Six Lessons My Brother Taught Me

For Todd, on National Siblings Day

1. Sometimes you have to leave home to find home.

After my brother Todd, three years my senior, finished college in Georgia, he lived and worked in Athens–arguably one of the best places in a largely conservative state for an intelligent, unconventional, creative-minded twenty-something. After a few years doing quality-control testing in a lab, he decided to take a leap into the unknown: he and one of his best friends moved out west to seek their fortunes.  They visited with our paternal grandmother and family in Texas for a spell, then headed to New Mexico, where they lived with my maternal grandmother, looked for work, and took up rock-climbing. Todd was drawn to the subtle beauty of  the desert, the broad open spaces of the mesa. He felt at home in the west, and it was there he eventually fell in love, got a second degree, found rewarding work, and began raising a family.

Taking me climbing, 1994

Taking me climbing, 1994

Both of us, I think, always felt our southern hometown, though lovely in many ways, was a poor fit, a size too small. And when I found myself in Georgia in my mid-thirties, in need of a fresh start, it was in part my big brother’s example of striking out on his own that emboldened me to sell my house, leave everything I knew, and move to Virginia. It’s probably the single most important choice I made that helped me find my path and figure out my own priorities.

2. “Parent” and “spouse” are roles, not identities—and we play those roles best when we let our essential selves shine through.

Todd with Natasha, 1994

Todd with Natasha, 1994

My niece Natasha was born in August, the same weekend I was loading a moving van to head to Ohio for graduate school.  I didn’t get to meet her until December, when first we gathered, unexpectedly, in Texas for my grandmother’s funeral, then a few weeks later in New Mexico for Christmas. I didn’t realize until I saw Todd with her that for some reason I’d expected him, now that he was a father himself, to have magically morphed into our dad: clean-cut and clean-shaven, sporting khakis and button-downs and suit jackets on Sundays, reserved in demeanor and measured in opinion. Instead, I was surprised to find my brother still very much himself, mischievous sense of humor intact along with his long hair, beard, and preferred wardrobe of jeans, tees, and flannel shirts. He was still forthright and outspoken, unpersuaded by institutionalized religion, and exuberantly excited about Christmas, as he’d always been. He was also clearly besotted with and amazed by this exquisite creature, his newborn daughter. Continue reading

Like Father, Like…Fiancé?

A month or two after Steve and I got engaged, I had lunch with a friend and former colleague, Thomas. Thomas and I go back almost fifteen years, having met the day I started my first full-time faculty position. He and I had both joined the Language and Literature department of a small state university in Georgia in the fall of 2000, I as an assistant professor fresh out of grad school, he as the new department head established in his academic career. He became a valued mentor as we bonded over our shared status as newbies to the college. We’d left Georgia at the same time, as well, when he and his wife Anne Marie moved to Switzerland, where he’d accepted a professorship, the year I moved to Virginia.

We’ve stayed in touch and have found opportunities for the occasional reunion, the last a family holiday gathering in 2011. When Thomas emailed he would be stateside and passing through my stomping grounds in June, I made plans to meet him. Over sandwiches at Panera, he caught me up on his new book and Anne Marie’s library and translation work, and I filled him in on my memoir-in-progress and my engagement to Steve.

Then, Thomas asked me a really interesting question.

“So,” he said, setting his cup on the table and peering at me through wire-rimmed glasses. “I have to ask. After all these years, how did you know?”

“That’s Steve’s the one?” I said. Thomas nodded.

The cynic in me was tempted to reply, because he asked, and no one else ever did. But that wasn’t entirely true, and it wasn’t the real answer to the question, anyway. “Well,” I said. “I guess the first thing that comes to mind is—because of how he treats me. He’s a genuinely good man, and he’s good to me, and it’s…well, it’s easy.”

Thomas gave a nod of recognition and smiled.

“It’s funny,” I continued, “because all these years, people have been telling me things like, when it’s the right one, you’ll know. It will be easy. And I would sort of nod along, yeah, sure.” I sipped my tea. “But I think that’s true. It is easy. Not in the sense that there aren’t complexities. But there is a sense of ease, of rightness. There’s an effortlessness to being together.”

2012 July 112

My dad Garry, professor turned beekeeper

Thomas nodded more vigorously and said, “Yes. Yes, that’s good.”

“And then there’s this other piece that’s going to sound kind of weird,” I said. “Sometimes it seems a little weird to me, anyway.”

Thomas raised his eyebrows.

“Well,” I said, “Steve is the man most like my father of any man I’ve ever dated.”

At that, Thomas burst out laughing. But he kept nodding.

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