August 1939 my baby brother was born. I am 3 1/2. My father is working in Washington, D.C., in the Justice Department chasing the purveyors of Nazi propaganda on our shores. My mother, all 4 feet, 11 inches of her, sobs and sobs in her hospital bed overlooking the East River in New York City. She knows what my father has been up to in that distant city. She has told her sister. Her sister shrugged. My mother has reason to weep.
I wait with our Bavarian nurse Geigi on the steps of the house that has been rented for the summer in Lawrence, Long Island. One of the five towns near the ocean. Geigi is weaving a blue ribbon through the slats of a white wicker crib. I am sitting beside her making futile efforts to tie my shoelaces. A boy, a boy, says the cook, a boy, a boy, says the gardener. A boy, says the maid who makes the beds and dusts the shelves. Everyone is pleased the new arrival is a boy. I understand clearly that the new baby is a boy and that everyone thinks this is an improvement over the girl that had come before—me: I pretend I don’t mind.
A boy, a boy, a brother for me.
The boy is named after my father. Eugene Frederick Roth Jr. It was not done among Jews to name a child after a living person but my mother knew it would be hard to connect my father to the child. He was a lawyer. He called women, “dumb broads,” or “pushy dames.” He was not so easily overcome by female wiles. There was a nurse, my nurse to attend to the baby’s survival. My mother lay in her bed and the maid brought her breakfast on a tray and she wept some more. And the maid brought her bowls of ice so her eyelids wouldn’t swell. My tall handsome father did what he did. He had monograms on his shirts and on his white handkerchiefs. He played squash. He played tennis. Everywhere there were dames, broads.
He is back in New York. He is the lawyer for my mother’s family business, Van Heusen shirts, founded from a pushcart by her father and grandfather. My mother is an heiress: unluckily for her.
Geigi moves out of my room into the baby’s.
My brother is sickly. He gets bronchial infections and asthma attacks and our nurse must spend time at his bedside. A kettle boils, steam rises, a sheet forms a tent above his bed. He wheezes, he coughs. I am alone in the other room, not allowed near the sick boy, what if I gave him a germ from the park bench or the school roof, or what if I had not washed my hands properly after using the bathroom. I worried he might die. I also considered the possibility that this horrible event might improve my life in miraculous ways. He lived to get sick again and again.
Our mother is afraid she will harm an ailing child so she stays away from his room. She doesn’t come into mine. The nurse who is hired to work when Geigi is off (Thursday and every other Sunday afternoon) is named Miss Hartung. She wears Oxford shoes and dark stockings and is always afraid I will get myself dirty, causing her extra work. I avoid her. I go into my closet and play with my stuffed animals. In my games there are baby bears, baby cats, baby rabbits. I care for each of them tenderly. So it is that affection nourishes itself and bides its time.
My brother is called Johnny because we can’t have two Genes in the family.
My parents are screaming at each other. I hear their words clearly. I am standing in the hall, my leather leggings on, my wool coat buttoned. I don’t sit down because we are not allowed to sit on the red satin chairs in the hall. I have a hat with earmuffs on my head. My brother is also dressed in his coat and hat. He doesn’t want to go out. He has protested, but in vain. My father doesn’t want to take us to the park. My mother insists he must. My father wants to go to his club and talk with his friends. My mother shrieks and says she can’t go on like this and so the scene is played as it always was played. This time he takes us out. He takes us to the entrance of the park where there is a large red phone booth. He goes into the phone booth and we wait outside. We can’t hear his words. He is talking and talking. We are cold and there is no place to sit. I read his lips. “Darling,” he says to someone. Not me.
At last he comes out of the phone booth. We go to the little lake that has a little mock castle at the top of a small hill of jagged rocks. We are going to climb the rocks. I am brave. I leap across what seems like a gaping canyon. I want my father to see how fearless and strong I am. My brother will not climb a rock. He stands at the bottom and waits. I want my father to be pleased. He is not particularly pleased. It is his son who should dash across rocks and follow him to what to me seemed like great heights.
We would soon enough be home.
My brother plays the piano. He plays it very well. I am tone deaf. I am not interested in the piano or the piano teacher. I want to play tennis with my father. I want to play catch with my father. He is not interested. My brother practices the piano. My father never listens to my brother play. He has no interest in music of any kind. On weekends my father plays golf at his club in Westchester or he leaves early in the morning for breakfast at his club in New York or he has other appointments. He stops taking us to the park.
I sit on the floor of my mother’s bathroom beside her tub. There are soap suds floating near. Should I divorce him? she asks me as she soaks away the previous night’s scotch. I am 8 years old. No, I say. You can’t, I say. I gave her very bad advice.
Geigi sleeps in my brother’s room. He is at school during the day. Geigi stays with us. Taking me to play dates with friends. My brother doesn’t have friends but I do. I don’t like having a nurse take me and pick me up but I have no choice. My brother has a Lionel train set that curls round and round the carpet in his room. It has signal lights and crossing gates and little houses with trees in front. I am jealous of his train set. He won’t let me run the trains. I don’t care. I want to rearrange the little houses, move the stationmaster about. I want to put the trees together to make a small forest. He won’t let me touch any of it. All right. I go read a book.
My brother plays chess. He plays it very well. He beats me all the time. Why? He explains that he thinks four moves ahead and I don’t think ahead at all. I try but I can’t. My brother collects stamps. I lose everything I have, gloves, hats, bracelets. I shed objects. He holds on.
For a long time we eat dinner on a small table in my brother’s room and then we are moved to the big dining room. There we sat at a long blond Danish modern table that will seat 14. The cook prepares the food. Geigi brings it to us along with her own dinner. And then my brother stops eating. Our mother is going to poison him he tells me. I am 12. He is 9. I know this is nonsense. How do I know it? She is never in the kitchen. It is the cook who doesn’t like either of us who cooks the food. I know she isn’t going to poison him because my mother gets the Reader’s Digest and I read all the articles, even those that make no sense to me. I know because I know my mother. The idea is ridiculous. But my brother is not convinced, so I take a bite of everything on his plate and we wait a good 10 minutes to see if I am going to die. If nothing happens my brother will eat. He is very thin. I am not.
She is never in the kitchen, I say. She is, he says at night when we are asleep.
One night when Geigi is visiting her sister and no replacement has been hired we wait up and hide behind the little couch outside the kitchen entrance. The house is dark. We are both half asleep in our hiding places when my mother in her nightgown opens the door to her room and comes to the kitchen. She fixes herself a sandwich which we can see on a plate that she carries back to her bed. You see, said my brother. She does go into the kitchen.
The Reader’s Digest is full of news about psychiatrists and Freudian psychoanalysts and the word neurosis has been explained to me by my mother and so I know. My brother needs a psychiatrist. I have promised him not to tell her. He thinks she will kill us both. One afternoon after school on Geigi’s day off I take my brother down the elevator and out to Park Avenue. Every building along the street has doctor’s offices on either side of the awning entrance. I ring a bell just down a few blocks and a doctor comes to the door himself, not his nurse as happened in the first few stops. This doctor invites us in and he listens to me and talks to my brother privately in his office while I wait on a chair and read an old copy of Life magazine and he asks me our telephone number and he calls my mother and so it was that my brother began to see a child psychiatrist and he soon stopped thinking he was being poisoned.
My brother is seeing a famous child analyst named Berta Bornstein. She studied with Freud. Berta Bornstein meets with my mother. My mother takes me out one afternoon to Schrafft’s on 88th Street and Madison Avenue. I order a chocolate soda. I am happy to be with my mother. Cigarette ashes spill across the table. A long ruby red nail is cracked. She tells me that from now on she must pay more attention to my brother. He needs her company. Dr. Bornstein told her that. I am a big girl, too big for what happens next. I weep, and my tears are unstoppable. People at nearby tables are looking. My mother is embarrassed. I cannot stop sobbing. I have been stabbed. I wipe my face with a napkin, my napkin is soaked. My world is ending. My mother is leaving me for him.
Fortunately, she couldn’t really. I kept her company after school. I waited patiently outside her door on weekend mornings. I sat at the edge of her bed while she had her breakfast and talked on the telephone to her sister. I listened carefully. I had opinions. I began reading the stories in the The New Yorker and I had thoughts. I sat at the edge of her tub while she put on her makeup.
Then it was time for my brother’s bar mitzvah. We were members of the Park Avenue Synagogue. My father never attended. He went to his club on the High Holidays.
The rabbi was the famous Milton Steinberg. I wanted to learn Hebrew. No, said my mother. Girls don’t learn Hebrew. Girls were given a confirmation at the synagogue in a group. They wore white dresses and each held a flower and they did not speak Hebrew. I would not be confirmed. I did not have the word feminism in my vocabulary. But fair is fair and I didn’t think this was fair. I asked my brother to give me his Hebrew workbooks when he was done. Only if you give me your weekly allowance, he said. And I want your pearls. I didn’t care much about the pearls but I soon needed my allowance. I gave up. He didn’t return my pearls.
One June when I was 12 my mother hired a Columbia graduate student, Neil from Yugoslavia, to live with us. He was supposed to play ball with my brother, my mother explained. My brother did not want to play ball but I did. Neil was supposed to go biking with my brother. I went for long bike rides with Neil. I was sad when Neil went back to the city. My brother was not. It was Dr. Bornstein’s idea to hire a male to show my brother how to be a male. I did not understand what was going on. I practiced my social skills with Neil. I thought I loved him.
And then my brother did a strange thing. He became very religious. He insisted on going up to a shul in the Bronx where he could learn more Hebrew and Talmud and he learned Aramaic and he picked up Yiddish somewhere. He had a gift for languages. He also grew round and pale and his shoulders hunched over. My father in his camel-hair coat with his soft leather briefcase and his gray fedora did not want to be seen with him in the elevator or anywhere else. My brother would not eat at the dinner table any more. My mother gave him money to purchase his own food at the Madison Avenue Deli. It was a kosher deli. My brother pressed his body against the far wall if he passed me anywhere. He wouldn’t let me in his room any more. I might have been menstruating. I might have been unclean.
And then one day I came home from school and my mother was in her bedroom, weeping as loud as I had ever seen her. This time it wasn’t anything my father had done. It was my brother, something awful, something so unspeakable that she couldn’t tell me, had been uncovered. What? What I begged her tell me. No, she said, the shame is too great. I will never tell you. Of course finally she almost told me. She said that Johnny had been found with his only friend in a closet at the friend’s house and he had been masturbating. Really! I hadn’t thought of boys touching themselves but now I did. Was it so terrible and if so why? My mother swore me to secrecy. Don’t tell anyone, she said. I didn’t. The shame, she said, would kill her.
When my brother went to Columbia in his freshman year he became more interested in Proust than in God and his interest in religion faded away but his Yiddish accent, his love of Jewish jokes, his pale face, his hunched shoulders, his not-quite-shaved round face, his fresh-off-the-boat grimace, these remained. His hatred of sports, his love of classical music all remained.
My father was 6-foot-1. Johnny, who now wanted to be called Gene was only 5-foot-7 or 8 inches. He spoke French and Italian and he picked up Spanish and he knew Hebrew. He really knew Hebrew although he never appeared in a synagogue again. Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann received all the adoration that had previously been granted to the Voice in the Whirlwind. He gave me Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice to read.
At age 21, just like most of my peers, I got married. My brother went to medical school and is on his way to become a research hematologist at Albert Einstein in the Bronx.
I have a 1-year-old daughter and my mother, our mother, is diagnosed with cancer. A mole that she had ignored on her calf would take about a year to kill her.
My marriage ends. My brother takes some photographs of my daughter. I am grateful. I marry again, a psychoanalyst whom I will cleave to ever after. I have two more girls and a stepdaughter. I become a writer. I write.
My brother gets married. He is very, very angry at his father-in-law who had, without knocking, opened the door to his daughter’s bedroom on the morning after the wedding night. My brother will never speak to his father-in-law again . He speaks of this violation over and over again as if Nazi Germany had invaded France in another surprise attack. It can never be forgiven.
My brother has a son. He will not let him take a cookie from the plate until the 3-year-old says the word for cookie in French and Hebrew and Italian. My brother will not play ball with his child. He wants him to be a violinist.
One summer my brother is in the hospital. Hepatitis, he says. He comes home pale and still yellow and frail. He is mostly bald and sad eyed. His Jewish jokes have become mean, or so I think.
A year later he tells me a secret. He has AIDS. He says he injected himself with contaminated blood in his lab.
For a while he was unchanged. But within some months he lost weight. He was weak. He was hospitalized for this or that infection. He told his son that he had AIDS but he also added that if he told anyone, a friend, a teacher, a doctor, that his father had AIDS, he would be disinherited and disowned. So my sweet, smart nephew was alone with his terrible secret that no one must ever discover.
My doctor husband has patients who became infected through husbands who led secret lives. He has two such women patients who are dying. My brother is in the hospital in New Haven. I go to visit him. I had brought him flowers that sit in a glass vase by his bedside. A black Baptist minister enters the room to offer the comfort of God. He is young and scared and my brother yells at him to get out of the room. Then my brother picks up the vase of flowers and throws it at the trembling chaplain, missing his head by inches. The glass shatters over the floor. The chaplain flees. I run after him to apologize but he has gone from the floor.
Soon enough it is my brother’s 53rd birthday. My brother has a port in his chest through which antibiotics flow into his body through a pole and a plastic bag for three hours at a time. We gather in his apartment. His wife presents a birthday cake and one of my daughters urges him to blow out the candles. He yells at her. You want me to give you AIDS? You’re stupid, he tells her. My breath on the cake could kill you. He yells at all of us who don’t understand the terrible power of the invisible microbe that is pursuing him. My sister-in-law takes the cake and cuts the pieces in the kitchen.
She is a good pianist. She has refused to play for him for some time now. Why? She had her reasons. It had been a union for the sake of the child. Or perhaps for Bach or Beethoven? But then in those years shame was as catching as the common cold and perhaps at the center of this marriage a despair sat screaming out into the night, “I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.” But then I could be wrong, perhaps love found other routes and had more tones than I could imagine. His wife was a very private person. I wonder but do not know. How did their story become one story and in the end was there more bitterness than love or more love than bitterness?
No one blames the fox whose foot is caught in a trap. Ah poor fox, poor fox’s mate.
My brother tells me and my husband of his plans. When he fears he will lose the ability to walk he will take the chemicals he has in his cabinet and pour them into the port that has been inserted in his chest for the hours-long delivery of antibiotics required daily. The brew he has kept will kill him within 10 or 15 minutes. He will die in his bed.
He tells us that we must follow his instructions. He wants no public funeral. Only my husband and my nephew and my brother’s wife are allowed to come to the gravesite. There is to be no other ceremony. He wants the Hebrew letters taken off the plain pine box. God deserves silence. We are not allowed to talk to each other. Must not gather after the burial in someone’s house. No shiva is allowed. This God, he says, is not worthy of our prayer. Ignore Him, he says.
And soon thereafter I visit him and notice that he has great trouble walking up the stairs. The next morning my sister-in-law calls. He is gone.
We go with her to Riverside Memorial Chapel. My husband identifies the body. The funeral attendants say they can’t take the Hebrew letters off the coffin. My husband says we will go elsewhere. They find a way to remove the letters. The following morning we go to the cemetery: As instructed, only my sister-in-law, my nephew, and my husband and me. My brother has told us no one is to speak at his graveside. Not one word, he has said. It is raining hard. We have umbrellas. We stand at the edge of the gravesite which has been opened by three workers who are waiting for us. The only sound is the rain, heavy and loud pounding on the umbrellas, the rain on the car roof. My nephew, now 19 years old, a spindly boy with glasses and his father’s fondness for books, reaches for the gravedigger’s shovel. He wants to fill the grave with dirt himself. The shovel is heavy. The rain is torrential. He stands at the side of the grave and after a few shovels he begins to slide down in the mud. A gravedigger mumbles something about union rules and grabs the shovel as my nephew is slipping down and the dirt flows forward. Silently we go back to our separate homes.
Of course if my brother is angry at God for the creation of the AIDS virus then he is a poor sort of atheist. His fury at the Deity seems both absurd and valiant to me. He is entitled to the logical contradictions forged in the fire of his reality. His mouth was filled with sores. His skin was a patchwork of infections. Something was growing in his eye socket backwards toward his brain. His mind whirled with thoughts that he could not contain and visions of things that were not real and each night had brought dreams of torture.
I decide to honor him by writing a book on his work in his lab. I go to talk to the head of the lab who tells me in no uncertain terms. Gene did not get AIDS through a needle, nor was the illness a result of working in his lab. When the staff had gone to New Orleans for a convention some years before, Gene had avoided a dinner with colleagues and later his lab mates had all seen him leaving a gay strip bar with a young man in tow. They saw him with other men. They knew what I did not know.
I did not write that book.
And then it was clear. But it was not all right. I had not known him as a sister should have known her brother. I was his keeper and I failed. But he didn’t want me to know his secrets.
I don’t believe in secrets and I never will.
This is not a Jewish joke although it might sound like one.
In the end he was a believer. More Job than Jacob but a believer still. God was a God whom he could not forgive, which is a very believing thing to say.
He was my rival when he should have been my family.
If only I had been able to say to him:
I will be your shelter from the world.
You are fine in your body.
You are fine in your loves.
I will be by your side as a sister always.
Let me come to you, the hidden you, the real you.
But I was envious.
I did not want to see him in my place in the chair by my mother’s bed.
I was jealous of his gift for languages.
I was jealous of his gift for math.
He was almost bald. He was nearsighted.
He walked with stooped shoulders. He avoided the sun. (It gave my mother melanoma.)
He also did not like some of my children.
Still I should have been more generous of heart.
I failed him.
I had my reasons.
They were not good enough.
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