December 1973. Nine family members and I stood in a circle in the middle of my uncle’s living room—my brother Burgess, my parents, my father’s parents, Uncle Cap and Aunt Betty, and their two teenaged kids, Chriscelle and Chip. We were summonsed by Uncle Cap, my father’s brother, who wanted to pray for safe travels as our time together was coming to a close following the Christmas holidays. Bags were packed. Cars loaded. The only thing left to do before getting on the road was pray.
My grandparents had come from tiny Gloucester, NC, a “home place” for my dad’s side of the family for more than 300 years. My parents, brother and I drove there from Morgantown, WV—where we were currently living in a coal camp. We’d all spent the previous week at my uncle’s house in suburban Clinton, MD. He was a colonel in the Air Force, stationed at nearby Andrew’s Air Force Base. There was a huge Christmas tree, fires in the fireplace, and countless sing-alongs. It was, for the most part, ideal.
Come the end of this time together, my brother and I were going to live with our grandparents—something we’d been informed of during the trip—to address the two-fold problem of my parents being too busy with grad school to care for us, and to get us away from the neighbor kids back in the coal camp who taught us to play ‘creatively’ by building fires underneath our house and other dangerous past times.
I was seven. Burgess was eight.
Apparently, a better environment for us was with my grandparents in a sleepy community where the residents’ average age was somewhere around 80. The closest school, in a neighboring town several miles away.
As our time in Maryland drew to a close, I dreaded the pending departure. My grandfather preferred fishing and gardening to spending time with a couple of kids. Sometimes, he’d pick me up and wrestle me around—putting me high in the air, hoisting me onto his shoulders, tickling me—with his ever-present Marlboro cigarette clamped between his forefinger and the stub where his thumb used to be, oftentimes resulting in an ever-so-slight burn on my skin from his precarious cigarette. I was terrified of that thumb-stub and his cigarettes.
My grandmother was more unnerving, but for reasons unseen. A Christian Scientist, she attributed my frequent aches or pains to a desire for attention. She never missed an opportunity to criticize me, whether it was how I ate (picky, too slow), my interactions with my brother (I acted like a baby), or the way I dressed (shabby). I recognized her hostility toward me, and worried about living with her for an unspecified amount of time.
Now, the holidays were over. It was time to leave. Under my uncle’s direction, we clasped hands. I bowed my head, preparing to pray. When all were silent, he made an announcement:
“We’ve decided to keep one of you.” My head shot up, hope! All eyes were on Burgess and me expectantly as we stood, side by side.
“Me!” I shouted, raising my hand.
“Okay,” Uncle Cap replied with a satisfied nod.
The adults all smiled. Decision made.
I couldn’t look at my brother. On one hand, I would get to live in a nice, new, brick house with clean carpeting, a real yard, and lots of kids close to my age living nearby. Two of the families in the cul-de-sac actually had twins the same age as me. On the other, I was abandoning my brother to live with our grandparents in the middle of nowhere.
We prayed. The adults said “Amen.” Stoically, Burgess said good-bye to my parents, and then to me. We hugged. “Good-bye” seemed inadequate. Even at the age of seven, I wished I could express something . . . anything . . . better.
“Okay, let’s go,” my grandmother instructed, clutching a large empty Folgers coffee can with a plastic lid. This was the emergency potty—the one to use when we traveled as my grandparents would not stop except to fill up the gas tank. Burgess followed behind her, toward their baby blue Gran Torino station wagon. My parents were on the front stoop, as the trio loaded into the car and my grandfather started the engine. I stood inside the storm door with my new family, watching as Burgess left for North Carolina.
My parents soon headed home, as well. Afterward, I settled into my new room, shared with 16-year-old cousin Chriscelle. We had matching white wicker twin beds, pink gingham curtains, and lacy bedspreads. After living in the coal camp, and under a tarp in the state park before that, this was the bedroom of my dreams, yet it didn’t feel as sweet as I’d imagined it would. Guilt for deserting my brother gnawed at me.
In my new home, everything ran with precision. The sense of order was a soothing balm I hadn’t realized I craved. Uncle Cap got up at the same time every morning and came to the breakfast table dressed in uniform. Aunt Betty always worked to keep order around the house—both physically and spiritually. When Aunt Betty wasn’t cooking or cleaning something, she was getting ready to cook or clean—impeccably dressed, hair perfectly quaffed. A flawless match for her military husband, a stark contrast to my Bohemian parents.
It was she who taught me the bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake . . .” While pending death was a frequent fear of mine, up until that point, I’d never really considered the possibility of dying in my sleep. Nightly, I lay in bed in my pretty pink bedroom pondering death, imagining what it would feel like, holding my breath for as long as I could; wondering how they’d know I was really dead before sealing me up in a casket; worrying that if I died before next week’s Little House on the Prairie I’d never know what happened to Half-Pint.
Most times, however, I reveled in the predictability that existed in my new home and learned to relax into the flow of weekly routines which always included beef on Sundays, Wednesday evening choir practice, and Saturday play days with the plethora of neighborhood kids (who never set anything on fire).
I was the barrier between my cousins during car rides. Perched upon the fold down armrest of their Volvo’s backseat, I had a bird’s eye view of where we were going, and managed to slow, if not block the swats and playful punches between Chriscelle and 13-year-old Chip. As the “peace keeper” on our outings, I served an important purpose.
That Easter, we drove to Gloucester to see my grandparents and my brother. During that brief visit the dynamic between the two of us was different. Always close playmates prior to this, our interactions were now strained. It would be several months before we were permanently back together, and with our mother, headed to Kentucky where we would live with about a dozen other people in a big red house.
Burgess and I only spoke once about our time apart, just a few weeks after being reunited. We were on the massive front porch of our new home, lazily drifting on a porch swing in the heat of the late afternoon. “Be glad you didn’t come to Gloucester,” he said, as a matter of fact. “You would have cried every day,”.
I didn’t question him. I figured I knew what he meant. My grandmother hated me and we both knew it. Burgess was one of her favorites and she doted on him, but I knew he’d been lonely there, too.
In Gloucester, Burgess’s only playmate was Kip—a kid who, at nine-years old, still pooped in his pants. Occasionally, Kip came to my grandparents’ house after school or Burgess went to his. Despite Burgess’s acknowledgement that Gloucester would not have been a good place for me, guilt for bailing on him at the last moment the previous Christmas gnawed at me for decades. Once we were back together, he was often angry, sometimes uncontrollably so. I blamed myself for the change.
As I unpacked this episode with my therapist just last year, I felt the weighty despair that accompanied many of my childhood memories—often with the theme of me somehow abandoning my brother, right up to the night he took his own life on New Year’s Eve, 1989.
“HOW old were you when your uncle offered to keep one of you?” she asked.
“Seven,” I replied.
“And HOW many adults were present?” she probed.
“Six,” I offered.
“WHO asks a CHILD to make a decision like this?” she pressed.
No one had ever put it that way before. A realization dawned on me for the first time in 45 years: I didn’t abandon him. I was not responsible for this whole thing.
“Well,” I replied to her, “I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.”