The year I was six all my siblings moved out of the house except Kevin. That meant I had my thirteen-year-old brother all to myself. He was my personal clown with his Donald Duck voice and armpit amplifier, as well as my personal demon inciting my worst behavior.
He lured me when I was but an illiterate preschooler to the kitchen counter where a large jug of yellow liquid awaited. I clearly recall a lemon pictured on the label. “Want to sniff something really good? It’s hard to smell, so you’ll have to take a really deep breath.” He placed the bottle strategically under my nose and I inhaled to full lung capacity.
That was my introduction to ammonia.
Kevin showed me how to blow a bubble, shoot a rubber band like a sniper, and turn a trash can and a pair of socks into a game of basketball. He taught me to ride my bike without training wheels on the steep incline of our front yard. The same spot he practiced pitching to me until I learned to throw a baseball like a boy and catch it too. I took special pride in being responsible for the surprised look on a boy’s face when his hand stung right through his glove.
My brother single handedly made sure I’d never think too highly of myself. I started singing in church and in the county jail to prisoners when I was two. I never held onto any memories of accolades aside from the occasion a man took off his red bandana and passed it to me through the bars. What remained with me was Kevin’s opinion.
It came forth on a Saturday morning as I sat in my usual place before the stereo listening to the Children’s Bible Hour. Uncle Charlie promised a special guest would be singing before the story at the middle of the program. My expectations were high. I appreciated great voices.
The special guest was introduced as blind and she began to sing. She sounded like every other kid on the program I’d heard sing, her exaggerated Michigan accent coloring her vowel sounds. I wasn’t impressed at all. But Kevin poked his head through the doorway from the kitchen and said, “She’s sings better than you and she’s blind!”
So, I was worse than the mediocre singer then. I listened intently trying to revere her voice in light of my brother’s proclamation. I felt shame that I was not better. After all, I had two eyes. I wasn’t sure of the connection but was persuaded her adversity should have given me the advantage and I had failed.
I had little enthusiasm for singing. It was something people expected me to do when I showed up so I complied. I was a monkey doing my tricks. What I really wanted to do was make people laugh like Kevin did. This was the trick I most wanted to pull off. He was voted wittiest of his senior class and I couldn’t imagine a finer achievement.
I practiced on him, the toughest critic. I remember his straight face, the dull looks, but I experienced no follow-up shame like what came from singing when an accompanist couldn’t play your song in the right key. I had absolutely no shame playing the clown. And his occasional reluctant laughter was the biggest applause.
I revered my brother. And reviled him. He had the funniest things to say and the cruelest. I remember learning A Thing Called Love in the car while it played on our 8 track. As I sang the lyrics, it’s in a mother’s tenderness, holding my child up to my breast, then I thank God that the world’s been blessed with a thing called love, Kevin’s voice came from the back seat. “Your bony breast.”
But the funniest, cruelest thing that ever transpired in our car happened on the way to visit Darlene, a family friend. Traveling from Maryland to Virginia meant we’d pass a familiar landmark, a gigantic red apple which was the highlight of my trip. I’d ask over and over how close we were to the apple.
I sat up front by the window, my eyes glued to the blurs outside waiting for the shiny lump of red to appear. My mother sat next to me on the bench seat while my dad drove. Kevin sat in the back.
“Hey, Leah,” came his voice from behind me, “can you get my socks? They’re under the seat.”
“Under the seat?”
“Yeah. Reach under there and get them for me. I can’t get them.”
I took a quick glance at the floor and then scanned the horizon. “I can’t. I’m watching for the apple.”
“The apple’s not even out there yet. Just get my socks. Hurry! I need them.”
I leaned over and stuck my hand on the floor feeling around. “I can’t find them.”
“Farther back. Reach farther back. They’re way back under there. You almost got them. Right there! See?”
My forehead was nearly touching the floor and I couldn’t see any socks, but at Kevin’s urging I persisted.
“Okay, you can stop looking now. I got them,” he said.
I sat up in my seat and went back to watching out the window. “Are we almost to the apple?”
“Oh honey,” my distracted mom said, “we just passed it. You didn’t see it?”
“WE PASSED IT?” I realized the rotten, stinking truth about my brother’s socks. While I was trying to do something kind for him he was pulling the meanest trick ever. I turned around and leaned over the seat to look at his feet. They were well covered by his shoes and SOCKS.
My rage was immense but my power was small. He was seven years older. My efforts to beat him up only enraged me more. He’d laugh.
One day I found a way to inflict pain upon him in an opportunity that was just my size. Behind a sliding door in the headboard of his bed was something special none of the rest of us had. A beautiful baby bracelet made of blue and white beads spelled out his name. It had been given to him the day of his birth. I’d admired it many times. I picked it up and looped a finger from each hand through its middle and gave a tug. The thread that held the bracelet together snapped and the tiny beads went everywhere.
In a moment, something very precious had been destroyed and I didn’t feel as triumphant as I’d imagined. The retaliation didn’t cure my sadness at all. Now I was doubly sorrowful.
It seemed I could never win at fighting even with all the practice I had.
Kevin always insisted I put on one of his boxing gloves while he wore the other part of the pair so we could duke it out. My skinny arm stuffed inside the large glove looked like an over-sized lollipop. I felt just as silly and giggled too much. Kevin did his best to rile me so I’d make a real effort at punching him. He’d hold my face to the floor and thump on the back of my head until I’d come up swinging. It seemed an exercise of frustration and futility.
Then one day when I was twelve I was cleaning at my oldest brother’s house while he worked in the garden with his wife. A businessman who was an acquaintance of our family stopped to see my brother but decided there was business inside of interest to him. He wasn’t wearing boxing gloves and his speech wasn’t hostile, but I knew this was the time to fight. My perverted opponent was more than twice my age, successful, and obnoxious, but I would not be intimidated. I delivered a punch to his gut that would’ve made Kevin proud. The man grunted, doubled over, and looked a bit stunned. Then made a hasty retreat.
I figured I’d won. I wish I had fought for all the other little girls he’d come to harm. I never told anyone what happened that day.
Some fights are petty and small minded. Some fights are bloody. Some fights are uninvited. Some fights seem futile. Some fights are training for life. Some fights are for your life. Some fights are for someone else’s life.
In the middle of being a sister, of being taught to pitch, ride a bike, blow a bubble, and throw a punch, I learned about all of these kinds of fights from loving my funny brother, Kevin.