Saturday, May 30, 2009

Remembering my Brother

Today, May 30, would be the "real" Memorial Day, the traditional (even if not the original) day for remembering and honoring fallen veterans. It also was my oldest brother's birthday, May 30, 1942.

Perhaps that is why my mother, now aged 90 and still remarkably fit though with failing memory, remarked several times last week that she didn't like the way Memorial Day has been moved around and was happening "a whole week too soon." For her, Memorial Day was also Dicky's birthday, firmly fixed on May 30.

I never knew my oldest brother. He died on Thanksgiving Day, 1949, just seven and a half years old. He had been born a "blue baby" with a congenital "hole in his heart," or that's how I remember it being described when I was a child. It's the kind of impairment that would now be straightforwardly repaired, perhaps even in utero, or most certainly in infancy. But in 1942, from the day Dicky was born, my parents knew that he would not likely live a very long life and that he wouldn't enjoy a vigorously active childhood.

I remember my brother mostly from a few photographs. His short life and his death weren't talked about, but his name was mentioned every night of my early childhood when my father said bedtime prayers with me (and, I'm guessing, with my sister, as perhaps he had done earlier with my brothers). 

"God bless Mummy and Daddy and Dicky and David and Jonny and Peggy and Sukie and everybody." That's how it went. Was it right after he recited the Lord's Prayer? Did I say the prayer along with my dad, or did I just listen? I'm not sure.

Several years ago I used to meet fairly regularly with my friend (and former high school classmate) Patty. As she was working on an MFA in Poetry and had lots of poems to write, I tried to ride the coattails of her motivation in order to write poems of my own to bring to our cups of tea. At one point she was working with the discipline of poetic forms--sonnets, villanelles, etc.--and she challenged me to write a villanelle before our next get-together.

(I had written one villanelle in a college poetry class. It was about rowing, or watching the crew of an eight-oared shell, first carrying the boat and then rowing on a calm river. A villanelle has two lines that repeat in a specific sequence throughout the poem, and I still remember those two lines: "Now on their straining shoulders raise it high" and "The river mirror wobbles back the sky.")

You may be wondering why I've digressed so drastically in this post, so let me return to the villanelle I wrote four or five years ago. It was about my brother, and more specifically about a photograph of my three brothers, probably taken in the summer before Dicky died. That photo, and one other of Dicky alone, were my primary access to my brother whom I never knew and whose death, I can only intuit, so deeply impacted my parents and my family before I was ever born. The photos both fascinated and haunted me.

You will find the poem in the next post. When I am able, I will post a copy of that photograph of Dicky and my brothers.

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