Memory is a funny thing. It’s selective, subjective and often wrong. When I was growing up with Bobby, Teri and Ross, my three siblings, I always took it for granted that we were experiencing the same life. We played together, ate together, slept together, went to school together. I thought our stories were one. Until much later. Only as adults was the illusion of oneness obliterated by the realization that each of us had constructed a different past—cobbled together of the events and experiences we either chose to remember or had to remember. A history composed of the things that formed our personalities. Only later, as a young adult, did I realize that my sister, who was joined at the hip with me for our entire childhood, had no recollection of many of the happenings that were still vivid in my mind. And vice versa. The same was true for the boys. We agreed on many of the bigger things—the divorce, schools we went to, places we lived in, Grandma’s stories, our drunk uncle, our wild spirited aunt—but the details of our collective story varied depending on who you asked.
Bobby, being the oldest, had formed the strongest bonds with our father. He was the most broken by the divorce. At least initially. I can’t really know what he felt at age seven as he witnessed violent upheavals in our home, followed by the unmaking of his world. He was the best equipped to understand what was happening, but also the most vulnerable because he had more to lose. He wanted a dad to play ball with. Someone who would share his love of baseball, statistics, coins, stamps, cars and geography. Mom had the interest and capacity to play this role for my older brother. And eventually she would do so. But she wasn’t Dad. Bobby felt betrayed by my father for abandoning him. Guilty because surely in some way he was at fault. And angry toward my mother for driving Dad away. At the same time, he was afraid of the monster inside this man who had beaten his mother to a bloody pulp. He wanted to stand up to Dad when he was drunk, angry and menacing. But he was a little boy. On one occasion, some short time before the divorce, he tried. The whole family had gone to Dominick’s Pizza House in Carson for dinner. This was one of our favorite places. We always ordered an extra large sausage, mushroom and onion pizza made by Dominick himself (a big-bellied man with a handlebar mustache and a booming voice); A giant salad with pepperoncini’s and the special house dressing; Shirley Temples for the girls (7 Up and grenadine with a cherry) and Roy Rogers for the boys (Coca Cola and grenadine with a cherry); Coca Cola for Mom and wine for Dad. With each glass of wine, Dad got more annoyed with his loud children and their inadequate mother. We could all feel the temper storm coming. His brow tightened. Sentences became clipped. Tension and annoyance flowed out of him in waves. With strangers in the restaurant, he laughed and joked. With us, he was snide and short. When it was time to go, we piled outside and into our 1967 Chevy Impala, where my father had stashed a pint bottle of brandy. Dad was still in the doorway chatting up Dominick when Bobby pulled out the booze. I watched in horror as he unscrewed the top and started pouring the brown liquid onto the asphalt. Everything seemed to happen at once.
“You’re gonna get in so much trouble,” Teri hissed.
“Bobby, what do you have there?” asked Mom.
Dad walked up and saw the last of his precious bottle spill out. The storm broke.
“Goddamn sonofabitch!” Dad grabbed Bobby’s arm and shook him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” He snatched the empty bottle out of my brother’s hand and smashed it on the ground. Glass shattered. Bobby began to cry. I began to cry. Ross began to cry. Teri hugged herself and rocked in the backseat.
“I don’t want you to drink,” Bobby rasped. “You’re gonna fight with Mom.”
“Tell me what I goddamn can and can’t do? Get in the damn car.”
We crammed into the backseat and Dad slammed the door. He pulled out of the parking lot with a squeal of rubber and sped to a liquor store. A new bottle of brandy, even bigger than the last, returned with Dad to the car. He started drinking it before we got home. The night was ruined. Another memory secured in the dark and golden tapestry of our childhood.
A seven-year-old cannot prevent an alcoholic man from drinking and abusing his wife. He can’t save a doomed marriage. But Bobby wanted to; perhaps more than anything. Soon after the initial separation, my big brother got very sick. His limbs grew limp and immobile. Before long he couldn’t move any part of his body below the neck. He was paralyzed. Mom admitted him to a children’s hospital where he was diagnosed with a strange disorder called polyneuritis. No one knew why he’d contracted it, or if it was treatable. Tragedy brought my parents back together. They rallied for their firstborn. Tried to make the union work. As a family, we visited Bobby in the hospital. He lay stiffly in his bed. Awake. Talking. His head turning and eyes roving around the room. But his body was still. It was weird. My siblings and I were impatient. I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. All I knew was that Bobby was being showered with gifts. I was jealous of the gigantic stuffed tiger with emerald eyes. Of the constant attention he received from my mother. I was frightened that my parents were reuniting. But it was not to last. My brother’s recovery came suddenly, after several scary weeks. Almost immediately, Mom and Dad began fighting again. And, finally, Dad moved out. For good.
His departure left a void that Bobby felt obligated to fill. He’d spend years trying—torn between his need to just be a kid, and his desire to fill the shoes of the father he had lost. Mom understood this. She stepped up. She enrolled my brothers in little league and went to every one of their games. An avid baseball fan in her own right, she took us to Angel games as often as she could. Bobby and Mom could talk for hours about the players, the teams and the strategy of the game. She tried to be a father and a mother to her kids. She did her best. Meanwhile, Bobby became bossy with me, Teri and Ross. Attempts at asserting his authority over us were unanimously rejected.
“Your not our dad!” we’d take turns reminding him.
“Well I’m the man of the house now. Just ask Mom.”
And so on.
It was hardest on Ross. Being boys, he and Bobby shared a room and spent lots of time together. They traded baseball cards and Hot Wheels. They played games that Bobby almost always won. Every activity escalated into an argument or scuffle. Ross refused to accept his older brother’s dominance. Defiance became his shield. Desire for acceptance by his Dad his cross. He was the youngest. The one who arrived into the world amidst the chaos of a marriage gone bad. While family photo albums burst with photos of Bobby at every stage of his young life, Ross was barely there. He had to feel unwanted. Invisible. His spirit demanded to be seen, heard, acknowledged. At age five, his child’s heart was already broken by inadvertent neglect. Thoughts imperfectly formed must have haunted his psyche. Why did no one take photos of him? Had his father left because of him? Did Dad love Bobby more? What right did his stupid brother have to tell him what to do?
More than any of us, my little brother experienced extreme shame and mortification during the years we were poor. To be looked down on by others. To be considered less than because we did not have polished ways and a façade of respectability. These were hard blows. They planted in him a seed of anger that tangled with his curiosity about the world and his delight at the mechanics of life. He was fierce. Intense. Charming. Fun. Ross was and remained a swirling vortex of energy seeking a channel. He loved to take things apart and put them back together again. And he was good at it. But he couldn’t ever be good enough. In his mind, he was the child who did not measure up.
I believe my mother treated Ross with special tenderness because she knew he’d been dealt a lousy hand. He was her baby. She couldn’t put back what had been taken from him. But she could shower him with love. She could encourage him and build him up with words and actions. Perhaps we were fortunate to be broke and penniless for a time. Mom could not bestow material gifts on us. So she gave what she could. Her love. Her attention. Her playful joy in seeing her children grow—and become unique individuals of whom she was relentlessly proud.
To be continued …