My Birthday Was Plural
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on April 18, 2010
Birthdays were never an egocentric event for me. My brother and I, although a year apart, shared the same birthday month, so my parents always combined the two into one party, one song. You know how people sing it, Happy Birthday to so-and-so? Ours were always together, Happy Birthday John and Terry. As a result, I think, I never thought of a birthday as a focus on me alone. This is a little odd, since some psychologists believe children under the age of 7 reason egocentrically, believing that their view of the world is the same as anyone else’s view. However, I at least saw that the world didn’t center around just me, but included my brother.
I remember much of my childhood, but not all. However, I can interpolate some things. I have no idea what my first birthday was like, although my mother was about to give birth to my brother, so I’m certain that weighed heavily on my parent’s minds. Knowing them, I assume they used the occasion to have family over for cake. What was my second birthday like? Well, I don’t know, but with John one year old, they might not have wanted people over so things stayed a little quieter. At that age, I wouldn’t have cared. I know we were a handful. By my third birthday, I’m sure the tradition got started to have both our birthdays on the same day. There were no other children as yet, and mom would have wanted to light candles and teach us to blow them out. The difficulty would have been in trying to teach us our numbers, because John needed two, and I needed three. She baked two cakes! By the age of four, John and I knew the drill. When October came around, and my mom started baking, we knew what to expect. We knew there would be a cake with four candles for me, and a cake with three candles for him. At the time, I remembered that previous birthday, my third, but that memory is long gone now.
You may well ask how I remember my fourth birthday at all, but I think it was the trauma of moving. I can’t remember the place we moved from anymore, but it had a long stairway outside the building. I remember being forced into a car, and driving a long way to the new place. The car was green, the rear sloped in a continuous curve from roof to fender. The inside had a cloth-covered ceiling. I remember that cloth, because in later years, it was loose, ripped, and always falling down. At the time, I didn’t pay it much attention, because I was more excited about where we had arrived. It was a small house, but it had a grass-covered front lawn. We had not had one of those before. My parents seemed happy about that, but, compared to the other lawns in the neighborhood, ours looked different. It hadn’t been mowed in a long time. It was wild and tall. I liked it, but, of course, no lawn is ever allowed to be like that for long. I suspect that is when my dad bought his first lawn mower, because by the time I was ten, we had moved twice again, my bother and I had the job of mowing, and that thing seemed ancient.
Those old push mowers were something else. I delighted in the spinning blades, each one of which curved in a broad sweep, much like present-day wind turbines. To my ten-year-old brain, the blades should have been straight, but somewhere along the line, people had figured out how to cut grass more efficiently. Often the blades would be near-dull, and pushing that thing through the grass was not my idea of fun. It was however, not something I had to do, but something John and I had to do.
We were sidekicks. From birthdays to work, we did everything together. Hell, we even got punished together. My father, discovering something broken or missing, would confront us. If neither one of us owned up to it, he said we would both be punished. Punishments ran a wide gamut then, from standing in a corner, to no dinner, to slaps on our butts, or the dreaded leather strap, which hurt like hell. One time, John owned up to something neither of us had done, just to get the interrogation and slapping over, and so we wouldn’t both be punished. Odd to think that our parents thought we’d ever do anything deliberately bad, knowing the consequences, but I guess they thought we wouldn’t ever do anything bad again if they punished us hard enough. Boy, were they wrong.
Running through the yard, we accidentally trampled mom’s azalea bush. You’d have thought we went outside just to destroy that bush from the way my dad carried on. We took our clothes off one time, and went out on the porch roof, climbing out the second story window. A neighbor saw us, so that didn’t go over very well. We also thought it was fun to throw small stones out that same window at passing cars, since the porch roof kept us from being seen from the street. We thought we were pretty clever about it, trying to determine the exact time to throw a stone, so that it would hit a car while we ducked down. We could hear the thunk on a car roof or door, and one time a car squealed to a sudden stop, and backed up to our house. That we had to see. Of course, that meant we were seen. Well, it was not fun anymore, as the driver got out and walked up to our house.
Then there was the time John and I built a small fire in an empty lot behind our house. We tried to build it up with stones all around it, but we were too young then to know to clear the entire area of combustibles. It spread, and we couldn’t put it out. We got on our bicycles and rode for our lives, afraid we’d get caught, and we were. A neighbor had seen us, called the fire department, and called our mother. She made us march out to the firemen and apologize. They were incredibly nice to us. They smiled at us. I didn’t know what to make of that, because we had been scared to death to go out there and tell them it was our fault. Our parents made sure we knew the danger of fire, and read us the riot act over that one. I doubt we could sit down without wincing for days after that.
John and I were a class act though. One time, investigating a construction site nearby, my brother and I and Eddie, a friend, were dropping rocks into a pool of muddy water in the incomplete basement of a new house. There was a hole in the first floor where the stairs would eventually be. We didn’t question why the basement walls and the floor of the first floor were built, yet the concrete for the basement floor hadn’t been poured yet. It was just fun to have a huge puddle far enough below us to makes big splashes. Three boys, a hole, a long way to fall; what could go wrong? I fell in, but Eddie went for his parents, and John found his way down to me. I was laying face down, out cold, in the water. He turned me over, saving my life.
Years later, we had ridden our bikes miles away from our house, and were investigating a sewer drain outlet. All the storm water from the street above flowed out into a small creek, and beavers had built a dam on it. It was just too damn fascinating to leave alone. However, the concrete around the storm drain outlet was green and slimy. John fell in. The slime was everywhere. He couldn’t grab hold of the edge to pull himself back up; he kept slipping back into the water. It was deep there, over our heads. We didn’t know how to swim yet, and the water was dark and filthy. In retrospect, I think he was panicking, because he thrashed around like crazy. I got on my stomach. I reached out my hands and yelled at him to grab them. He did. I was able to pull him far enough so he could climb out. We rode over to a nearby house and knocked, explaining what had happened. John was socking wet, and reeked. My dad drove home from work and took us home. He was, shall we say, upset, but also happy that we were OK.
So it continued over the years, through accident after accident. We even shoplifted together; that was a mess of trouble. Always we survived, and both of us have all our parts. We even fought each other. Sometimes only one of us got into trouble at a time. We balanced everything out by being Altar boys and Boy Scouts. We served mass and camped together. We were a team.
High school changed everything. I went first, leaving John behind. John developed new friends. Rather than follow me to the same high school, he went to a religious school in another state for a year. It was the sort of pre-seminary school you go to if you plan to be a priest, but before you go to an actual seminary. It was strange not having him around. Stranger still, he changed his mind and came back after that first year. Instead of hanging out with me however, he had other friends. He told me about discovering masturbation. I had discovered that on my own. He also knew girls. He did end up going to the same high school as me, but we never saw each other. He was one of the popular kids. He found a part-time job after school working on an assembly line for printed circuit boards. I rarely saw him, and he never told me how to get a job like that or what he did. He had money, bought himself a leather jacket, and combed his hair out and down and over his face, unlike my greasy pompadour. He was as different as he could be. I stayed after school myself, joining various clubs: Science, Computer, Drama. When I was home, I had to study, usually two to three hours, just to keep up.
John and I didn’t have free time anymore; no time to waste riding our bicycles randomly, exploring, getting into trouble. I stayed to myself. He thought I was weird. I didn’t have friends, I didn’t date. Well, I took my cousin out a couple times, but that didn’t go anywhere. By the time I graduated high school, John and I were like strangers. There were no more joint birthdays. I got a job and left home. He graduated the next year and got married. I went to his wedding, dressed in a funky double-breasted suit I’d picked up for myself. It reminded me of my grandfather’s suit. I looked and felt out-of-place around the family. I tried to look and act mature. I had even bought a packet of Tiparillos, small plastic-tipped cigars. I thought they’d make me look sophisticated, but when I tried inhaling one at the wedding reception, I thought I’d choke my lungs out. Clueless.
John invited me over one time after his daughter was born , a year later. He’d always been the skinny one, but he’d put on a lot of weight. His wife cooked a lot. They had certain meals on certain nights, same thing every week. I asked him about sex, and he whispered to me, “Tonight’s the night.” I thought, “What, once a week? Are you kidding?” Clueless.
I however, was very involved with anti-war activities. I’d been arrested. John thought it was a joke, that I’d gotten arrested for the hell of it. Neither of us had been drafted, but I was caught up in a counter-culture, one that distrusted the family unit, authority, the draft, wars, and law itself. I liked marijuana and tried LSD a few times. Dropped out of school, lost my job. I moved away. I had many lovers. Sex was my favorite drug. I was a drifter and a carny. I settled on the other side of the country, poured bronze, worked as a hod carrier, then found work in a cancer research laboratory at a University. I took free classes there, got a degree. I got married and divorced twice. I retired.
I still miss my brother. His 40th wedding anniversary is coming up soon. I think I’ll go see him. We’re so much alike.