My maternal grandmother used to state that my brother and I could argue about anything including the color of paint. She wasn’t wrong.
In 1990, we had been assigned by our parents the uneviable task of re-painting their basement, while they were away. Neither of us wanted to do it, both a bit resentful of our parents decision to move to Australia, without us, and renting our home. Our family home in a suburb of Kansas City was currently between renters, while our parents were residing in Australia. My brother was living with me at the time — sharing a small one bedroom apartment in Prairie Village, Kansas, (the same suburb and about a mile or two from our house), before he took off to visit our parents in Australia. He was currently in college, while I was busy working at a racquet club. We visited our parents separately because our parents had decided we didn’t get along, and this made more sense — take one kid at a time. Less drama if they kept us apart. And here we were assigned to pick the paint for the basement, and to paint it. Not only that, but we were sharing a car and an apartment since my brother had no where else to go between college and the trek to Australia. My grandmother also used to state that my brother and I could get along quite well when we wished to or put a bit of effort into it.
At any rate, after going to see “Silence of the Lambs” and analyzing it to death, we checked out the basement. I decided it needed a coat of cream paint, my brother was convinced it was off-white.
“Clearly cream – see, that’s the wall color.”
“But the can will say off-white.”
“No it doesn’t. That’s not right — that’s whiter than cream. We should find cream.”
“You’re wrong, it’s off-white.”
At the paint store we argued about it. In the basement we argued about it. On the way to the paint store we argued about it. As we painted, we argued. As the argument wore on, it got more and more contentious. No one can argue like my brother and I, what can I say we inherited stubborn genes, and our parents fell in love arguing about politics.
I can’t remember who won. The basement, however, did get a new coat of paint even though we argued about how it should be painted and how to stroke the walls the whole time. At one point, someone came up with the bright idea to put on music, I think we argued about that as well, so it didn’t end the argument so much as give it a new twist. I remember ranting about it all afterwards to my grandmother, who half-laughing at me, said, “I swear you and your brother will argue about anything, including paint. Who cares if it was off-white or cream? Did it get painted? ”
Growing up, my aunts and uncles used to tell my parents that my brother and I should reside on separate ends of the country or separate coasts. One in New York and one in Los Angeles. He used to tease me relentlessly, and well, I’m sure I found my own way to make him nuts. We appeared to be like oil and water most of the time. Much like the cartoon above, my brother would see the number as a 6 and I’d see it as a 9. And stubborn to the core, we’d rarely cave or deign to see the others’ point of view.
That said, there have been times in my life that my brother has been invaluable to me, and I find myself exceedingly grateful for his existence. Little off-hand moments, some big one’s here and there.
When I was twenty-one, I won a grant to go to Wales and collect Welsh Folklore, my mother decided for reasons that made little sense to either my brother or myself, to send him with me. She had it in her head that I’d collect the stories and he’d take photos of the people telling them and the area. Of course it didn’t work out that way, it never does. At the time, I think we were both a bit annoyed with her. And quickly parted ways about a week or so after our arrival. But, half-way through the trip, I ran into a situation in Bala, Wales — with a frisky Bed and Breakfast proprietor, who man-handled me on the Dunbey Moors in front of a haunted house. Shaken by the experience, and suddenly gun-shy, I ran back to the small Bed and Breakfast in Aberwysthwth, run by a sweet old woman that my brother and I had discovered — and turned into a meeting place (this was before cell phones existed). When I arrived, I discovered him at the little B&B, tired and lonely, wanting company. He was supposed to be meeting up with an old high school friend later — but a bit leery of it. And he’d discovered this amazing place in Wales that he wished to share with someone. I in turn told him what happened to me up in Bala, and he convinced me to take a break from my folklore collecting and join him in Barmouth. I of course readily accepted with little convincing, and he took off to reserve the rooms. The next day, I journeyed up to the B&B in Barmouth where he’d reserved a room for me. It had a lovely view of the mountains and the sea. Plus a tea maker. Unfortunately, he did not tell me where to meet him. And when I asked the B&B proprietor, she suggested the mountains. My brother had gone to the sea and had created an amazing sand-sculpture, or so he said, that was long gone by the time I found him. He was furious at me for not figuring out where he’d be or what he’d be doing. I remember thinking at the time, if I’d only gone to the beach instead of the mountains to look for him. If only I could read his mind, perhaps I could understand him.
The year before, he visited me in college, stayed with me and my housemates. My housemates weren’t sure what to make of this tall man, who was thin as a pole, with copper hair, and a female-magnet. I’d just broken up with my boyfriend at the time and was reading poetry about it at a coffee house…and my brother sat in, to listen. Afterwards, he told me that it was good poetry, but he worried that I was exposing too much of my soul to those who had little care or appreciation for it. His words surprised me, and I’ve never forgotten them.
Our memories of the past often collide in a wash of variant colors, he remembers one thing and I another. And while we agree on politics for the most part, we will argue about the how, when, and why of it. He voted for Hillary in both 2008 and 2016, and I voted for Obama in 2008 and Hillary in 2016. In some respects we get along better when there is no one else in the room, no parents or family to play to, or friends to impress.
I remember when my maternal grandmother died and I had to read something I wrote at her funeral, I thought I was going to break apart up there. Tears streaming down my face, my voice cracking. And my brother appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and hugged me. I’m tall, but he towers over me.
As children we used to fight with our fists. Wrestling upon the floor like beasts, arms and legs entangled. Until he got bigger and stronger than me, and I realized quickly that this was not a good idea. No one can teach you that violence solves nothing better than a brother. So, arguments were resolved in later years verbally or with the silent treatment.
No one can make me more furious than my brother. Odd that. And we know things about each other, our parents don’t. I may rant about him to my mother, but on a dime, I will switch and defend him. Because you know, I have the right to rip the little bastard, okay, maybe not so little to pieces, but no one else does.
As I write this essay, far longer than intended and not proofed, I wonder what my original intent was exactly? I think getting back to the original cartoon, it is simply this — it is possible not to see eye-to-eye, to deeply disagree, yet still love a person. To think differently and see the world in different colors and shades. The biggest problem that my brother and I have always had is communication. We think differently. It seems weird that we do, after all, we have the same combination of DNA, we were brought up by the same people, given the same opportunities more or less…but yet, we are at times as different as night and day. It’s like some joke decided to take the DNA our parents gave them and play around with it a bit.
Even now, years later, we can get along for about an hour or two, if we’re lucky, before we start snipping at each other. I’m on the edge of 50, and he’s only three years behind me at 46/47. Together, we’re like oil and water. We barely if ever carve out time to see each other and make various and sundry excuses as to why. While easy to blame others, I think the responsibility lies solely with us. At one point, it was during some large awkward extended family function, either a funeral or a reunion, I’m thinking the former, my brother said “you don’t get to pick your family.” But here’s the thing, you don’t really get to pick anyone in life, do you? People tend to fall into each other, and whether they click or don’t, their relationship is often more dictated by the number of times the universe chooses to throw them into each others company, until somehow something happens to either move them closer or rip them further apart. The choices, I guess, are in how we react and make the most of those opportunities. The test is finding a way to see one another’s point of view. To be civil. And to somehow find common ground.
I use my relationship with my brother as an example — because for me that has been the hardest test. To find common ground with someone who often sees the world differently than I. It could be far worse of course. As my sister-in-law has advised my mother on more than one occasion, at least they speak to each other and we do. I can’t say the same about many members of my extended family or friends I’ve made here and there. And we do argue. We do discuss things that make us uncomfortable. I won’t lie — not well. Not well at all. Almost 50 years of age, and when I’m with my brother, I often find, I’m acting as if I’m twelve and he’s nine. Fighting over which channel to watch on the television set.
But, he is the only brother that I have. And when my parents are gone, my only immediate family. The only person on the planet who knows what it was like to live with them day in and day out and to lose them. He, in some respects, knows me better than anyone, just as I know him, better than anyone including our parents. And when I step five to six steps back from myself, he makes sense to me. I see him clearly. And I see the rest of the world clearly as well. That it is okay to see the 9 as a 6, it depends on your perspective. Having my brother, has taught me to share things I really don’t want to share, and to be okay about not seeing eye to eye with others. But mostly, continuing to find a way to get past our differences and find some common ground, even if it is nothing greater than discussing the weather.