Sunday, October 2, 2011

A barrel of monkeys

My father had seven brothers. What was it like, growing up with seven brothers? More fun than a barrel of monkeys: that was always his answer. And yet he stuck me with only one brother (a younger one, at that; a crybaby, too – in a word, useless). Why did he do that?

When I was young, I found the idea of having seven brothers very appealing. I liked to picture my late grandfather, Shorty, who I never knew in life, on the pitcher’s mound of a baseball diamond, with his eight sons filling the other positions on the field. Even as a child, I realized how improbable this picture was: I knew the story of my youngest uncle hiding behind my grandmother’s legs when his eldest brother returned home from the Second World War. But it was the most contained, most perfect of the fantasies I had devised to will the entire family into the same place at the same time, which never happened in my lifetime – if, indeed, it ever had.

Though we didn’t see them all together, we nevertheless saw my father’s brothers nearly every Sunday of my childhood. They shouldered their way through the door into their mother’s house or a brother’s house, carrying crock pots and baker’s boxes and cases of beer in cans, trailed by our aunts and cousins, filling up the small houses and neat backyards in Livonia and Garden City and Dearborn.

I watched them closely, looking to learn what being a brother meant, with my eye mainly on what latitude being a brother afforded you. As far as I could tell, it meant that you never passed up an opportunity to abuse your brother’s children’s trust for the sake of a laugh.

Want some chocolate? my uncle asked – offering me an opened tin of Copenhagen.

Want mustard on your sandwich? – knife poised over the horseradish.

We children spent part of every Sunday in tears, mothers or aunts scouring our tongues with wet washcloths, our backs turned to a room filled with laughing men.

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