John & Me 1947
MY BIG BROTHER
I have a big brother. He’s 4 years older than me – precisely 3 years 358 days older. His birthday date is exactly one week before mine or two weeks before the Christmas holiday. The family celebrated our birthdays together as a shared event on my brother’s birthday. Presents were absent and reserved for Christmas since it was only a few weeks away.
I don’t remember when I realized this tradition wasn’t the norm. I do recall complaining that I wanted a ‘special’ birthday just for me and feeling unappreciated. My mother told me I was being selfish and sinful by taking away money from my siblings’ Christmas presents. They, however, had their own birthday celebration. My big brother didn’t complain and suggested that we switch every year so that we took turns sharing which day was celebrated. He is smart, affable and practical.
My big brother had several names – John and Richard. When we were young he was called Dickie. After high school, he insisted on being called John, and would only answer to that.
One of my first memories with my big brother was playing in front of our ‘cracker box’ house in Lexington, KY. I was enthralled with watching a steam roller paving the road when a pipe burst loose from the motor at my feet. I quickly ran to pick it up and return it to the driver despite my brother’s shouts to STOP.
My hand throbbed from the burn while my brother shuttled me through the front door of our home. My mother began screaming at me for being so stupid but my brother calmly told her to get a bowl of cold water and immersed my throbbing hand in it. I remember, it immediately felt better.
There was a church at the end of our street which hosted a daycare center in its basement. I was enrolled to give my mother some rest since she was pregnant again. My big brother was tasked with escorting me daily. The entrance to the daycare was down a set of steep stairs in the back.
There was a surprise snow one morning which layered the stairs like a ski ramp. My brother insisted that we could easily slide down. He found a piece of cardboard and placed me on it while pushing it over the edge.
The ride was exhilarating. However, once at the bottom, we discovered the daycare door was locked and I was not able to climb back up the slippery stairs. My big brother left to get help and returned with a bed sheet. The sheet was lowered and I was instructed to hold on tight. After several attempts, I reached the top. My big brother saved my life and once again became my hero.
My early years were filled with exploits following my big brother. I remember when he allowed me to partake of a mystery quest with his friends hiding behind the garage. I played the part of the kidnapped victim and placidly sat in a chair secured with rope. My brother and his friends danced around me shouting threats. I was told not to talk or I would have a sock put in my mouth. I remained silent for what seemed like hours, even when everyone had left the area. Finally, my brother returned and threatened to inflict pain if I told our mother about the adventure. I was happy to comply as long as I could be included in my brothers play. I never told anyone until today.
My big brother introduced me to the magic of fairies shortly after I began kindergarten. We had been moved to the attic to make room for our new siblings. I was terrified to stay alone in the remote attic space without my big brother. He would escort me upstairs and invoke spells of protection around my bed.
One night he found a small note next to my bed. I couldn’t read yet but was enthralled with the message as he read it to me. It stated that the fairies were also living in the attic and would protect me with their magic. I believed and was never afraid again.
A few years later our father was given a new job in OH.
The move from KY to OH took place on a sleeper train. I shared a unit with my brothers while our mother rode in a separate unit with my new baby sister. Our father followed in the car behind the moving van. When we stopped at a station, I would peer out the window and wave to everyone outside. In my mind, we were the only family on the train. I felt like royalty.
John was in charge of converting the seating into sleeper bunks. He pulled the shade down on the window and we prepared for bed. Once the night had darkened the sky, the train stopped again and I pulled open the shade to see out. Everything was reflected in our car including me in my night gown. I screamed in shock and John once again rescued me by pulling down the shade. My scream brought the train porter who was reassured by John’s story of a shade release accident.
In OH, we lived in a converted brick school house in the country. The house had a coal burning furnace room in the basement adjacent to a large room where old wooden school desks were stored. We used this space to play school. John was the principal and I was the teacher with a yard stick for keeping discipline. My younger brothers were told they needed to learn how to behave and sit at their desk or I would have to smack their hands with the stick.
The rural public school had mixed grades with one teacher in the same room so that my third grade was shared with the fourth grade. Prior to moving to OH, my brother and I attended a Parochial school which had a more advanced curriculum. This resulted in my already having completed the third-grade courses. I even had all my finalized workbooks which my teacher admired. She asked me if I could ‘teach’ my level from the workbooks while she focused on the fourth grade.
I was thrilled to be given the responsibility of enacting the role of a teacher just like in the basement classes, although I was not allowed to use the yard stick to disciple my classmates. I bragged to my brother who wisely saw the problem with the situation and told our parents. The following year both my brother and myself were enrolled in the Catholic school in town. I later learned that the Catholic school tuition was initially too expensive but after our family was established in the Parish we were given a special discount.
The following year my brother and I were transported to school by our father. Since he didn’t get off work until after the school was dismissed, we were instructed to wait at the public library for our ride home. I was bored setting in the library which felt like an extended school day and complained to my brother. He asked if I would prefer walking to the dairy for ice cream. He told me our family had an account with the dairy for milk delivery and we could charge purchased to the account. I was thrilled with the concept of a charge account and enjoyed ice cream treats daily until our parents received the bill. Unfortunately, my big brother was held accountable since I was considered much too young and a girl to understand a charge account.
In 1958 we moved to Bethesda, MD a suburb outside Washington, DC. and attended a Catholic school initially. It was very punitive. My brother was frequently struck with a yardstick because he asked questioned (he was very smart) and I was expected to know the advanced curriculum from their earlier teachings. We were both miserable and pleaded to attend public school. My brother was transferred to the public high school but there were no openings for my grade level.
That summer we moved to a new suburb with a nearby public high school and junior high. I remember thinking the schools looked like factories. Once school started, it was like my brother and I was living in different cities. We rarely saw each other. I became obsessed with horses and John tinkered with electronics in his basement room. He even invented his own telephone. I was very proud of him.
The culture in the Washington, DC area was very different from rural OH. It was more sophisticated with a diverse population from many countries. I was attracted to the small farm next to the High School that had horses and would frequently walk to the fence to pet the horses.
One day the farmer invited me to come to the barn to get better acquainted with them. I followed his truck up the lane and entered the barn where he began feeding the horses. He said that I could have the small filly I was admiring when she was older. He then showed me how to groom her while standing behind me and guiding my hand.
Next, I was aware of his mouth on my lips and his tongue in my mouth as he forcefully kissed me. I tried to push him away but he was too strong. I began to sob and he stopped. With tears clouding my eyes, I fled from the barn and ran home.
When I entered the house, I called my mom and found her resting in her bedroom. I told her what happened. She rose from the bed with a scowl on her face and slapped me. “You’re a whore.” she shouted. I didn’t know what a whore was but realized it wasn’t something good.
I left the room still crying and ran into my big brother. He told me to go next door to the neighbor’s and offer to babysit for them. He said he would come over soon.
The neighbor was delighted to get a break from her toddler. My brother arrived and asked me to tell him what had happened. After I repeated my story he assured me I hadn’t done anything wrong and informed me my father, who had arrived a few minutes ago, had called the police to interview me. He again assured me I wasn’t in trouble and volunteered to stay with me during the interview.
My brother directed the interview and reminded the policeman that I was young and unaware of the implications of the forced kiss. He also told the policeman we would not be pressing charges or testifying. My father had come into the room and received a stern look from my brother. He verified that he would not be pressing charges.
I later learned that my mother had become hysterical and was confined to her room with medication. When I returned home, my brother came to my room and explained that our mother was frightened about the incident and didn’t know what to do. “She was out of her mind and will not bother you again.”
I remember thanking my brother for his support and wondered how he knew what to do while our parents were so clueless.
The following year I graduated from junior high and began attending the high school closer to our house. John had also graduated and was scheduled to attend the University. I knew he was glad to move away and remember his parting words to me. “Remember you’re not crazy. They (parents) are.”
The baton had been passed to me. I was now responsible for guiding my sibling’s welfare.
I am forever grateful to my big brother for creating a safe path for me through the perils of a dysfunctional family. His protection and empathy provided a firm foundation for my growth.
I love you John Richard – my big brother.