My Siblings and I, December 1957

I’m the last one still living from the house I grew up in. During all the years of my childhood I sat with my older brothers and my sister around the dinner table, thoughtlessly eating what my parents spent their days providing. The seasons changed around us, we could be sitting in the light of a summer evening, or a cold, dark winter night, but always we sat according to a fixed and unquestioned arrangement. I was the youngest, and sat to the left of my father’s place at the head of the table, across from my mother who sat to his right. My oldest brother at home sat at the opposite head from my father, my sister to his left and my next oldest brother to his right, next to me. If there were ever discussions that led to a decision about where we would sit, they predated my existence. I seemed to be born in that seat, like the earth formed as the third planet around the sun. When I was small my feet dangled over the edge of my seat. The last time we were all together — the day my mother died — we who remained still sat in the same seats, and my adult feet were planted firmly on the floor.

We ate at the same time every night, about 6 PM, a short while after the bus left my father off at the end of our block. I remember one particular summer evening when for some reason I could never recall I met him at the bus stop. I have a precise image of him stepping off the bus, one hand still holding the door, his right foot reaching for the ground because the bus hadn’t yet drawn to a full stop. He was wearing brown pants and a light yellow, short-sleeved shirt. I remember that he seemed surprised — but pleased — to see me there, waiting for him. We walked home together, down the long, ever so slightly downhill block, past all the Cape Cod houses, distinguished only by the color of the trim and the models of the cars in their driveway. I’m sure we spoke but I don’t remember what was said. This must have been a Wednesday, because as we walked up the driveway towards our side door I could smell the spaghetti sauce my mother was cooking on the stove.

That was a happy smell, and like all other Wednesdays when I came in the door I’m sure I walked over to the stove and licked the spoon my mom used to stir the sauce. As I did this I had my back to them, and I heard him mention his surprise at seeing me at the bus stop as he gave her his kiss hello. And now I remember why I met my father that day: it was because my mother suggested it. The adult in me looks back and wonders if she noticed something in him before he left that morning: a dark mood; a frustration at the routine of his life; a gathering regret that his children were growing up too fast. When I consider this moment it is with a certain astonishment, because as much as my adult life has been held aloft by grace, childhood had one blessing I’ve forgotten: as a child you can be a living emissary of someones love. On that day, my mother encouraged my appearance at the bus stop in the hopes my appearance would give him an unexpected moment of happiness. On that day, I was but an instrument of her love for him.

That was one day among thousands with my parents, my brothers and my sister together. My mother cooked thousands of dinners. Thousands of times my father left the house in the cold mornings as we all slept, and walked home in the twilight from the bus stop with the paper under his arm, each day save one leaving and returning alone. I recall those days in the same way I remember all the breaths I took as a child — hardly at all. They were the thankless ground of my existence. Routine still has no interest for my restless self, and so all those unsurprising moments are just the featureless water a fish has no awareness of.

We talked, we laughed and we argued, but among countless exchanges there are a few conversations that stand out: my oldest brother talking about Willie Sutton, the bank robber; My sister talking about seeing the Beatles at Shea Stadium. I remember the way my mother would sneer whenever my father mentioned the man she hated — Douglas MacArthur. I remember the dinner we shared the night JFK was assassinated, because of my father’s certainty that the Cubans were behind it — we were still young enough that we gave great weight to his opinion of things. I remember the meals: Wednesday’s spaghetti, Friday’s Mac and Cheese (which we called baked macaroni). Sunday mornings after Mass with rolls, crumb cake and the enormous Sunday New York Times.

They’re all gone now. My parents died decades ago, and while that was difficult, like most people I expected to outlive my parents. It’s different with my brothers and my sister. My oldest brother died suddenly at a young age. He showed me what it was like to grow up, because I saw him grow from a child into a man. He seemed like a giant, I recall him lifting me above his head like a barbell, and pressing my back against the ceiling, ignoring my pleas and letting me down only when his arms grew tired. My next oldest brother was six years older than me — I associate him with the smell of glue because I watched him build model airplanes, and with the smell of gasoline when he was old enough to launch gas-powered planes. When I was young we huddled in the basement watching old war movies; when we were older we watched Start Trek reruns before my mother called us for dinner. My sister was closest in age to me, but we fought more and spent our childhood in resentment. We all fought, we were all mean to each other, and couldn’t wait to be free of them. It was only as adults that my sister and I began to appreciate each other, because at the end we knew we shared memories no one else had.

They were there at my beginning, when I broke the surface and took my first breath in the world. Without them I feel adrift, with no one else in the world able to follow our memories back to that long-gone anchor point, our home. There’s no one left that knew my parent’s daily life, and there’s no one left who can trace the mannerisms and expressions I have today back to their origins in my childhood. I have vivid memories of the most ordinary actions they took and the things they said, things that they wouldn’t remember: my father stepping off the bus that day; my sister learning to play the guitar; my brother laying on his bed, doing his calculus homework. I’m the last person alive who remembers these ordinary actions, and there’s no one left who lived with me as a child.

The world feels very different now, because no one else shares the experience of living in that house, all of us together. All those years I lived with them, never appreciating the time we had together. Quite the opposite, I hardly paid attention to them through my childhood and adolescence — I was always more compelled by the anxieties of the moment and fears of the future.

I came into the world within one family, ours, and when I leave the world I’ll be leaving the family I formed as an husband and a father. There seems little to connect the two, because I feel like two different people, with two different lives. I believe I was given this life, at this time, for a purpose that will be evident to me only at its end. Similarly, there must be a reason my parents and my siblings were all brought together. Perhaps we are like milled stones, forming each other by the friction between us.

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