I grew up with a sister a couple years older than me. For the most part we got along, minus the inevitable spats and strains that siblings have, especially in those alien-brained teenage years. In my early and mid twenties, I did little to foster any camaraderie or trust between us, but we’re the closest we’ve ever been now, which is a really wonderful thing to have happening. It’s one of the more rewarding aspects of my life if I stop and think about it, which I probably don’t do often enough.
We’re both genetically predisposed to a kind of loneliness, my sister and I, or a regrettable lonerness, that we’ve had to figure out how to work against (and have, by and large), and there’s so much to be said for being able to recognize it one another and point it out to each other and talk about it and even, sometimes, laugh about it. That’s the thing about siblings—you can bond over these shared . . . let’s call them idiosyncrasies. You do that with friends and lovers, too, of course, but there those things add to your personality, to your charm, to the fatedness of your being together. With your sibling, it’s like, “Hey, we both have this crazy sixth toe—how do you hide yours?”
Most of you who have siblings know this, I imagine. You probably always have. And maybe my sister has too, I don’t know. I do know that I’ve only recently started participating in it. But I’m late to the game on a lot of these kinds of things.
Anyway, I could go on about that forever, but it’s not what I started this wanting to write about. And it probably would just “go on forever,” ramblingly. I probably need to write a book about it to figure it out, but I’m probably not going to. I’m certainly not going to start here.
What I meant to say, somewhat more quickly, was that when we were kids we were kind of strangers to one another and we each looked outside the walls of Chez Prichard for fraternal fellow feeling. We both found it, luckily and lastingly, in lifelong friends, hers at some summer camp, I think, and mine in a pair of brothers.
I befriended the younger of these two in second grade, immediately and permanently, and his older brother quickly became my older brother. We did everything together—sports, surfing, hanging around, mischief-making. We came and went from each other’s houses and were disciplined by the other’s parents. Regular Stand By Me Goonies, you know the drill. Our parents were fairly similar, and got along, but my parents were demonstrative with affection and never argued in front of us; theirs were the opposite. I’m not saying they were like the Gallaghers in Shameless, and from the outside, we were indistinguishable middle-class white Ventura families. But the differences were key.
For one thing, I was privy to family feuds and family fights, standoffs between a father and his equally stubborn sons, of a kind that never happened, never could have happened, in my more . . . let’s go with decorous family. I’m not going to get into all the whys and the what’s the reason fors about that. I’m gonna make a grand and only partially accurate statement instead; we were a WASPy nuclear family in the Dr. Spock mode, and they were Canadians. Not the self-deprecating and perpetually apologizing Canadians of easy jokes and Family Guy skits, but the small-town, frozen-lake, self-sufficient, speak-your-mind, fist-fighting Canadians. The dad grew up playing pond hockey with Bobby Orr, okay? Okay.
I have pretty limited memories of childhood. A lot of it was spent facedown in a pool, yes, har-har, and I’m not saying it’s a blank or that I’ve repressed huge swaths of traumatic experience. I have some theories about it, many of which I discussed with therapists and pontificated about to drinking buddies over the years, but only one of which I’ll entertain (and try not to bore you with) now.
Ever since the adverb could be applied, I’ve read what you’d call voraciously. Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain were the first books I remember reading multiple times, flipping from the final page back to the first. Melville’s and Conrad’s seafaring tales were other favorites, as were Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series and A Wrinkle in Time. I split off from the sci-fi/fantasy track at what seems to be a fork in a lot of readers’ roads in the teenage years, plunging headlong and almost exclusively down the what’s currently termed “literary fiction” route. The Canon. Lotsa dead white guys, yes, but lots of others, too, but I made a point of staying on what I considered the right side of that arbitrary line, that gray-gradient DMZ that separates Magical Realism, Absurdist Literature, even Kurt Vonnegut, from their supposedly lesser “genre” cousins. But whatever I read, almost every single book that I picked up, seemed to me more interesting than my own life.
My life was, in my estimation, paltry, and that other family, those brothers’ family, my other family, was like participating in a story, like being in a novel that had come to life, but not quite to full, real life—or rather, that was more real than my life, but parallel, that was reality heightened, an ongoing and more interesting corollary to my own. And it was the things that happened there that I paid attention to, that embedded themselves, Technicolor, on my stimulus-junkie mind.
This isn’t to say that my parents did anything wrong or “let me down.” In fact, I’ve proven time and again that the more I have to do, and the stricter the framework in which I have to do it, the more I get done. Flaubert said in a letter to Gertrude Tennant, “Be settled in your life, and ordinary like a bourgeois, in order that you may be violent and original in your work,” and despite several sustained attempts to live like the freewheelin’ wild child I spent most of my first two and a half decades trying to convince myself I was destined to be, settled and ordinary are what I need to succeed in life, and my parents gave me structure and routine and discipline. I don’t want to be unfair—my dad took me fishing and to sports games and the four of us went on amazing family vacations and a number of those experiences are among the things that I remember with absolute clarity and great fondness, and I was lucky to be from so ordinaire a family—ordinaire in ways that so many people only wish they and theirs could have been.
But I’m talking impressions outside the nest. I’m talking water skiing and cliff diving and snowboarding and flying in pontoon Cessnas and sitting in a Grumman canoe on an Ontario lake watching Bombardier Scoopers dip and circle to douse the fires raging just across the channel. I learned to surf and skate with those brothers (though I never did either so well as either of them), and ride mountain bikes and dirt bikes and ATVs, to shoot rifles and pilot a boat and sleep in the woods.
They taught me how to be a gamer, and being game, they had someone to do something with, someone to make what they did more than just a family thing.
Which is what friends do for one another that siblings can’t. Maybe this is just me, and my perpetual neurosis over my own solipsism, but it seems to me that having someone from outside—even just the very little outside that I was, close as I’d gotten over the years—to witness what happens within the interiority of a family makes it real.
Think about it. What’s the better story, “my brother and I were doing this” or “my friend and I went here”? It’s why Franny and Zoe don’t interest me, why The Royal Tanenbaums is a bore. I even (though I can’t say I take pleasure in admitting to anything less than effusive enthusiasm for the erstwhile trash collector) find David Sedaris’s family stories redeemed only by the presence of Hugh. It’s not a rock-solid analogy, I know, but there’s a sense of, how do I say, realism missing in a family drama, fiction or imagined.
Someone once said somewhere* that “Serious essay, disallowing the writer the privileged position of living only in his head, unravels within life’s chaos, confirming the chaos.”
I don’t know if this qualifies as a “serious essay”—or, more to the point, whether the
analogy holds any water—but in a general sense it’s what I’m getting at. Life is chaotic, as we all know, and familial chaos often the most, or at least most sneakily, chaotic of all. If we spend too much time inside that particular brand of chaos, it becomes normalized. How many times have you heard, “The drinking” or “the violence” or “the absent parent” or “the [insert dysfunction] didn’t seem like dysfunction. It was all I knew. It was normal.”
At the risk of pushing this too far, I’ll mix in one final metaphor: family members spend their lives inside the eye of their own hurricane; without the friend reporting from outside the spiral band, it can seem like a normal day. This is true even if the family things aren’t bad things, even, in fact, if they’re good things—quod vide the nearly constant correction from objective third parties my tendency to take things for granted requires—but still, in my mind, the friend is what proves that a tree falling in the family forest makes noise.
# # #
Maybe not everyone needs to have a witness to their actions to prove that it’s not all just a solipsistic fantasy. Maybe that’s not what I did for the brothers. Maybe, as far as they were concerned, I was just along for the ride, and it wouldn’t have mattered whether I was there or not. “Neurotic” and “over-thinking things” are not phrases you’d find in their biographies.
As far as what they did for each other, or how they think about one another now, far be it from me to presume. I know that things have come between them, to a certain extent. Nothing great or malicious, but just, life.
Luckily, they still have surfing, wave after wave of salty nepenthe, to dissolve all that might have spawned, and should stay, back on land. And on the now-rare occasions that I join them out there, it’s like returning to a different time, a different life. Something even better now than it was then. Then, we didn’t have all the life we’ve had since to know how good it was.
But I can tell you now that it’s there, sitting astride a beat-up stick of foam and fiberglass, that I’m closest to understanding “home.” Not the new home that I’m building with my wife and imminent sidekick, but that other “home,” that mythical and ever-unobtainable dream.
I think about those brothers—“my brothers” as I often think of them—quite often. In my more vulnerable moments, I wonder how often they think of me. And every once in a while, when the light is right or I catch the smell of citrus and dust or remember the taste of cold lake water, the full weight of my luck to have known them is on me and I find it, for a moment, exceedingly easy to be alive.