The Younger Brother

by Leonore Hildebrandt

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My mother loved her younger brother, but I feared him. His rules. His threats. Even though I never witnessed it, I believed in the power of his “green stick” to instill order. The children had to finish their plates of unsweetened porridge. They were expected not to speak at the table. Once—on a whim—he told me to repeat in front of people a phrase in a foreign language. He tried and tried, but he could not make me do it. And I could not hold in my tears. No one intervened. Later I would have words for his affliction.

My mother loved her younger brother. On visits, they’d smoke together—she cigarettes, he cigars. She praised his sense of humor. His success. His generosity. He had me join his large family in places my parents could not afford. I’d be put on a train along with instructions: behave and be grateful. As a child, he had been sent to a boarding school far away. He would write to my mother, homesick and sad. Both of them knew that sons were expected to expand their father’s lifework.

My mother loved her younger brother even when he was demented and feeble. They put him into a modest nursing home right in the small town he had come from. His children, who had moved far away by then, set up his large mahogany desk in the room. It still had all its trappings. He would shuffle around with a walker carrying his executive’s briefcase. To prevent injuries, the nurse put a helmet on him.

My mother loved her younger brother. She felt guilty in her old age when she could not travel to see him. One day in winter she asked me to drive her up. There he was—crestfallen, talking nonsense—and I thought I could forgive him. His mind and body were too small to house my hurt. He seemed to recognize me, so I smiled. My mother and I sang children’s songs, and he remembered some of the words.

Once he had me waiting for what seemed like a very long time. I stood in the snow in a small Alpine town. People were passing by. Do children learn by doing to be left on their own? When he swooped in—finally —he was in a great mood, pleased with himself, hungry for admiration. He used to quote Goethe’s Faust: “In the beginning was the deed!” My mother would object, saying that Dr. Faust was deliberately mistranslating “logos” which means “reasoned discourse” or “living word.” Still, she loved her younger brother. But his son, the sweet little boy who grew up to inherit their childhood home, was quick to chop down the grand trees in the yard.

end of story

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