My Brother’s a Keeper

Later this month, as the 2008 Democratic convention gets under way in Denver, we’ll be reading and seeing a lot in the news about the Democratic convention 40 years earlier that made headlines in Chicago. That’s right; it has now been two full generations since protestors and police battled in the streets of the Windy City and much of America first heard the word Yippie as a noun and not as a synonym for “Hooray.”
I was a boy in 1968, a second-grader with little interest in politics, the Vietnam War and the logistics of nominating a presidential candidate. And yet I have memories of that nominating week that are vivid, and they seem to begin and end with my brother.
My brother is five years older than I am, which means there has never been much sibling rivalry or competition between us. I figured out early on that he was always going to whip me soundly at everything. In one-on-one football, which we played often, he invented a rule where each of us could pass the ball to ourselves, which worked to his advantage since he had as much as a foot on me. In “Denny McLain Real Action Baseball,” a baseball board game with a magnetic diamond and a wooden, spring-loaded bat, he was able to pitch the small marble so that it actually curved beyond the reach of the bat and plopped into the game’s strike zone. And when he dealt poker, a computer couldn’t have kept track of the combinations of cards he’d call wild. I spent my childhood losing to him in every sport and game we could play or invent.
But at middle age, I have come to realize something important about those years: My older brother was shouldering a lot of the heavy lifting that is usually reserved for a boy’s dad. We had — we have — a loving father, but he worked long hours and his commute from Connecticut to Manhattan was arduous. He wasn’t an invisible presence in my childhood, but he was gone by the time I got up in the morning and he would return home just in time for a late dinner. After supper he usually went right to bed.
And so although my brother was finding ways to beat me in board games and sports that ranged from devious to inspired, he was also the one who was teaching me to throw a football and what an earned run average meant in baseball. He was the one explaining to me why the music of the Beatles and Joni Mitchell mattered, and why I should be more circumspect in my affection for the work of Jeannie C. Riley (“Harper Valley PTA“). Later he would be the one who would gently offer guidance about what sorts of i.d. bracelets were best if, in the sixth grade, you were going to ask a girl to go steady (as I recall, the less expensive the better).
And in late August 1968, he was the one who would bring up the riots in the streets of Chicago over dinner and, though he was only in middle school, plant himself in front of the news at 6 o’clock and watch the chaos there both unfold and be explained. By ninth grade he would be attending anti-war coffeehouses at a nearby church, and by 10th, he would be standing in anti-war candlelight vigils.
My sense is that I learned more from him than I did from most of the grown-ups around me — which, of course, is one of the gifts of being a younger sibling. We have extra people around us to guide and influence and inspire. Even now, whenever I watch a portion of a presidential convention, at least once or twice I will recall my brother as an eighth-grader on the couch in the dark paneled living room of our home, staring intently at the TV screen. At the time I didn’t understand what was occurring at the convention, but it mattered to my brother and so I knew that it must be important — and, thus, it should matter to me.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 3, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.