“Oh, the boys, forget it. The boys loved their drink. I don’t know when that started.”
My grandmother’s words are a shrug that ripples over depths of family memory. This summer, she’s moved into my mother’s house, and today the three of us drink iced tea in the dining room. She uses language now as she always has, not to explain but to gesture toward, a kind of this-way-lies that refuses to define. Younger, I saw this as gauze stretched over everything, a vagueness to be torn through as I raged toward articulation. But now she’s sick, and I want to hear her talk. I ask her to name her brothers.
“Let’s see, there was Sonny—his name was David like my father but we called him Sonny—then Tommy, Bobby, Johnny, Ralph. Five boys.”
“What happened to them?” I ask.
“They all died before they were fifty,” she says. “All the boys.”
“Most of them long before,” says my mother.
As we speak, my brother bangs into the kitchen, drawing our attention to the odd task he performs, moving things into or out of my mother’s basement.
“I was married when I was twenty-three,” my grandmother nods, “and Sonny died soon after. I went over to the hospital to visit him. He was in his thirties.”
My brother drops a box on the kitchen floor, closes the basement door behind him, groans. All of his belongings have been here since he moved out of his last apartment. He grumbles over the door, the box, the fact of living or not living here. He is 36.
“I asked my mother how come Sonny got so sick,” my grandmother says. “He must have had some kind of fever, but she didn’t remember.”
I watch her try to recall the circumstances of her brother’s death and marvel that she can’t, that her mother couldn’t.
The first time I saw my brother drunk, he was thirteen or fourteen and, to me, at nineteen or twenty, it seemed a novel indication that he’d stopped being a child and had become a person. I’d brought him to a party and, not long after we arrived, found him hitting on a girl too persistently. I urged him away from her and sat him at the base of a tree, where he lolled and mumbled through the rest of the evening, his long body tilted to one side. Later, he threw up in my grandmother’s bathroom and I tended to him. If I felt a certain wonder that he had a life unknown to me, I also recognized a new response to the life bestowed on him: slurred speech followed quickly by unconsciousness.
He sticks his head into the freezer to cool it.
“This can’t be good for you,” he groans.
“What?” I ask.
“Going from that hot attic to the cold basement, back and forth. It’s…” he pauses, then pulls his head out of the freezer. “It’s bad for the system.”
“You’ll be fine,” my mother tells him.
“Johnny was young,” my grandmother says. “He just died. He was a drinker.”
“What about Tommy?” I ask.
“Tommy had a brain tumor,” she says, and my mother nods. “Ralph, he died too.” She sounds startled, as if the memory has taken her by surprise.
When my brother was little, he was a flash of electricity, a coppery redhead, his body slippery in the water, darting on the ground. Once when he was a teenager, I asked him idly, “If you could clone anyone, who would it be?”
“Snoop Dogg,” he said. It was the speed of his response – no pause – that made it comedy.
But all of his sharpness is dulled now. His tall frame is heavy, his hair shaved too close to his head. He often talks so much that it’s all I can do not to leave the room.
I look at my grandmother, who once had five brothers. I wonder if brothers were different then, if their loss hurt less, but it’s like she hears me.
She says, “I was close to all of them. To all the boys. Pretty close.”
“It’s so sad,” I say, trying, somehow, to extend compassion after all this time.
“It is pretty sad when you think about it,” she says curiously.
My brother comes to sit at the end of the table, a hastily assembled sandwich in his hands.
“Who are you talking about?” he asks. “I feel like I’m missing a history lesson.”
“We’re talking about my family,” she says. “You don’t want to know about them.”
She looks around at the three of us, watching her, and I wonder what our stories might have been if hers had woven through us. Utterly different, I think, an altered world.
“Yeah,” she says with a shrug. “They were pretty bad.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Max Wheeler