"Uncle Tom, can I ask you a question?" Mae's perpetual smile was speckled with potato chip crumbs. I sat across from her at the kitchen table at the beach house my family was renting in Yarmouth, Massachusetts a few weeks ago.
"Of course, you can, Mae," I replied.
Being an uncle is great for all the reasons that uncles always talk about. You get all the benefits of interacting with children – access to their clarity, creativity, and innocence, the chance to remind yourself of what it was like when you led a life uncluttered by nasty intrusions like bosses and bills and a world going to hell – yet you bear little responsibility for the children's safety or well-being. So when Mae wants to ask me a question, I relish the opportunity to tell it like it is without worrying too much about potential fallout. It's like having a get-out-of-jail-free card that never expires.
"When you were little did you and my mom fight?" she asked loudly and clearly, proud to be getting to the bottom of something that had obviously been weighing heavily on her small brain for a least the last five minutes. I deduced from her cadence that she seemed to be trying to draw some parallel between the past and the present. Or maybe she was trying to mine me for some nugget of information to be held in reserve and then used later as ammunition against her mother, my sister Jackie.
"Why, yes," I hammed it up. "Yes, we did fight. We would wrestle and because she's two years old than I am, for a while she used to be able to pin me and hold my arms down with her legs so I couldn't move. It was an awful feeling, but eventually I grew so I was bigger than she was and then I was able to pin her all the time. But then Nina said I was too big and we weren't allowed to wrestle anymore. I guess she was afraid someone would really get hurt."
I don't know if that last part is true but I've been telling myself that for several decades now so I figured I might as well throw it in. Let Mae carry on that memory whether it be real or imagined.
• • • • •
Some kids are mean. Really mean and like to pick on littler kids. One of my earliest memories is of walking home from school in Cleveland. I must have been 5. It was snowing out and I was alone. A group of older really mean kids started calling me names and throwing snowballs at me. Out of nowhere, Jackie came flying into the situation yelling at the mean kids and telling them to leave me alone, admonishing them for targeting the weak and defenseless. Then she grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me down the street. I flailed along next to her in sniffling awe of such a fearless and total display of loyalty.
Jackie saved my ass that day. I wish I could say that when we were teenagers, I defended her from a bunch of ogling, groping jocks as she walked to math class but that story is most certainly not in my memory. Once she reached her teens, Jackie clearly could take care of herself and needed no help from her little brother. Early on, like my other sisters, and, I must admit, very much like myself, Jackie cultivated a life deeply grounded in a sense of profound self-sufficiency, a fundamentally independent perspective on the world which made possible a great many wonderful and rewarding achievements. But I often wonder about the cost of that independence, about the alienation that comes with self-reliance. Perhaps we would have been better off had we relied on one another for help more often. Maybe now we'd all be closer and happier.
• • • • •
One day when I was 9 I came home and found my Mom on the phone. She was talking really quietly and seriously on the phone. My sister Kim was standing next to her and held her index finger up to her lips to tell me to not say anything.
I mouthed, Who is it?
, Kim mouthed back. I kept quiet, listened to my mom say into the receiver "uh-huh" and "OK" about fifteen times till she took a deep breath, sighed one last "OK" and hung up the phone.
"What's the matter?" I asked my mom.
"Shh. You need to keep your voice down. Jackie fell and hurt herself. She may have broken her arms so we have to wait for the ambulance to come take her to hospital."
This whole thing scared me. The calm seriousness of my Mom's voice, the highly unusual midday phone conversation with my Dad, none of this made any sense to me. It was so serious, so real that it seemed surreal. And "arms?" Did she say "arms?" How do you break both your arms?
"How did she break both her arms?" I asked.
"Shh!" Kim hissed with crooked brows.
"She fell off the jungle gym at school," my mom explained. "She fell and hurt herself and walked home and now we just have to wait for the ambulance but you have to keep your voice down
. She's in a lot of pain and any commotion will make it worse for her so just keep quiet."
"OK! OK!" I whispered. Even with my mom's explanation, none of it seemed real. I needed to see Jackie.
"Where is she?"
"She's lying down in the living room," my mom said.
"Can I see her?" I asked. My mom winced at me for a moment, gauging my level of understanding of the situation.
"Yes, you can keep her company but you have to keep quiet."
"OK. I will."
I silently crept out the kitchen and into the living room where sure enough, there was Jackie lying on her back motionless on the big corduroy couch. Only her eyes moved as she looked up to see me kneeling down on the floor next to her. She was scared. I could tell. A few years later we would refer to this state as being scared shitless, but here and now she was just plain scared. Her eyes were moist but clear, not red, and her forehead was wrinkled with worry and fear. Her arms lay on either side of her hips. I was surprised that they weren't odd-looking in any way. They looked fine to me.
"Mom said I have to be quiet," I whispered. Jackie looked right at me. "What happened?"
"I fell off the jungle gym and put my arms out to break my fall," Jackie said with a slight whimper.
"Does it hurt?"
"It REALLY, REALLY hurts," she said. We were both whispering.
"Are you scared?"
"Yeah," she said, like she was conceding the point, too fragile to even act tough.
I leaned in a little and said barely audibly, "We have to be really quiet."
She didn't say anything. She just looked right at me with that worried look on her forehead and her moist eyes.
"Can I stay and keep you company? I won't say anything, I promise."
She nodded and didn't say anything. I knelt on the floor next to her till the ambulance came. I was afraid and confused and scared my mom would be angry if I said anything and wondered what it all meant and if something really bad would come out of it after it was all over. But a small part of me that went unnoticed for many years was glad that I was able to help her. It was a small thing staying with her in the living room and not saying anything but it was all I could do and it felt good to be doing it. I was helping her the way a brother should. It's the closest I've ever felt to her.
yarmouth • cleveland • mean kids • snowballs • broken arms