September 25, 2021

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Summer Reading Contest Week 10: What Got Your Attention in The Times This Week?

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From the New York Times, I’m Dan Jones.

This week’s essay really surprised me in how it explores what creates real, lasting bonds. You know, sometimes those bonds come from going through really hard times together.

The essay is called “The Secret to Sibling Success.” It’s written by Ellen Umansky and read by Kirsten Potter.

Years ago, my brother and I attended the wedding of a childhood friend, held on a high floor of a stylish San Francisco hotel. We were standing by the floor to ceiling windows, joking with each other, when the sister of the groom approached.

“You guys are so close,” she said. “It must be nice. Tell me, what can I do to make my daughters as close as you are?” Her tone was light, but her eyes were searching.

“You want to know?” Eric said. “I’ll tell you: You and your husband should separate, then go through an ugly divorce. That’ll bring your kids together.”

I cracked up.

“Oh,” she said uncertainly.

“I didn’t say it would be easy,” he added.

I laughed again.

The lights of San Francisco spread below us. The dark waters of the bay eddying beyond. I remember the hesitation in our friend’s voice. The half smile fixed on her face. Eric spoke to her, but his words were for me, as if he were saying: This is our history. We can claim it and make fun of it.

It was snarky and dark, but freeing too. And it made me love him all the more.

When our parents separated, I was 9. My older brother, David, was 12, and Eric was six. Our parents had previously contained their strife behind closed doors, but now no longer had the energy or the will. They loved us deeply, but there were battles to be won. Emotional, reputational, financial. No one behaved well.

My father moved first to a nearby apartment and then to a house, while we stayed put with our mother in our home in the hills of Los Angeles. Ours was a typical ‘80s arrangement. We spent every other weekend with our father and had dinners out with him on Wednesday evenings.

As we tried to adjust to our new reality — shuttling back and forth between households, trying to tune out the fights about money and the sharpness with which they now spoke to each other — my brothers were my one constant and comfort.

We didn’t know we were doing it, but we created a family within a family. My siblings were my allies. We had roles. David became our negotiator, the one who dealt with our parents and the endlessly fraught calendar requests. He was the stalwart who communicated less than pleasant news.

Eric became the cut-up. When our father was dating a younger woman, we got him to greet her by saying, “Hey, sis.” Once when he was eight or nine, he begged for a Casio calculator watch that my father wouldn’t buy for him. I’m sure my father had good reason to say no, but what I remember most was Eric’s crying and my white-hot clarity that he needed protecting, and I was the one to do it.

“Why can’t you be nicer about it?” I screamed at our father — me, who hated arguing above all. “Why do you have to be so mean?”

My siblings and I still bickered constantly. We fought physically. I have a scar on my right hand from an altercation at my grandparents’ house when David, furious, threw me against a cabinet. We were often left to our own devices with little parental supervision. David and I once cajoled Eric to cram himself into our clothes dryer. Another time, we folded him up in the sleeper couch, just to see what would happen. (He was fine!)

My brothers took great pleasure in teasing me for my love of “Little House on the Prairie” and “General Hospital,” for my constant reading, for my crush on the Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax. But we were comrades. When David got his driver’s license at 16, his newfound freedom extended to us. Now he was the one taking us from one house to the other, enabling us to avoid those awkward parental handoffs.

I still remember the spiraling fear I felt when we dropped David off at his college dorm less than 100 miles away. Who would arrange Wednesday night dinners with dad? What would we do with him gone?

As we entered adulthood and moved to different parts of the country, we didn’t need one another as much, but we realized something. We wanted to spend time together. We took a trip without our parents, rafting in southern Oregon. We mused about how nice it would be if we lived in the same city.

When I was going through a rough time in my mid 20s, it was my kid brother, newly graduated from college, who came and slept on the floor of my tiny apartment, not because I had asked him to, but because he sensed that I didn’t want to be alone.

Now, we’re squarely in middle age with families of our own. Our parents moved on from the bitterness. They both remarried, happily, years ago. For us, though, the time of their divorce remains a potent point of reference, a shared experience that offers a wellspring of barbed humor.

We three now live thousands of miles from where we grew up, but within a few miles of one another, just as we talked about when we were younger. We’ve rented summer houses together. For a time, Eric and I worked at the same magazine. Team Umansky, my husband calls us. That closeness gives me a solace I wish I hadn’t needed recently.

Five years ago, at age 69, our mother learned she had a rare aggressive cancer. And in that brutal, overwhelming period, we three relied on one another, taking turns visiting, sharing what little information we had. Last January, she passed away. And since then, the three of us said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer that one traditionally recites for 11 months after a death.

Often, we went to services together. Afterward, we would gossip and get pricey coffee, and avoid our responsibilities, joking about how our mother would approve. Of course, she would. When you recite Kaddish as a mourner, you stand, while everyone else in the congregation remain seated.

In the months after she died, as I rose to say the short prayer, the holidays she loved passed, and my birthday, and hers too, and still she was gone. I would glance out the synagogue window at the tree branches, bare when she died last winter, then full and resplendent for months, and now skeletal again. This passage of time feels at once inconceivable and heartbreakingly normal.

I miss my mother beyond measure. And during Kaddish, I became lost in my thoughts, in my own private mourning, but I stood with my brothers. I heard their voices chanting too. One time, I walked into services, and a woman who was a regular whispered to me, “Your brothers aren’t here yet.” And my heart swelled a little at the idea that even people who barely know me see me as part of this unit.

A few months ago, I was at a child’s party, and a mother there was lamenting how her young daughters didn’t get along. “It’s a parenting fail,” she said. I thought of telling the same divorce joke my brother had made, but I didn’t. I wish I had said what I truly believed. That these things can’t be forced. The best you can do is step back and let alchemy take over.

A couple of years after the divorce, David and I were in our backyard, where he and a friend were fixing up a tiny one-person sailboat they bought, painting it read. Our kitchen faced the backyard with a big window over the sink. And when David went in to wash his hands, I had a decent view of him.

He turned on the sink disposal. I heard the grinding noise. And then I’ll never forget, he began screaming, holding up his red, dripping hands. I shrieked. His hands, caught, mangled. Then he pulled open the screen door with disarming ease and bounded outside laughing. “It’s a joke; it’s just the paint,” he said, coming over. “See? I’m fine. I’m completely fine.”

“I hate you,” I said, crying, turning away from him. My heart knotted up in equal parts fear and fury. “I really, really hate you.”

I have two daughters of my own now, three years apart as my brothers and I are. My daughters are nothing alike. They rarely play together. They are not each other’s best friends. But in moments of true despair, I have seen them reach for each other. And for that, I’m grateful. The rest, we will just have to see.

After the break, a Tiny Love Story about a brother and sister who hold each other up when the rest of their family is falling apart.

Thank you.

My name is Kim Addonizio. And I’m going to read my piece, “Trusting the Edge.” A family holiday card that year would have shown our faces scratched out. Father dead. Mother in assisted living. One brother in a coma. I just broken up with a dishonest, possibly-cheating-on-me-boyfriend.

My brother Gary took me ice skating at the local rink. He was graceful and fluid. I tottered on wobbly ankles. He skated over with ibuprofen, a Walkman and headphones. Coltrane was playing “My Favorite Things.” “Trust the edge,” Gary said.

Soon, I was gliding along, no longer depressed or caring if I fell. I knew he would be there to help me up.

Yeah. That dates it, doesn’t it? It was probably about 12 to 15 years ago.

And how old were you at the time, and how old was Gary?

Let’s see, I would have been about 50, I’m thinking. And Gary’s a year younger. But I’ve always thought of him as my twin. Like we weren’t quite separated at birth, but I feel like our mother’s egg split, and one of us just stayed in the womb an extra year and then came out. So I’m the older twin.

We’re just really, really similar. I really do feel like we share a lot of the same cells somehow. We have the same sort of dark sense of humor. We can talk on the phone and laugh for an hour, which we do quite often. And he’s just one of those warm, witty people that makes everybody around him happy.

Can you tell me more about what was happening in your life during the year that you describe in the story?

Yeah. So my brother Jon had had a liver transplant a few years ago. And he went in the hospital for a biopsy and ended up, they had him in an induced coma. So he’d been in an induced coma for about a month at this time, at Christmas time. My mother is in assisted living with Parkinson’s, trying to button her sweater and refusing to drink her Ensure.

And my ex-husband, who I had gotten back together with after several years apart, we had bought a little house in Oakland together. And then it turned out that he was less than honest about some financial matters. And then snoop that I am, of course at that point I went looking through his email. And it turned out he was less than honest about some sexual matters too.

So we were breaking up, and my ex is living in the basement of our house like a troll or a golem. And I’ve run away from all that and come to D.C. And so that was sort of the situation that was happening that year and especially at Christmas.

No. But my brother had introduced me to ice skating. We did it as kids on the Potomac. And on Christmas, he saw that I was really depressed and unhappy. And he just said, hey, let’s go ice skating.

And then, so it seemed like you had kind of a tough time on the ice as well?

Yeah because we didn’t do it that often. So it had been a long time since I skated. And my brother just going backwards around the rink, doing beautiful things. And he’s so graceful and fluid. And I’m, like, just kind of tottering along, trying to keep it together, and feeling like, was this really a good idea? Maybe I should have just stayed home and gotten drunk or something. And just wanting to get away from it all.

And then of course, there I am with headphones on and John Coltrane is playing music in my ears. And the aspirin is kicking in. And suddenly, everything just kind of changes and turns into a place where there I am. It’s just pure presence now. And I’m just there skating and happy. It’s just one of those moments of grace.

And then your brother, he says this thing to you which feels so resonant and meaningful: “Trust the edge.” What did that mean to you at the time?

Yeah. It’s, of course, literally, when you skate, you just have to commit. Like anything, you have to commit to that moment. And trusting that the edge of the blade is going to keep you on the ice. And so you have to lean in a bit in order to do that.

And I think it’s just the perfect metaphor for what was happening. Being on that edge, and knowing that everything was uncertain and not knowing what was going to happen next. And then just having a moment of trust to say, OK, things will work out.

How else has your brother been there for you throughout your life? I know you feel like you guys are twins.

Yeah. Especially I think as we’ve gotten older, and we’re all in different parts of the country, and my family was never really that close a family. So he’s the one I’m closest to. And I just think more and more, we’ve become best friends over the years. But he’s just always been there to help me out.

When I was in New York for three years, I moved there with very little and was sort of going sublet to sublet. And Gary came up to visit me on the train, and he brought me a guitar, because he knew I’d left a lot of my instruments on the West Coast.

And so he just brought me a guitar that he had and said, here, I thought you could use it to do some playing while you’re in New York. And that’s the kind of thing he would do often. Just pass something along or give me something that I didn’t realize I needed until I did.

Thank you, so much, Kim. It was lovely talking to you.

Bye, take care.

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero, with help from Hans Buetow and Tracey Mumford. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. The executive producer is Wendy Dorr. This episode was mixed by Corey Schreppel. Original music by Marion Lozano.

This week’s essay was written by Ellen Umansky and read by Kirsten Potter. Kim Addonizio wrote our Tiny Love Story. Special thanks to Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick and Ryan Wegner at Audm.

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