and Steve bossy when I was little. Not only did I not appreciate their efforts to carry out our parents’ instructions, I taunted them about being the pampered baby sister.
On Sunday mornings, I would sneak into their bedroom and wake them up. Then I’d stand aside and watch them get punished by one or both parents for waking them up too early. I remember fussing to my father about one of them touching me too hard and then watching one get sternly rebuked by our beloved, but dreadfully sexist dad.
They did pay me back occasionally. When I was three-years-old, they shut me in a closet and made weird noises. As a result, I was terrified of the dark for years. A few years after the closet incident, I stepped out into the backyard of our farmhouse to a sight that I still remember with a feeling of trauma. All three of my favorite dollies-Pam, Karen, and Georgie-were hanging by nooses from the frame of our homemade swings. Somehow they convinced our mother that the hanging was all part of a cowboy game they were playing, and much to my dismay they didn’t get punished for it. There were also jabs to my sides or accidental whacks while my brothers were fighting one another when I was riding between them on the back seat of the family sedan during Sunday afternoon drives.
At around the age of ten, though, I began to realize Wayne and Steve truly were my protectors and care takers. My parents had a very stormy relationship. Although never fighting physically, their arguments were loud and emotional with such things as dishes flying across a room and doors slamming. My mother’s mental illness sometimes completely derailed her, and if Dad had to work, it was Wayne or Steve who would care for me. They did it in different, but very loving ways. The Christmas I was a month away from turning ten-years-old, I desperately wanted a beautiful baby doll I had seen in a store window in downtown Waterville. My mother remarked at supper the evening I had asked for it that I was a silly, spoiled thing still wanting dollies when I was almost a young lady. Wayne bought the baby doll for me with hard earned money from his job at the local grocery store and stuck it under the tree when Mom wasn’t looking. Wayne’s concern was occasional like this, but Steve continuously worried about how I was getting by. He did things like teaching me how to hold my books so I wouldn’t look like a loser as I was about to be a freshman in high school or make his culinary special for my lunch—diced spam with mayo and relish sandwiches. Steve also started scolding my parents about neglecting me after they had several separations. This didn’t win any favors for him with them.
Both my brothers moved far away from Maine as adults. I resented the fact that I was the one left home to care for our sick mother after our father died. After our mother’s death, I stopped to think about why they kept their distance from family. One of my brothers’ widows has confided in me that both Wayne and Steve talked about how they resented me as we were growing up. A niece has told me that her father never wanted to talk about our family and would make sarcastic comments if pushed for information. One brother had very stormy marriages before his early death at forty-nine-years old. The other died at fifty two. A nephew tells me that he enjoys reading my writing as he doesn’t know much about his father’s childhood. That floored me. At sixty eight, I am now left feeling guilty not only for surviving longer than everyone, but for not trying to talk to Wayne and Steve more about the effect our dysfunctional childhood had on them. They were so often surrogate parents to me instead of brothers. What I have learned from cousins would fill another book!
Readers not related to me speak of the effect my book has had on them. I relish that, but I guess I failed to realize how much of an effect it would have on me. I should have known that putting out a book that is so personal would do this. Most books, of course, come from the author’s own experience. Even Stephen King once told an interviewer that his books certainly were. His book Misery resulted after watching what his mother went through battling cancer. For those of us who pen memoir or personal nonfiction, it is just more obvious.
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