The Little Kids: Are These Really Brothers?

This is the fourth in a series of posts that offer a caricature of the seven combatants that grew up on Peary Street. These brief sketches also point to the third guideline of symmentropy, the way people respond to what we say is rarely what we expect.

Third rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling rarely produces the outcome we expect.

Many Xers seem nostalgic for the serene ‘50s childhood that they never had and they have been pretty focused on creating a solid home life for their children, whether it’s from re-creating the idyllic family-oriented tableaux depicted in an Ikea catalog or jarring their own preserves. Making things “from scratch” – stepping away from the marketplace — is the new status symbol. Domestic success for the college-educated Xer is gauged by how many processed food packages you have in your pantry. Neil Howe describes a recent survey in which a sample group of Xers were asked to pick their model mother. Among many options, they chose June Cleaver.
- Sara Scribner,

In building the caricatures of the the five older siblings, the fragrance of the turmoil of the 60's perfumes each image. The last two lives formed on Peary Street sniffed the cauldron of the civil rights, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, rejected the aroma, covered the windows and rolled in the self-indulgence of the generation X fascination with mirrors. The last of the little kids, the brothers, felt the influence of a very different Peary Street far more than politics. The stories they collected featured them in a “Big Kids” role to their nieces and nephews, 2 of whom are closer in age than any of their older siblings. The brothers know and identify with the problems of the Peary Street grandchildren far better than the lives of their brothers and sisters. To me, the 60's were about a global decision to share the planet with each other and that spirit helped allow our parents to make the transition to grandparents far more gracefully than their entry into parenthood.

It took quite a bit to force dramatic change in the way the family lived and interacted. After they were born but before the brothers had reached their 15th birthdays:

  • The Vietnam War began and ended
  • John Kennedy became President and was assassinated
  • Martin Luther King became a civil rights leader and was assassinated
  • Sputnik launched the “space race” and Neal Armstrong walked on the Moon
  • The Beatles became a household name and broke up the band
  • Richard Nixon became President and resigned
  • Our father built a house at the beach
  • Four of their brothers and sisters graduated from college
  • Three siblings got married
  • Five grandchildren were born

These events were the background noise of their lives.

Grandchild Number 4
Heather Hallett

My father fell on the low side of average as a father, but, wow!, did he rank up there on the grandfather scale. Almost the day he became a grandfather, any anger left in his system turned into playful adoration. The little brothers cannot achieve any awareness of their good fortune as they grew up with him in grandfather mode. You cannot be a grandfather without grandchildren, so he made sure that both of his houses were always available for visits. My younger brothers ended up having little ones around just like the Big Kids did, but instead of brothers and sisters, they were nieces and nephews. Stories told by the brothers routinely include the grandchildren as part of the family.

Number six of seven knew his father more in grandfather mode than in father mode. Having a more relaxed Peary Street to call home allowed him to develop his “frat boy” image and become something of a “super cool” role model for his nieces and nephews. Peary Street's rampant racism and sexism was encouraged by my father's reduced control and his interest in having his grandchildren around. Clearly, my brother had no indication of the tension that this shift in the family dynamic created between himself and the youngest of his sisters. My brother promoted his position as the oldest male left in the house to the point that the animosity generated between himself and his sister remains palpable 40 years later.

At some point, my father and my little brother agreed, maybe separately or possibly only in my brother's imagination that the Big Kids needed to pay a price for turning their backs on this happily intolerant group. It is obvious that my father regretted that his older children did not return to share the joy he felt in his later life. It is also abundantly clear that my brother turned that regret into bitter resentment, jealousy and anger. He has given up trying to talk to the older siblings on a personal level. Every conversation begins with his retreat behind his professional persona insuring that no stories can be shared and no personal interaction will be tolerated.

The easiest path to describing the youngest of the siblings is to take the stereotype of “spoiled baby” of the family and let your imagination do the work. The caricatures that I have been creating in the last several posts would even support leaving it at that. Since we are talking about stories and storytelling, we need a context for my youngest brother and his role in the family dynamic. He embodies all of the problems that we experience in our expectations of people based on the stories that we know. He keeps his secrets and distance but shows up to maintain and praise the veneer of the wonderful family. He carries a little of all of us, including our parents, with him in everything he does. Each pair of brothers and sisters have their distinct differences. The youngest son gained all of the sympathy and empathy available to the last of the Little Kids as his older brother turned away from those qualities.

While my father was making the transition from angry father to doting grandfather, my mother was breaking the chains of 20 years of being a stay at home mom. Her first stop after dropping my youngest brother off for his first day of first grade was a local university to begin work on a Master's degree in Art History. The second stop was at an art supply store for paint, brushes and canvasses. While my brother was making his way through elementary school, his mother was becoming an artist. The Big Kids only knew a mother that stayed home and continued to fail miserably in the kitchen. The youngest brother would never know anything but a mother kept busy with with still life and landscape. His stories of our parents could never match ours. His older brother would not tell the stories because of the bitter feelings he harbored. The youngest sister could only tell stories of anger and persecution. By the time my youngest brother was old enough to tell very different stories, there was nobody left to listen.

He will be remembered by the other siblings as the pudgy one, and the short one. The rest of us grew lean with the girls nearly as tall as their brothers, but not number seven. He was good natured even, when he was overwhelmed by all the adults around him. He was glad to have his nieces and nephews as company at family gatherings and had a natural gentleness with them. He will also be remembered for never being one of either the Big Kids or the Little Kids, more like one of the grandchildren. I remember my older brother sitting on the floor playing cars and trucks with him. The older telling the younger that each car had to have a name and proceeding to name each vehicle after a tongue twisting figure from mythology or philosophy, like Aristotle, Agamemnon or Cassiopeia. Each time my little brother started to move one of his toys, he would be stopped and asked who he was moving. Then they would review the names of each again to make sure it was correct. There was not a lot of driving in their game.

With that kind of game for a 5 year old, it is easy to imagine that my brother quickly developed a large vocabulary and a large sense of the absurd. As he matured, he became a devotee of old vaudeville comedy and particularly Henny Youngman (rim shot here). I remember him as the only member of the family that had a sense of humor and a willingness to laugh out loud. My mother always delighted in good puns, both hearing them and creating them. Before I left, my mother and I honed our punning and word game skills. My little brother was able to slide right in to replace me. The three of us were the only ones to share that delight.

My caricature cannot include this insight. Peary Street excluded anything that did not treat life with seriousness. Frivolity rose to the level of a four letter word. Instead of the warm laughter that the youngest held so dear, here are the headlines from my brother's life. After graduating from high school, he began a six (it may have been eight) year curriculum in ultimate Frisbee. The unfortunate part of his choice was that the University of Virginia still does not grant degrees in the field. Our father, who had patiently paid tuition bills for 20 consecutive years, finally made a new rule. He would only pay for those courses that our youngest brother completed successfully and that did not mention Frisbee in the syllabus. Facing a grim reality, my brother began working as a bar tender to pay for Frisbee classes and those pesky D's and F's. What he found was that restaurant management really appealed to him and somehow he found the value of an education. He graduated, got married, had a couple of kids and continued to work in bars. In spite of his independent efforts and ultimate success, I am sure that he felt the scorn of Peary Street.

The last of the Little Kids share their distance with Big Kids and the connection to the grandchildren. They also share a different political climate and parents that the older ones never knew existed. They responded to these influences in completely opposite ways. One became the evil stepchild of the GI generation, wrapping himself in storytelling isolation to maintain bigotry and anger. The other wanted to share the stories of happy parents and tolerance of many generations. I wonder how many times he told the stories before he parked his sense of humor next to his joy in humanity and returned to Peary Street?

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