Brotherly Wisdom #6

In December 1981, I moved into an apartment in Mountain View, California, when Silicon Valley was in its nascent phase. My brother, Charles, and, Margaret, my future sister-in-law, who lived over an hour away in Berkeley, visited me several times, together and in the spring, Charles looked around my apartment and asked if I owned any tools. I didn’t—not a hammer, screwdriver, or pliers. This seemed to trigger some paternal impulse in him. He declared that I needed to own basic tools. At his insistence, we walked over to Sears, located few blocks away, and he bought me a hammer and screwdriver combo. I still use them almost forty years later. I am forever indebted to Charles for his fount of big-brother wisdom and care.

Brotherly Wisdom Part 5: Big Red Umbrella

It’s hard for me to imagine being as young and stupid as I was in college. But at least I had an older brother, Charlie, to help me with the profound as well as the mundane. I went to school in Olympia, Washington, a place well known for near constant drizzle. Before I began my freshman year, Charlie helped me buy a small umbrella. So when I opened his gift for my twentieth birthday, sophomore year, and saw he’d given me a huge red stadium umbrella, I was confused. I thought, doesn’t he remember I already have an umbrella? He was there when I bought it!


At the time, I didn’t understand that umbrellas are not usually possessions that last a lifetime. They wear out and break easily. Less than two years older than me, Charlie seemed to know this fact. I don’t remember what happened to either of my college umbrellas, but they’re long gone. Thank goodness for my smart big brother, who knew I’d need at least two to see me through my college years.


In 1984 when I was twenty-four, I attended a Smokey Robinson concert with my big brother Charles, his fiancée, and a few of his friends. One of the friends lit a cigarette during the concert, and I asked if I could bum one. (In 1984 people were allowed to smoke in concert halls.) In college I’d decided to allow myself one cigarette per calendar quarter, and I’d never gone over my limit.non-smoking-2383236_1280

Seeing me with the cigarette, Charles asked me to step into the aisle. He ordered me to move near the concert hall door and stopped me before we reached it. Standing in the theater’s aisle, he proceeded to read me the riot act. He cited the early deaths by cancer of two of our grandparents, both of whom smoked, and in extremely harsh terms urged me to never smoke again. I was completely taken aback by his aggressive brotherly love. Thinking about it now, I’m moved to tears. I’ve never taken a single puff on a cigarette since that night. I owe my total abstinence from cigarettes and the potential health hazards I avoided to my brother. For over three decades now, I’ve been grateful for his tough love that night.


When my father died suddenly after a four-day illness, my brother Charles expressed my feelings best when he observed, “We used to have parents. Where’d they go?” I felt exactly the same way. We had parents, and with Dad’s death, suddenly we didn’t. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling.


Many people who supported me after Dad died confirmed that the world never feels the same after your parents die. I’ve had other sudden deaths in my life. My mother died of pneumonia when she was forty-nine, and my ex-husband, with no forewarning, killed himself in 2013. The latter left me traumatized, but I didn’t miss him the way I miss Dad. I’ve never missed anyone so intensely, and frankly, I want him back. I know this won’t happen, but it’s a primal desire I can’t control.

Every phase of life has its unexpected challenges and joys. My fifties have been wonderful in numerous ways I never could have anticipated. Despite my longings to have Dad back, I know I’ll get used to his absence. I just need to give myself time.

An Unexpected Benefit of Bad Parenting

This blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on 11/09/2017

My mother had some well-intentioned but grossly misguided ideas about parenting, among them her notions about how to take care of her sick adolescents. Charles, my only sibling, is a year and a half older than me. As young children, we often came down with the same illnesses. Charles had an extra bed in his room during my early elementary school years. In the mid 1960s, our grandparents bought a color television, a newly available luxury, and gave their old large black-and-white TV to my mother. Mom had a medium-sized set in her bedroom, and the living room was too formal for a TV, so the old black-and-white TV went into Charles’ room. When we were ill, Mom allowed me to camp out with him, and we’d watch television as we recuperated, often helping ourselves to the boysenberry ice cream in the freezer. We never seemed to fight when we were suffering through a cold or flu together.

We moved to California in 1970 when I was ten, and Charles’ new bedroom didn’t have an extra bed or a TV in it. In California I recuperated from illness alone in my room. At the onset of puberty, I began to get frequent and severe respiratory illnesses. I never watched television when I was sick during my adolescence. Instead I had a stereo in my room, and I would often fall asleep during the day with my headphones on, listening to Cat Stevens and James Taylor.


When I was in my early twenties, Mom told me she believed she’d allowed Charles and me to have too much fun when we were young and sick. She didn’t want illness to be attractive to us, and as a result, when we were older she developed a completely hands-off style. I assume she called our doctor, because medications were delivered from the pharmacy, but I don’t recall her ever taking care of us in any other way. We got out of bed to feed ourselves breakfast and lunch, and went back to the kitchen at dinnertime to retrieve whatever the housekeeper had cooked for the evening, which we ate alone in bed. I had the London Flu in 1973 when it was a national epidemic. San Mateo County where we lived had the highest mortality rate in the United States from that flu. During this illness, my stepfather brought me dinner on a tray once, the sole demonstration of parental concern.

One time Mom ordered three types of cough medicine and presented them to me, failing to give me dosage instructions. I took all of them at once, not knowing any better. No wonder I fell asleep listening to Sweet Baby James and Peace Train. Several days into my cough-syrup haze, Mom realized my mistake and became enraged, as if I’d purposely overdosed myself into a stupor. I missed so much high school due to constant illness that on a report card one teacher praised my skills at catching up.


At nineteen I began to have episodes of illness caused by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and I’ve been sick much of my adult life. With the notable exception of help from one boyfriend and the care I received during a twenty-four-hour bug when visiting my father and stepmother, I’ve always taken care of myself. I never expect anyone to help me when I’m sick, and except when recovering from outpatient surgeries, I rarely accept offers of assistance.

Mom’s assessment of the time Charles and I spent recovering from illness was not accurate. The camaraderie I felt when we were ill together as small children was a gift, and it provided me with happy memories of us watching reruns of I Love Lucy and Perry Mason, when there would otherwise only be memories of coughs and clogged noses. My mother’s desire to make sickness unattractive was unnecessary and based on an erroneous belief. Although it wasn’t her intention, Mom succeeded in making me resilient and self-reliant when ill. These traits have proved invaluable. I know I’ll be fine on my own no matter how sick I become. Illness has caused many other miseries, but I’m never concerned about how I’ll take care of myself. I’ve been doing it since I was thirteen.


I’m fifty-seven as I write this, and there’s no point in being upset about bad parenting that took place four decades ago. Soon I’ll have my first inpatient hospitalization to remove my spleen. I’m worried about various aspects of this surgery, but not at all about how I’ll recover alone as I heal. And for this unexpected result of an abysmally poor parenting choice, I’m grateful.


After my mother died, my brother took me aside to give me budgeting advice. He knew I’d be inheriting money from her and wanted to ensure that I used the money wisely. He suggested I spend a little of my inheritance, no more than ten percent, but enough to help me feel that I’d enjoyed myself. That way, he counseled, I’d be less likely to use the other ninety percent on impulse buys or indulgences. I took his advice and used part of the money to fund a low-cost trip to Europe.


I’ve tried to extend his advice to other parts of my life. When something good happens, I don’t go hog wild. I celebrate, but always in moderation, knowing I’ve saved the balance of the resource (time, money, etc.) to use when I really need it.


gift-553143__340My brother and sister-in-law always send me a few gifts for my birthday. This year, as I gazed at the small pile of presents in my living room, I realized each gift had been prepared with different wrapping paper and ribbon. I take pride in remembering the birthdays of my friends and family, but if a gift can be wrapped in tissue paper and placed in a gift bag, I’m a happy camper. I’d never take the time and trouble to wrap three gifts differently. When I looked at my presents, I was grateful not only for the thoughtfulness that greets me every year with my small pile of birthday loot, but also for family that goes the extra mile to make my gifts festive and colorful.


My big brot00000200her, Charles, has guided me through many of life’s challenges. Often his words of wisdom are offered casually, and he’s surprised when I remind him of his tidbits of brotherly sagacity that have been my guideposts as I manage life’s large and small issues.

Once when I was about twenty years old and fussing out loud about my appearance, Charles observed, “No one will notice, and if they notice they won’t care.” This bon mot not only prevented any further worry that day, but it has also been a principle I’ve returned to for the last thirty-six years.

Most of the things we worry about are not important to anyone but us. Charles’ wisdom is always in my consciousness and has stopped me from fruitless worry countless times. Thanks Charles!

Photo credit:  Margaret Charnas