Thursday, November 14, 2013

This summer, I had quite an interesting conversation with my sister-in-law about the things my next-youngest brother believes about my parent's marriage.

I have a Middle Brother (MB) who is a year younger than me, and a youngest brother (YB) who is four years younger than me. MB was the black sheep of the family, even as a small child. He ripped opened Christmas presents a month before Christmas, he slugged and bit, he would shout and scream and throw tantrums, he did very poorly in school, he would not do chores, and he refused to obey simple rules. By the time he was about 10 years old, my parents pretty much gave up on him. Their goal was to contain, not reform. If he threw a tantrum, they would reward him for calming down by purchasing $300 worth of ski equipment. If he threatened to go drinking with his friends when he was 15, they allowed him to get drunk at home rather than be on the streets unsupervised.

YB was the baby of the family. My mother had a very, very difficult pregnancy with him, and afterward was told she could have no more children (even though she desperately wanted a girl). Consequently, my parents treated him like a baby, and he learned to manipulate their desire for someone to coddle. He'd complain of a "tummy ache" the moment he had to do chores or homework. He learned he could bite, scratch (he kept his fingernails very long for this express purpose), and kick -- and then when you retaliated, he'd cry loudly and blame everyone but himself. He learned that he could simply do nothing -- just sit in a room, or curl up on a bed, or simper a bit -- and my parents would stop pressing him to clean up his room or mow the lawn, and make someone else do it. He learned that if he played up his incompetence and "babyness" to the hilt (even as a 10 or 14 or 16 year old), my parents threw up their hands and would turn to someone else to accomplish the cooking, cleaning, chores, or whatnot rather than teach him how to do it.

* * * * * * * *

Today, according to what I learned, MB tells everyone that my parents had the perfect marriage. They loved one another deeply, never argued, and my dad was heartbroken when my mother died of cancer two weeks after their 25th wedding anniversary.

In fact, my parents were on the verge of divorce for the last 10 years of their marriage. My father was a selfish lout who rarely paid attention to his wife in any way. He loved get-rich-quick schemes, and often blew entire monthly paychecks on foolish scams or outlandish purchases. Very often, we ate Depression-era food like sugar sandwiches and Saltines with canned tomatoes because my father had somehow blown all his paycheck on some disastrous plan. My parents had nasty, lengthy arguments about my mother's desire to have a life outside the home. She once won an award from the Montana Farm Bureau for her use of wheat stalks in handicrafts; my father refused to allow her to engage in that hobby ever again. A trained speech therapist who once worked for Easter Seals, she wanted to help disadvantaged Native American teens and single mothers learn basic life-skills. My father discovered that she'd taught a young Native American woman how to vote, and he ended that "hobby" of hers, too. In the last decade of their life together, my father became so brutal and nasty toward her that my mother would openly weep when she visited friends. She was counseled repeatedly to divorce him, but she refused -- because there were still kids at home. (I believe that, once my youngest brother left college, she would have divorced my dad.)

MB saw none of this. For one thing, he was so little aware of other people's feelings and behaviors -- so wrapped up was he with being a narcissist -- that he probably was not aware of it.

But far more likely is that he simply never saw it. Beginning in junior high (we had junior high, not middle school), MB began staying at friends' houses as much as he could. On weeknights, he would go directly from school to a friend's house. At least twice a week, and often as many as four times a week, he'd eat dinner there and then spend the entire evening at one or more friend's home. If he did come home for dinner, he'd leave again and go to a friend's house for the evening. We had a 10 PM curfew, and so he'd come home shortly after 10 PM. (The local news was from 10 to 10:30 PM. My dad shut the house down at 10:30 PM -- all lights were off, all doors locked, etc. My brother would violate curfew repeatedly, but never came home after the news was over. He knew that was a hard, firm deadline.)

On Friday nights, MB would invariably spend the night at a friend's house. Same for Saturday night. Only on Sunday night would he spend the night at home, and then usually not getting home until 8 PM or so. (In Montana in the 1970s and 1980s, Sunday night was "homework night" for a lot of kids. Other families forced their kids to do homework, and MB would either do his at their house or not at all. "Not at all" or "barely" was the option MB chose, so usually it meant coming home after other people kicked him out of their house.)

* * * * *

And then there were summers.

Beginning about the start of junior high, MB met the son of a wealthy doctor in our town. Let's call him "Doc Johnson", because this man was as tough and leathery as the bootmaker's products. "Doc Johnson" had married the daughter of a rancher, a quiet and gentle woman who'd spent most of her life in the sun. She was older than most parents by a full decade, with white hair and heavily tanned and lined skin. She was also something of an alcoholic, as her husband was a wife-beater and an angry, angry, angry man. Madame Johnson, however, figured out how to live with her husband: Stay at home, no friends, keep the house spotless, cook meals and serve them on time. "Doc Johnson" was the kind of man who, if he lived a very orderly life, was taciturn and quiet. The slightest disruption, however, and he blew his stack.

"Doc Johnson" owned a large ranch in north-central Montana that was his favorite place to be. Their house in town was large, and roomy enough for Doc's two kids, a girl and her much younger brother.

It was the brother MB met. Now, this kid, Doc Jr., was good looking. Short, but good looking. He was quiet, but not shy. He had brains, but rarely used them. (He was also hung like a horse, but that didn't become important until after he left for college and finally discovered what blessings and benefits he had between his legs.) In many ways, Doc Jr. was a lot like my brother MB -- but "Doc Johnson" and his massive, physical, violent temper kept Doc Jr. in check. Naturally, Doc. Jr. and MB bonded immediately.

Oddly, "Doc Johnson" loved my brother. My brother was "the son I never had", so "Doc Johnson" said repeatedly. It was the oddest thing in the world. The Doc's own son was the same as my brother. But the Doc loved my brother, not his own kid. The Doc tolerated my brother's wildness, cheekiness, sarcasm, anger, violence, and sloth. But he wouldn't tolerate it in his own child.

In some ways, this caused but also alleviated tension in the "Doc Johnson" family. When my brother was around, "Doc Johnson" was a much more pleasant man, and the constant stress he placed on his own kid evaporated. At the same time, Doc. Jr. and the doctor's wife were both envious of my brother and thankful for his presence. Doc Jr. began to hate his father for this.

My brother quickly discovered the "Doc Johnson" ranch. And he began spending his entire summers up there. Within a week of school getting out for the summer, the "Doc Johnsons" would head for the ranch. Doc would travel back to the city on Mondays, see his patients, and head back on Fridays. Meanwhile, Mrs. Doc and Doc Jr. would stay at the ranch, my brother with them. They cooked out, they rode horses, they mended fences, they rounded up cattle. My brother learned to use snoose (wet tobacco placed between the cheek and gum), spit, use a spittoon, and use a lariat. The boys hunted gophers, rabbits, snakes, and skunks.

Now, my parents usually went for two weeks to North Dakota to see my grandparents. We'd depart the week before Independence Day, and then spend that week and the next visiting relatives. My brother would have to come back to town to come with us. Naturally, he threw a huge tantrum at having been "forced" to leave his little bit of heaven and spend time with his family. He took out his rage and bitterness on all of us, with endless insults, taunts, punching, tantrums, screaming, and all around bad behavior. If my grandfather gave us three kids ice cream bars, MB would knock mine out of my hand and stomp on it -- then run away, claiming he had nothing to do with it. If my grandparents asked him to mow the lawn or clean leaves out of the gutters, he'd refuse. If we went to an elderly relative's house, he'd throw a low-level tantrum the entire time.

After 14 to 20 days of hell, we'd go back to Montana. And my brother would decamp for the "Doc Johnson" ranch, and stay there until a week or two before school started.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

I'm only slowly coming to be aware of just how much this influenced my childhood.

Both my parents were people who grew up somewhat poor, and loved money. My dad engaged in get-rich-quick schemes. My mom wanted to be a social climber and loooovvvved gambling.

In hindsight, my mother was probably very conflicted by MB's relationship with tough-and-leathery "Doc Johnson". On the one hand, "Doc Johnson" was just the sort of rich, socially superior person that she idolized and desperately wanted to be like. She craved being admitted to their social circle, and participating in the "lifestyles of the rich and famous" that she thought they had (well-kept, beautiful homes; maids; nice furnishings; well-behaved children; nice cars; teas and brunches; dinner parties; etc.). That "Doc Johnson" and his mildly alcoholic, sad, weather-beaten wife never lived this kind of lifestyle was not something she acknowledged. (In fact, when she discovered that Mrs. Doc was alcoholic, she quickly ended any budding friendship they might have had.)

On the other hand, my mother was very, very upset that her own son rejected his family so completely. She was also distraught because she and my dad appeared to fail so miserably in reining in his sloth, anger, violence, and selfishness. Being good parents was something both my folks wanted desperately to be (it made them feel better about themselves), and the fact that they'd failed with MB was deeply upsetting. In addition, my mom very much envied my brother's easy acceptance by this wealthy, socially superior family (when she could not win such acceptance).

I don't think my father understood what was happening, noticed it, or acknowledged it.

Both my parents were just very, very glad to get their wild beast of a son out of the house for three months. It meant some real calm settled on the family. It meant that the repetitious cycle of outrageous behavior/violent anger, punishment, failed punishment, and taunting of my parents for their failure disappeared. Overnight. Whoosh, gone.

* * * *

There were unintended side-effects of this, however.

I spent most of my time at home, or next door at our neighbor's house. With my younger brother playing at infantilism and my middle brother no longer in town, nearly all the things that needed doing at the house fell to me to do. Guess who mowed the lawn every single week? Me. Guess who had to do dishes twice a day? Me. Guess who had to do laundry twice a week? Me. Guess who had to help my father when he failed miserable to fix the lawn mower or the car? Me. Guess who had to vacuum the house every other day? Me. Guess who had to weed the garden? Me. Guess who had to pick dog shit out of the grass? Me.

Not that my winters were much different from the summers. MB was always gone, so he never shoveled the driveway or the sidewalk in winter. He never got kicked out of bed at 4 AM to go look for the dog who'd gotten out of the yard. He never had to chop ice from the gutters in the street when spring came. He never had to chop wood and bring it inside, every evening.

I didn't mind chores. I minded the immense unfairness of it. It ate at me.

* * * * * * *

I also have come to realize that MB completely lacks any understanding of how his behavior and childhood shielded him or isolated him from the reality of our family. I used to think that his stories about my parents' perfect marriage were fantasies -- things he told himself and others to avoid confronting the reality of it.

Increasingly, however, I'm realizing that he may simply not know the truth.

But I'm also fully cognizant of the fact that he does not want to know, because his fragile sense of self is built on the shifting sand of my parent's "good marriage". Where once he hated my father, today he does everything he can to show how proud he is to be his father's son. Where once he loathed everything about the family and its history, today he does everything he can to embrace it. (If you find a ragged piece of fabric lying in the house, my brother will call it an "antigue" and declare it has "family history" attached to it and refuse to let you throw it out. It's kind of crazy.) My father's violent rages, my father's beatings, my father's intense and overwhelming selfishness, my father's stupidity, my father's craven greed, my father's sloth -- none of that goes recognized. According to MB, my father was a "beloved schoolteacher" who was gentle, loved people, intelligent, courageous, and more. He was a fucking saint, as MB tries to put it.

When my father died, I ran into some of my mother's friends over the 10 days I spent in Montana. Many of them expressed to me just how ugly my parent's marriage had been. I guess that now that a person was dead, they could be honest about things. Nearly all of them believed that I already knew this stuff. (I didn't, but I just smiled and nodded and said "Oh, I know...") Interestingly, none of them talked to MB about it. When MB learned (fifth-hand) about what they'd said, he flew into a rage. Everyone was a liar but my dad. Everyone was a filthy fucking asshole, but my dad.

When my mom died, 20 people gathered in the hallway at the hospital. More than 300 came from all over Montana, North Dakota, California, Idaho, and Wyoming to attend the funeral.

When my dad died, he died alone. About 30 people showed up for his funeral, most of them people he'd not seen in 20 years. Most of them came out of respect for my mother, not my dad.

MB refuses to acknowledge this. He has told me point-blank that more than 500 people showed up for my dad's funeral in 2009.

I just bite my lip and stay quiet.

But I am more and more aware of just how widespread and deep the repercussions of MB's life-choices reverberated through my family.

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