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Big Brother

A few years back, my brother in law, Thom visited my husband and me in Oakland, while Rainier, his younger son lived with us during his college years. One night after dinner, Thom and Rainier, a friend of Rainier’s from school, and Jeff and I sat at the dinner table for a long time after we’d eaten. We were having fun, one of those conversations that happens when we’ve known folks for a long time, when our history together is the framework for a long conversation. At some point, Thom asked me if I was comfortable, sitting there, talking with only men. I was taken aback by the question, and Jeff answered for me. He explained that I’d grown up with a father and brother who liked me, and as a result, I was comfortable with men. As difficult and nuanced as relationships – in particular, family relationships – can be, I was interested and grateful to hear Jeff’s answer. He had said something that brought to consciousness a particular nuance to an important relationship in my life. Within that consciousness is gratitude.

Ronn was nine years older than I was, born to my mother and her first husband at the beginning of World War II. During the War, while Ronn’s father was in the service, Mom was a single mother. My mother’s parents looked out for Ronn when she was working, or when she bowled, one night a week, with the women’s league from Cutler Hammer in Milwaukee. Ronn grew up at a different time, surrounded by different people than me, surrounded by my grandparents, who spoke a different language. After the War, Mom divorced Ronn’s father. He grew up as the son of a single mother.

Nine years older than me, and beginning with my first memory, Ronn was part of what family is to me. Mom told me more than once as a girl that, after I’d spent a week in the hospital because I’d suffered a seizure – a week without seeing my mother or father – she brought me home during the day, and I looked at her out of my big eyes, unsmiling, until Ronnie came home. Then I smiled, for the first time that day.

My sister is almost five years younger than I am, and she has few memories of having her big brother at home. I’ve read that we often grow up in different homes than our siblings – birth order, gender, connection to same and different gender parents playing a big role in how we come to know and relate to “home,” or “family.” I expect Ronn’s experience of home was very different from mine. Those differences would play out in major ways when we grew into adulthood.

Of the handful of memories I have of being very young, a memory that includes me and Ronnie stands out. To this day, it tells me about him,about myself, and about our relationship to one another. The memory must be from around 1958, based on information about Buddy Holly’s life – and death. We were sitting together on the couch, watching Buddy Holly on the black and white television screen. Buddy Holly! (That’s a long time ago!). As Buddy Holly performed, Ronn, sitting next to me on the red velour couch, turned to look at me and said: “He’s wearing glasses!”

Ronnie and me, circa 1953

Whenever I remember that moment – I am filled with understanding and gratitude. I knew, without his saying so, that my big brother was self conscious about his having to wear glasses. He was a skinny, tall kid (taller than any of the rest of us in the family), and his comment betrayed his insecurity. And I knew, still know, that I was someone important to Ronn, my big brother, so much older, his life a different trajectory, as our lives would attest to, years later. Ronn had difficulties I did not have, as the son of an absent father. I had an intact family. Ronnie was lost, in a way; I grew up knowing that I belonged to this particular family, for better or worse.

Ronn has been gone a long time now. The night before he died, his granddaughter held the phone to his ear in a hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, while I cried and told him I loved him – my big brother. Ronn’s legacy – a large extended family, children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – continues to grow. My family legacy is small, I often think.