The only love I think I'll ever need is the supreme mutual devotion I share with my collie dog, Trigger. But when my baby brother is born, he is a miracle wrapped in astonishment. In my tiny brother, my elementary school self finds a colossal love, I thought impossible. I cannot get enough of slipping my finger into his little hand as he stares into my face with all-knowing eyes as if to say, "Hello, big sister; wanna play catch?" But be careful, without notice, that weird little worm between his legs can squirt a stream of pee right into your face. Trust me, it's really gross.
I'm in kindergarten, and though I love going to Lake Harriet Elementary School, I do not want to go to school on one particular Monday morning.
"Mommy, do you think I could stay home with my baby brother just this one time?" I ask.
"No, you have to go to school, Julie; you don't want to be a dummy, do you?"
"Well, no, but anyway, my teacher told me I was a smartie pants on Tuesday," I counter.
"That doesn't necessarily mean you have nothing more to learn, Julie," my mother asserts. "The baby will be here when you get home. Now march."
Knees high with Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" playing on the record player in my brain, I march right-left-right-left out the front door and up Sheridan Avenue with a couple of 360-degree spin twirls thrown in for good measure.
Mrs. Laederach, my second grade teacher, is the most important person on the planet, period. She is the only one in the whole school who has a real piano in her room. It's a solid wood upright, and man can she play. Mrs. Laederach spends lots of time every day teaching us how to determine key signatures and how to count rhythms. But best of all, we sing songs about getting taken out to the ball game, riding on a bicycle built for two (that one's kind of mushy), and a song about an ant pulling rubber tree plants. But geez, that song about "Who Killed Cock Robin" is really, really sad. It makes tears run down my cheeks every dang time we sing it. I secretly rub them off on my shirt sleeve before Danny Cook (the boy who lives three houses down from me and sits right next to me in school) gets a load of me crying. I know he won't let me play baseball on the gravel playground with the boys if he thinks I'm a sissy. Sometimes I can stop myself from getting emotional by looking at Rex Hult, who always has a purple mouth from eating carbon paper.
The halls of Lake Harriet Elementary are as wide as Vincent Avenue with narrow board hardwood floors. There are tiny puddles all over the floor, from snow melting off hundreds of stomping feet in rubber boots. In the classroom, you can get a glimpse at the three feet of snow outside by feigning to get a book from the shelves just below the windows that are taller than Dad. Outside, the sun is shining brighter than the lights on our Christmas tree, and the sky is bluer than my baby brother's eyes.
"Children, neaten up your desks and line up; it's time to go to the Christmas program," announces Mrs. Laederach. "Julie, Dan, Rex, and Heather, please push the piano out into the hall."
Under the weight of the heavy oak piano, the small wheels whine like the chirp of a hungry baby bird waiting for a big juicy nightcrawler. Scuffing and shuffling, the four of us put all our weight behind the melodic beast, maneuvering it carefully through the classroom door and out into the hall.
Mr. Benson (our janitor who lives on a farm with horses and everything) has mopped up the puddles giving the floor a glossy shine. Even though I've been practicing every day since Thanksgiving, I'm as nervous as an on-deck Twins baseball player at the bottom of the ninth with two outs, the bases loaded, and the visiting team up by two. The entire student body is seated in rows according to grade on the broad hall floor. Since Mom is a room mother, Miss Laederach invited her to come to watch. She told her that she definitely doesn't want to miss this year's program. Mom sits with our classroom on a folding chair against the wall with my two-year-old baby brother on her lap.
The sixth graders stand and recite by memory "Twas the Night Before Christmas" all the way through with only one hitch. When they say the word "breast" during the line "the moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow," four boys say "breast" really loud, which makes lots of the kids giggle. Disgusted with their behavior, their teacher Mrs. Zinsfield gives the boys a look like she just smelled a bad fart.
A fifth-grade girl reads her original poem about sliding in the woods, hitting a tree, and feeling goofy ("like she's in a cartoon with birds flying around her head"). Then with jingle bells pinned to their skirts and pants, the fourth graders do a dance to "Frosty the Snowman." That song makes me sad too, but nothing like "Poor Cock Robin." And so it goes, each grade making us more and more excited about Santa sliding down the chimney, ice skating on Lake Harriet and getting red-faced toasty in front of the pot-bellied stove in the warming house, and a whole two weeks with no school.
Finally, the principal introduces Miss Laederach. Miss Laederach walks over and sits on the piano bench while I stand next to her, facing every kid in the school. In my best singing voice accompanied by Mrs. Laederach and her stellar piano playing skills, I sing, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas…" but I am not singing alone as planned. Every few words, my baby brother is singing too. He is right smack dab on pitch, but he sings, "I dweaming, tweetops gwissen," and "bwight." It's adorable.
With a crew cut and one of those flat little 50's baseball gloves, my first-grade brother is my catcher and umpire rolled into one. According to my mother, I'm supposed to "try harder to act like a lady," but I am far more determined to put my fastball consistently within the strike zone. I learn how to go through the pitching motions by watching Twins' pitcher, Camilo Pascual. When I think about the courage it takes for my little brother to sit in that crouched position with his flat glove calling balls and strikes, I'm duly impressed. Every finger on his left hand is crooked from being sprained, and there are many times when he throws his crappy glove off to the ground to blow on his hand after catching a fastball. This alone makes for a trustworthy and inseparable camaraderie between my little brother and me.
But don't kid yourself. I pay a price for my steadfast catcher/umpire.
"Hey, Julie; pull my finger," is a daily request.
"Hey, Julie, smell my finger," makes me want to puke.
"Hey, Julie, look at the size of this booger," my brother says as he chases me out the front door with a booger the size of the neighbor's Pekinese on the end of his finger. Luckily, I can still run faster than him. I sure hope he grows out of this bodily function obsession before his legs get any longer.
On a pitch-black night, my best friend Martha and I are on babysitting duty for my two younger brothers while Mom and Dad are out dancing at the VFW. The boys are up in their room making a hell of a racket with a guitar and a drum set, and Martha and I are downstairs sitting in front of the picture window watching TV.
"Hey, you two hoodlums," I holler up the stairs. "Can you knock off all the noise; you're creating static on the TV. Play a game or something, okay?"
"Okay," they answer in unison. It's not their usual response, but Martha and I shrug it off because we want to get back to watching Bonanza. We both have a huge thing for Little Joe.
During a commercial, we look out the picture window and see a man wearing a black hat and a long coat swaying up the sidewalk. We look at each other, our pupils dilated and our hearts racing.
"Oh God," Martha says. "He's drunk, Julie, and now he's coming up the front stairs."
Physically trembling, I hiss, "Marth, hit the floor. We don't want him to see us. Oh Gawd, I don't think the front door is locked. Let's crawl over there as fast as we can and lock it."
Scared out of our wits, we reach the door just as the man begins to open the front door.
And then my littlest brother falls off my brother Dick's shoulder.
Martha and I chase them out into the dark front yard, grab them by their shirts and throw them to the ground, hard. They stumble around on the grass but can't stand up. It's not due to Martha and I throwing them around though, it's because they are side-aching, belly laughing. Regardless, I never get too mad at Dick for anything he does. He is the whipping boy for both my dad and my mom, which is way too much for any little kid. Plus, Martha and I have to admit, it was a pretty darn clever gag.
In junior high, Dickie becomes a wrestling fanatic. He takes up the sport at Southwest High School. He also watches Verne Gagne and his gang of muscle stuffed palookas religiously. Professional wrestlers are great athletes and colorful carnie type actors, and to a junior high kid who loves wrestling, Gagne's show is absolutely real. Dickie dutifully studies the moves of Gagne, Larry "The Axe" Hennig, "Mad Dog" Vachon, and Stan "Krusher" Kowalski, often trying the holds on our littlest brother, Scottie. Dickie knows better than to try that crap on me.
Dick has recently been in the hospital with a detached retina inflicted by the kid who lives behind us, throwing a big branch at him and hitting him in the eye. We are warned by both Mom and Dad NOT to hit Dick in the head.
Dickie is watching yet another one of Verne's AWA wrestling programs on TV when I walk by.
"Dickie, you do realize this crap is fake, right?"
"It is not fake!" shouts Dickie as vehemently as the crazy fans who go to watch the matches live at the Calhoun Beach Hotel.
I'm out on the front porch when Dickie comes stomping out onto the porch.
"Take it back, Julie," my brother orders with a look on his face, not unlike that of Mad Dog Vachon at the height of his angry bit. Except, Dick's expression isn't fake at all. It is all too real.
"I won't take it back. It's the truth, Dickie. It's all fake. They're just a bunch of actors," I say.
A guttural sound fueled by pure adrenaline emanates from my brother's throat. Growling, he picks me up, presses me above his head, and spins me around as fast as he can. I have motion sickness so bad I can't sit in the backseat of a car without throwing up. I feel like I'm going to toss my cookies when Dickie body slams me down hard on the front porch's wooden floor knocking the wind out of me and creating one hell of a bang.
Dad comes roaring out onto the porch, shouting, "Geezus, Almighty God," what in the hell is going on out here?"
Now, I'm lying on the front porch clutching my gut, unable to talk. Dickie starts to cry on purpose with real tears. Sheesh, he's good, I think.
"She hit me in the head," he proclaims.
"I TOLD YOU KIDS NOT TO HIT HIM IN THE HEAD, GOD DAMNIT. Now settle down out here. GOD DAMN KIDS."
I don't blame my brother. He was scared. When my father isn't showing off his star-worthy dance moves or bringing old ladies to tears with his gorgeous baritone voice and handsome face, he's mean and usually takes his anger out on Dickie. The bottom line is that I would do anything to protect my little brother from my father's physical and mental abuse. Plus, I was not entirely correct when I said that everything about professional wrestling was fake. Come to find out, Verne's sleeper hold was real. In 1960, on the local television show Sports Hot Seat, Verne Gagne agreed to demonstrate that his sleeper hold was not a chokehold. With a panel of sportswriters scrutinizing his arm positioning, Gagne demonstrates the grasp on local promoter Eddie Williams. Lights out.
For a 60's high school kid, flawless hair and indefectible freshly pressed attire are not optional. It takes an intrepid effort and a lot of time for me to tame my abundant curls that have a mind of their own into a perfectly smooth flip. Each evening when it's time to go to bed, I become a roller derby queen, winding my hair around orange juice cans, securing them with bobby pins, and then sleeping all night long significantly elevated off my pillow. My two sisters on either side of me agewise, are also in high school. Modesty is of utmost importance during the puritan influenced double standard social mores of the time. The race to be the first to lock the door on the second-floor bathroom, the only bathroom in the house with a shower, is a daily contest. The highly coveted bathroom is on the second floor, where the master bedroom resides along with my little brothers' bedroom. The girls' bedrooms are on the third floor. Countless times when attempting to secure the bathroom first, high school girl rear ends, sounding like a bass drum roll, thud down the rounded edge stairs leading to the second floor.
"Are you alright?" yells anyone who hears the stair falling pandemonium.
"Yes," is always the hollered answer from one of three bruised-butted sisters.
The built-in linen closet where the towels are kept is in the hallway outside the bathroom, but Mom always keeps the bathroom towel racks well supplied with clean towels, so there's no reason to carry one in from the linen closet. One Saturday morning, I manage to get to the bathroom first. I take off all my clothes and hop into the shower. Dang, I say to myself - no washcloth. Oh, well, hands work, too. Finished, I step over the tub and reach out to grab a towel. The bathroom is devoid of towels.
I am not going to put my clothes back on my wet body. I peek out the door to make sure no one is on the second floor with me. The coast is clear. I tiptoe stark naked out into the hall and open the linen closet to grab a towel when I notice a crack in the door of my brothers' room and four blue eyes peering out.
Wrapped in a towel, mortified and irate, I shout toward the first floor, "Da - ad!"
I rush downstairs and tell my dad the whole sordid tale of what my brothers, his sons, did. He calls them downstairs and pats each one on the back.
In 1968, I graduated and head off to the University of Minnesota to study music, leaving my brother Richard behind singing solos in the Southwest High School Choir and winning wrestling matches. If I were looking through non-sister eyes, I'd say Dickie is kind of a stud. But not the kind of stud who is full of himself, prancing around feeling superior, but the kind of stud who sings while walking down the halls. The kind of stud who isn't afraid to make a total fool of himself and you at the same time. My brother can sing the entirety of "Hey Jude" in Donald Duck's voice. When he sings the word "better" as in "take a sad song and make it better," it's cute nirvana. He can also do an exact replication of "The Lollipop Guild" bit from The Wizard of Oz, complete with sole slide front kicks.
In high school, Dick becomes Rick for obvious reasons. He is a champion wrestler and a darn good gymnast as well. I see my 17-year-old brute of a brother do perfect flips in the front yard hundreds of times.
On the driveway one beautiful summer's evening, I witness a shouting match between Richard and my father. After years of physical and verbal abuse, Richard has had it. He puts Dad's arm in a well-deserved and painful half nelson and holds it there for some time. My father never dares touch or verbally abuse Richard again.
On my visit home from studying at the U of M, Mom, Dick, and I decide to take a walk around Lake Harriet. Mom does this chubby-lady speed walking thing that is a hoot if you're watching from the rear. For some reason, Dick falls back, but I keep up with Mom.
Behind us, we hear this loud sorrowful pleading, "Mama. Mama. Please don't leave me. Mama. Mahhhma!"
Mom and I look behind us to see that it's our Richard doing the pleading. With one leg dragging behind him, he's directing his cries toward Mom. "Mama. Mama. Please don't leave me. Mama. Mahhhma," he begs.
Mom, embarrassed beyond words, picks up the chubby-lady speed walking pace in an attempt to get away from him. Bad move, Mom, I think. Richard speeds up too, continuing to drag one leg and imploring even louder, "Please don't leave me. Mama. Mama!"
The paths around Lake Harriet are never empty, not even in the winter. But in the summer, it's a veritable parade, and everyone who passes this scene is either giving Mom the stink eye for being the cruelest person on the planet or looking at Richard with sad, sympathetic expressions. Me? I've fallen on the grass next to the lake where I'm holding my aching ribs laughing.
I adore autumn in Minneapolis. The smell in the air is crispy seductive, and the abundance of oaks, elms, and linden trees take on a heart arresting luminosity of color. Now in my 40's and a music teacher by profession, I'm walking around Lake Harriet with the school psychologist when I'm grabbed in two private places, lofted in the air above a man's head, and put into a two rotation spin. But instead of being body-slammed, I'm gently placed back on my feet and embraced in a giant bear hug. Sheepishly, I introduce Hannah, the school psychologist, to my little brother, Richard.
When Richard leaves, Hannah says nothing about the whirlybird/bear hug action but does manage to gasp, "Julie, can we talk about your little brother?"