I must have been about a year and a half old in this picture, and I don’t remember it a bit. I know I’d seen the picture before, but I forgot about it entirely until I found it in a stack of family snapshots a couple of months ago.
Given the news lately, I feel I should point out that this is emphatically not a picture of anyone in blackface. This is my oldest brother Alan, and he was just that dirty. He was working as a mason tender on one of my dad’s crews that summer, and the project was using chocolate mortar. Most brick and block is laid with gray mortar. Mortar in a different shade is an upgrade, and it must have been a fancier job he was on that day.
I am told that when he was dressed for junior prom the previous spring, I smeared Cheeto dust on his tuxedo. I think this was his revenge.
My parents weren’t entirely sure how their two teenage sons would react to having a baby sister, but in Alan’s case at least, they needn’t have worried. He was sixteen when I was born, and that evening when they’d gotten the younger kids settled and walked out to the living room to tell Alan they were going to the hospital, he rolled off the couch onto the avocado-green sculpted carpet in excitement.
When I myself attained the great age of sixteen and settled into a desk in my junior-year English classroom, Mr. Johnson heard my name and paused as he was taking attendance. “Ha,” he said. “I know who you are.” I wasn’t shocked. Everybody seemed to know either my parents or my older siblings, and Mr. Johnson had been teaching high school English in our district since The Flood. I wasn’t expecting his next sentence, though. “I read essays about you when you were a baby,” he said, and grinned.
The relationship you have with a brother 16 years your senior is different than the one you have with a sibling right around your own age, not that I’d know from personal experience. I was alone at the end of the family, a surprise tacked on when my parents thought they were long done with diapers and chickenpox. The family across the road that had gotten on the bus with my brothers and sisters for years were all out of kids by the time I was in school.
Alan was nearly an adult when I was born, and I was only two years old when he left for college. He didn’t go far, but he went thoroughly, and I never remember him living in the same house I did. After graduation, he moved to Minnesota for a graduate degree, and from then on, visiting our childhood home required planning and gas money.
Because we never lived in the same house — not really — we never had the usual sibling squabbles, and we maybe don’t know each other in the same bone-deep way many siblings learn each other. Not having known a sibling when he was a child is a knowledge gap similar to never having known a parent when you yourself were an adult. It doesn’t mean you don’t know them, or didn’t, but it’s not the same.
Still, some things are immutable. I stood with my niece over an incubator in the NICU and wondered aloud why she bothered giving her son a name, since no one’s going to call him by it. “I know,” she sighed, and rolled her eyes, “but they had to write something on the birth certificate.” So far, her baby’s nicknames are cute. My childhood nicknames were Carol Barrel and Pukeface, so I haven’t worked up a lot of sympathy. Whether we live in the same house or not, and whether we’re in the same generation or not, in our family, we will always give you a nickname.
And we will always, always rub the dirty face on the baby until she shrieks.