My brother, my cat, my other brother ('60's)
I was raised with boys, two younger brothers, both left-handed which seemed somehow linked to gender in my mind, sort of like the kid who grew up on a street where all the girls were Catholic and all the boys were from Protestant families. The kid was in high school before he figured out that gender was not the salient point of difference. And a lot older than that when he learned that both religion and gender are complex continuums rather than simple dimorphisms. Some people never figure it out. My mother didn’t.
My mother privileged “the boys” because she was one of set of sisters whose father longed for a boy. The sisters set out to produce boys. This goes back into the ways of the British Empire, which are territory-based, defining success and wealth as owning land, which they assumed only males could do. And the laws reinforced that. If you owned land, you could survive. This was proven during the Great American Depression that destroyed fortunes and jobs. The families who could grow gardens and animals on land they owned were the ones who survived.
My mother believed in education and was a teacher and librarian herself for many years. Her sisters married ranchers -- land. My mother married education -- a man with a master’s degree. But his MA thesis was about the price of potatoes and he was still tied to the land economy. His family had homesteaded. Their brief spate of prosperity was from selling farm machinery (horse-drawn harrows) and the profit was quickly removed by the shift from mechanical land-management to chemical land management. Instead of harrowing, one sprayed. Spared from mechanical trauma danger, now the farmer was exposed to organic body systems interference. My father died subtly demented, hugely obese, estranged from family, supported by his wife.
My own education has saved me. I also shared the idealism of both parent families. One should do good in the world, contribute to progress, and possibly write the Great American Novel. But my mother covertly believed fertility is a trap. One of the land mines in it is primogeniture, the idea that only boys can inherit land. Her two sisters both gave birth to twins, but one had only girls and the other one had twin boys plus another boy plainly unsuited for ranching -- plus a girl. All the girls were clever and beautiful (my cousins are far more glamorous than I am), which was good since their fortunes lay in marriage. The result of gender dynamics was family quarrels until the two sister’s husbands (who were brothers) each claimed one of the male fraternal twins.
Mark leaves for Browning, MT.
Within five minutes of arriving, his duffle was headed down the road with a local.
The first problem my brothers faced was the draft, so -- just as counterphobic as I -- they joined the Marines right out of high school. Neither saw combat. One passed his three years playing chess on a ship in the Pacific and the other saw a lot of excitement (catching rattlesnakes, racing motorcycles on the desert) but never left the USA. The chess player returned quietly and prepared for veterinary medicine but finally backed off. The snake hunter got his MFA and taught junior college. Both came to visit me in Browning, were shocked, and left. Too rough for them.
These were big handsome smart guys with degrees. I don’t know how much they absorbed my mother’s fear of homosexuality, which came from her bullying father whose worst insult was to bellow at a little boy, “What are you? Some kind of homo?” I don’t know whether my brothers found my father’s books in his sock drawer: Freud, Kinsey, Kraft-Ebing, Masters and Johnson, Van de Velde. I did. I thought they were embarrassing. Not very enlightening.
What really set my heart racing (as well as other anatomical responses) was a few paragraphs in “Green Grass of Wyoming,” where Ken (who was Flicka’s friend in the prequel) was sitting on a high hill with his potential sweetheart, whose pulse was racing so much that it made the hankie in her breast (ulp!) pocket leap rhythmically. (The hankie alone dates the passage.) I wore out that page, no manipulation necessary. Maybe that’s how I got imprinted with the eroticism of landscape.
I never talked to my brothers about sex or gender expectations. There was a tiny bit of “playing doctor” that Older Brother highly disapproved of and closed down by threatening to tell, though we were pretty young and had no way of knowing what would happen if anyone knew. Older Bro married late to a divorced woman with grown kids and Younger never married, though he produced a daughter to cherish. I married but might as well have spared the effort since there were no benefits derived from it: no land, no other property, no fidelity, no children, not even any productivity since all the efforts were focused on Scriver bronzes. My work disappeared into his. But it was amazing for the decade that it lasted. No regrets. An education. And I got the name. Scribbler.
All three of us seem to have had some sort of lid on success. Too dangerous, too many compromises necessary, too unwilling to accept collaboration, maybe fear of the loss of freedom, though in the end we weren’t world-travelers, unless you count the reservation as an exotic foreign country and I do. I went the farthest in terms of education. The U of Chicago is also a kind of exotic foreign country but I had no craving for a Ph.D. Nor was I politically ambitious within my denomination. I just wanted to know stuff and live on the prairie.
The ultimate nature of my brothers emerged after my mother’s death. The Younger had pre-frontal cortex brain trauma from a fall that literally cracked his forehead on a sidewalk. He showed no emotion at my mother’s death though she had supported him for a decade. The Older was my mother’s pride and joy who had not been to visit for years but, unemployed, came in time to see her through death and be her executor. He felt his veterinary knowledge qualified him to take charge of her. He hadn’t quite expected what that would mean in terms of cleaning up shit and providing pain relief. Somehow he had assumed that I would do those things -- he doctor, me nurse -- but my mother insisted that I had to earn a living, I had to go to work. ( I was the only one employed at that point.) So I did. The Younger watched and smoked.
After the death the Older bro wanted the Younger Bro out of the house ASAP. He did not register the brain damage. Younger participated gleefully in emptying the house of furniture. When Good Will said the quality of the stuff was too low for them to accept it, the boys asked me to remove what I wanted and then set the rest out on the front yard with a sign saying: “free.” People carried it off on their heads -- too poor to own cars.
Older had brought an inflatable mattress. He sold everything else out from under the Younger, who resourcefully recreated the old furniture layout with cardboard boxes. While I was at work, the two went to the lawyer and some money was disbursed from the estate. Younger left to some mysterious destination in his mammoth white old 4-wheel-drive 3/4 ton pickup. (I called it “Moby Truck.”) Older began the cleanup necessary and dealt with the real estate salesperson. I paid off the last of my seminary debt and left for Montana.
The house sold quickly and when I look at it now (5103 NE 15th in Portland) on Zillow, it looks better than it has from the beginning. Younger used up his money, used up his welcome with those rancher relatives who had land, and finally died on the street, indigent, vaguely paranoid. He could not get any help from welfare or disability or even the Veteran’s Administration, which had only begun to realize what pre-frontal cortex brain damage meant. He would not cooperate. He lied. He said he was investigating them for the CIA. Older invested his third of the money, moved to a slightly better house, and otherwise went on living modestly with his wife the way he always has.
What does it mean? We were very careful and prudent behavior-wise, though both brothers were smokers (I’m not) and Older is probably a beer-alcoholic. We’re not family people in the sense of participation, but I look at genealogy in search of clues. All the aunts and uncles are dead. (I’m 75, somehow.)
My mother said on her death bed, “I hope the next world is as much fun as this one has been!” She was faking it to some degree -- this world was full of hurt for her as it is for everyone -- but not entirely. We HAVE had a lot of fun. Silliness. Excitement. Adventure. Everything but money. Actually, I think girls have a lot more fun than boys. My mother used to say, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” Get an education. Own a house. Resist temptation. Don’t fall down. Children optional.