Thinking of My Brothers in Shantung on the Ninth Day of the Ninth Month
Alone now in a strange country,
feeling myself a stranger,
On this bright festival day
I doubly pine for my kinsfolk.
Far away, I know my brothers
will be climbing the heights
With dogwood sprays in their jackets,
and one man missing!
Wang Wei (699 - 759)
What Are Little Boys Made Of?
What are little boys made of?
"Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That's what little boys are made of !"
What are little girls made of?
"Sugar and spice and all things nice
That's what little girls are made of!"
- Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme -
In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.
© 1986 Li-Young Lee
There they both were, making their way through the neighbourhood towards our house. They had just run a marathon and their faces grimaced as they walked like decrepit old men, conversing with each other. It was almost comical to watch. It was obvious that their bodies, especially their legs, were aching. I vaguely remember the two of them talking about training for the marathon, each one in his own different way. My mind's eye still sees my two oldest brothers walking together. The way I remembered it, one was more athletic than the other and I wonder whatever possessed them to take part in an event as grueling as a marathon. I never asked. I never found out. But I remember.
My third oldest brother's birthday was approaching. I don't know how it came to be or what my thought process was but I decided to arrange a surprise birthday party for him. I knew he had lots of friends as he was almost always out with them during the weekends, sometimes coming home in the wee hours of the morning. He was the quiet sort but also had many friends, it seemed. Who was to question how or why. There were no rules and people couldn't always be boxed into specific categories. I certainly found that out whilst growing up.
I didn't know his friends personally but I managed to call up one of them from work. It was a huge step for me to approach someone in that manner. But I was doing it for my brother. He deserved it. I wanted it to turn out well and the only way it could be accomplished was with the help of his band of male friends. If I'm not mistaken, I called one friend but it was another that called me back later and he was the one I consulted and planned with. There were a few phone calls back and forth. I ordered the cake and arranged for one of the neighbourhood guys to collect it. He was someone that I knew rather well so I wasn't shy about delegating some of the work to him.
There were a few mishaps along the way and I also was sick in bed for a few days with stomach flu. What else could go wrong? Once I recuperated and regained my strength, I wondered what I had started and vowed never to plan another surprise event again. But his friend - the one I had made arrangements with - seemed enthusiastic and was keen for my brother to be surprised with a gathering of his family and friends back in our home. All in all, it turned out rather well, and my brother was genuinely surprised. I was happy for him and I wanted him to be happy. He was really the middle child of the family. I'd always treasured childhood photographs of us and later as adults although it was obvious that we went our separate ways as teenagers. An old diary entry relates the time a boy telephoned me at home - I was in my early or mid teens - and asked if I would go out with him if one of my brothers acted as chaperone. He said he was a friend of my brother's but never said which one. I think I kept telling him I wouldn't as I was too shy (yet I was bold enough to tell him that I was too shy). He seemed persistent enough as he called a few times. It turned out that he was my third brother's friend and he was called to the telephone. I heard my brother saying something to the effect that his friend shouldn't have done such a thing. I don't remember if my brother ever said anything to me and I wondered if he disapproved of his friend's actions. I also wondered if his friend had really wanted to take me out or was he just having some fun with me. My opinion of teenaged boys went downhill for a while after that little experience.
I remember baking a chocolate cake for my younger brother's birthday when I was in my teens. I didn't know anything about icing a cake and thought it needed some decoration. With the aid of a can of whipped cream, I pressed on the nozzle and created his initial on the cake. It didn't look terribly impressive but at least it was no longer bare.
Then there were the few times that my second oldest brother asked me to wrap a present for his girlfriend. We were still teenagers then. He was either lazy or didn't think he would do a good job of it. I tried to be as creative as I could, wanting the wrapping to look as attractive as possible. And he seemed to appreciate it.
And I can't forget the gifts that my oldest brother bought for me, especially for me: a dance poster because I loved ballet, a book of poetry and books on writing because I enjoyed William Blake's poems and I loved to write, a Queen t-shirt because I loved the rock group, Queen. And he was the one who bought me my first issue of Dance Magazine as he happened to see it at a newsstand. That was how I knew the magazine was available locally and I started to buy it monthly. He bought it for me - me - because he knew of my newly discovered passion for ballet. It was a thoughtful gesture on his part. And I had taken it for granted all those years ago. I even remember the cover of that issue: a smiling male dancer in the midst of a leap with his knees out to the side, a member of the Basle Ballet, a Swiss ballet company. How could I not remember?
A few years ago, I created a web page for my brothers but mentioned several incidents which specifically involved my third oldest brother as he, too, had left to start life anew in a foreign country. I even emailed him about it. When my younger brother later visited him and his wife, the latter told him that when our third brother read the web page, he was a little choked up, which naturally amused my younger brother. I was very glad that they saw the page. It was sincere and from the heart and I certainly felt exposed after I realised more family members had viewed it. But it was also a good feeling.
I miss my brothers. I miss them more than they can possibly realise. During our childhood, there was teasing and playfulness. There was also unkind teasing which probably made me stay away from them and I wondered why they had to do it in the first place.
My third brother and I are only a year apart. There is also only a year's difference between him and our second oldest brother. I'd often wished that I was closer to them. And now that I feel closer to them in our later years, especially to my third brother, I don't want even more years to slip away from us. But of course they will for that is how life is especially when we all live so far apart from one another.
The memories, big and small, are either clear or vague.
My second brother, who was in the kitchen, heard me say "Hi!" with enthusiasm out in the living-room. He came out and asked who had arrived. I said no one, I was just saying hi to the dog. Spending time with my younger brother as he played the piano or the organ at home. We both loved classical music and, in time, it was as if he was the master and I was the student as I sought his advice and views on music pieces and operas.
If I had children of my own, would I think of my brothers this much? Or is it because I live so far away from them? Or maybe it's because one tends to reminisce even more as one gets older. If I had children of my own, would I tell them stories about their uncles? Maybe I would. Maybe I would relate childhood tales of swimming together in the sea or the time we linked arms and walked towards the swimming pool until we fell into the water.
I'm not the first sister to write about her brothers and I certainly won't be the last. When I was a teenager and reading a magazine for young girls, there was a letter from a girl who wrote in response to someone else who wished that she was closer to her older brother. The girl who responded wrote about being outside with her brother as he was fixing his bicycle and helping him once in a while, and that it was a start. So I knew even then that there were other sisters - especially younger sisters - in other parts of the world who longed to be closer to their older brothers.
I once wrote that I could never stop writing about my brothers. I write for myself, to preserve the memories, for they are so important to me. My father betrayed my trust in him but my brothers - even though I thought they were perfect idiots at times - were always there for me, sometimes in ways that I couldn't, or didn't, recognise at the time. Or even if they weren't there for me, even if I felt as if they didn't care, a part of me still longed for that connection with them. It was easier with my younger brother as we spent a lot of our childhood together as well as with our cousins. It took time to get to know my older brothers again especially my third brother. That is why I seem to write about him more and more these days. The heart never forgets, you see, and never will forget.
It especially won't forget the night I went out on the porch where my second oldest brother was either cleaning, or tinkering with, his motorcycle. I had an unpleasant experience with my father - nothing overt, it was subtle, but it scared me - and I got up to get away from him. Even those memories are getting vague as time goes on. I went outside and my second brother was there. And there was a moment when I wanted to tell him what our father did. It felt natural - and safe - to be out there with him. But of course I didn't tell him, not then. And I miss my brothers so much. I suppose what it boils down to is being safe with them and rediscovering them.
The connection has been made. It's usually unspoken where my older brothers are concerned - my younger brother has been more open - but I think we all realise that the connection has been made. When I think back to my teens, I sometimes think that my oldest brother tried to make that connection early on. I was a dreamer in my own little world, afraid to come out.
So now I not only write about that fictitious brother in my stories - that ideal older brother - but I also write about my real brothers. And the truth is, I not only enjoy writing about them, but I have to write about them, whatever the pages are about.
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