GUESTWORDS: Oh, Brother!

By Janet Lee Berg

   I think when my older brother, Tommy, was born, my parents had a chorus behind them, singing their own rock opera — “It’s a Boy!” He came out of the womb wearing a red cape. After I was born two years later, they changed their tune to the Stones’ classic “Stupid Girl.”
    If only I had been born the boy, then I would have gotten all that power. My brother was like a giant Hoover vacuum cleaner that hovered over me my entire childhood, sucking the energy out of me. He was electrified; sparks shot out from him as he passed by. With me, batteries weren’t even included.
    When they brought me home from the hospital, Tommy ran and hid for hours under the black cast-iron Singer sewing machine with the gold swirl embossment. But soon he had to come out to eat with his metaphorical silver spoon. Mother and Father probably explained that I was there for a reason, purely for his entertainment, to be made fun of, to be tortured — there to be sacrificed to his sadistic whims, to be his slave, if need be. For years, he got joy out of telling me that he had rocked my bassinet at full speed, until I’d spit up all my baby food. No wonder I’m phobic today at amusement parks.
    Whatever the purpose of my being, I had been brainwashed: Girls didn’t need to get a higher education, shouldn’t ask too many questions, should be content with dusting furniture, baking breads, looking pretty, and eventually standing on line at the pharmacy waiting for their tranquilizers.
    He is the Super Power, extraordinarily successful, and everything our parents expected him to be. If only I were worthy of getting half the jolt that he received on a daily basis, then maybe I would have been full of electricity, like Tommy.
    He’s the one in the 10,000-square-foot house with the infinity pool, living between celebrities on the Gold Coast, while I live on the South Shore, next to a crotchety old man with a limp and his half-dead basset hound. He’s the one who rides in the back seat of his Bentley, driven by his chauffeur named Bentley, jet-sets around the world in private planes, and sips cabernet on his fancy yacht.
    Me, the other child, I’m the one who putters about in my near-defunct Ford, chugs on a Silver Bullet, and bails water out of my dinghy. I’m the one who lives on the wrong side of the tracks, still waiting for that golden train to pull into the station.
    My parents never doubted my brother Tommy. Doubting Thomas would have been immoral. He was the superior one, the great orator, capable of becoming anything he wanted to be, and no matter what, he got his way. He would never lose focus. Doggone it, if he needed to see over the cyclone fence into our neighbor’s yard, he’d step on top of my head until he got the job done. And I would ask, “What do you see, Tommy? What do you see?” Whatever he saw, it was always through rose-colored glasses. I can still hear his beautiful narration of what was beyond all those fences.
    He had the most vivid imagination out of all the kids in the neighborhood. I remember one day he was dressed in his Superman suit, but determined that I was the one who had to fly, so he positioned himself flat on his back while lying on the grass and cannonballed me into the air by his feet. I was jet-propelled right into the emergency room, swollen and bruised beyond recognition, with a broken left arm. But Tommy had a way of making me believe that those few fleeting moments of being airborne were well worth it. Also, those sirens are cool, aren’t they? He asked me that periodically, whenever he’d have an ambulance come pick me up.
    Tommy always got the taller glass of soda pop, the bigger piece of chocolate cake; he always won at Monopoly, always won at everything that claimed a “winner.” He was the fastest runner I had ever seen, but always sent me dashing out onto the street in front of screeching cars to retrieve the home-run baseball that he hit, of course. He once told the rest of the team, who held him up on his shoulders, that I made a “good retriever.” I think it was the first time he looked proud of me. I needed more of those compliments, so for that entire year I aspired to fetch like a dog, and answered to the name Duke.
    He led me into trouble whenever he had the opportunity; I was the one who got the spanking after he broke the vase on the mantel. Holidays were especially trying. He’d catapult me over an eight-foot wall every Christmas Eve to steal a Christmas tree, because he rationalized it would be thrown out anyway. But, why then did I feel traumatized every time he made me do it? That’s what I would tell the police when they’d pull up: “He made me do it!”
    If it snowed, I was the one who had to roll the heavy snowballs to make the snowman, while he got the satisfaction of sticking in the button eyes and the carrot nose, calling Mom and Dad outside to see what he had done.
    At church, he took advantage of my claustrophobia and made me sit in the middle of the crowded pew, where I’d be stuck, and then he’d proceed to tickle me until I tried so hard to contain my laughter that I nearly passed out from oxygen deprivation. He had convinced me that the nuns were really witches who put bad kids in big pots of boiling water. To this day, I fear organized religion.
    “Aw, come on, Sis,” he’d say in his extra-sweet voice later on, always making me think he was trying to make up for the torment he’d put me through. “Mmm . . . Mom made pudding for you; it’s in the fridge,” and he laughed and laughed while I gagged and gagged on leftover chicken stock Mom intended to dispose of that had hardened into grease.
    When I was older and wiser, he still got to me. One of the many times he came close to killing me was when I had experimented with hair dye as a teenager. He told me, while I was bent over the sink, that if he poured straight ammonia over my head, my original hair color would return. “Voila!”
    No matter how deeply I inhaled, I couldn’t catch my breath. I was a trapped animal, clawing at the window screen, close to jumping out of my second-story bedroom window and fulfilling his ultimate dream of flight. Why? Why did I always believe him?
    So, today, because of all the positive energy he sucked in growing up while depleting mine, my Hoover stays locked up in the closet, I tell my therapist. We have lovely carpetless floors. From across the lawn, I watch the limping man next door raking or shoveling his yard with his old one-eyed dog, and I think of Tommy on his estate. I wonder aloud if Tommy knows that no one has ever held him on a higher pedestal than I . . . because Tommy taught me how to be a dreamer. “Tommy, can you hear me?”   


Excerpts from Janet Lee Berg’s novel “Rembrandt’s Shadow” have appeared previously in The Star. Based on her family’s experiences in the Holocaust, it is due out this year. Ms. Berg is also the author of “Glitz of the Hamptons.”