Philip K. Jason
There is an Asian streak in our Bookbinder family, a mix of foreign blood, perhaps, and Down’s syndrome for certain. Grandma Ida’s sister, Aunt Lena, looked like a Chinawoman. Grandpa Jake Bookbinder sometimes looked mildly Asiatic, as did Aunt Frieda, one of Jake’s five children, who had other problems as well. My brother Martin was what they then called a “Mongoloid” child. When he died at the age of three from respiratory deficiencies, Grandpa Jake, whom he was said to resemble, took it especially hard. I think Martin was more Bookbinder than Jason.
I was six when Martin died. This was in 1948. Soon after, Mother, in her grief, decided that she owed me a brother. She always put it that way. She had Warren for me, so I wouldn’t be an only child. But since he and I were (and are) seven and a half years apart, her motive was not fulfilled, at least not in her lifetime. Eight school grades separated us, and after I skipped the fifth grade, nine. When I was in high school, watching Warren in the afternoon until Mother came home from work was not something I did joyfully, or even did at all if I could find a way out. When I married, at twenty, Warren was just entering his teens. So I did grow up as an only child, as did he. (As did Father and his much older brother, Uncle Sam.) Never playmates, our relationship gained richness only after Mother’s death in 1985. Somehow, she had kept us apart.
In a peculiar way, as well, Martin’s death stood between us more than it made a connection. Is it that Martin had to die before Warren was, in all ways, conceived? I don’t know.
When I was a little kid with baby Martin, I played the role of older brother quite naturally. He’d follow me around, or I’d drag him, and it was fun to be a leader and protector. I felt so grown up, taking him by the hand or helping him up when he fell down. Of course, I knew that there was something wrong with him; he picked up on things more slowly than other toddlers, he hardly spoke, and he looked peculiar, but we were bonded emotionally. Martin came along before I had the critical mind that makes a big deal out of differences. He was mine.
Nonetheless, I was making a healthy recovery from this loss, and I think that I resented the “replacement” idea from the beginning. Out of her sense of guilt, mother was building the seeds of resentment, pressuring me with a gift and a sacrifice that I didn’t know how to accept. I think if the idea of having a third child had come to Mother before she was losing Martin, things would have been different. Not only would Warren (I assume the next kid would still have been Warren!) and I be closer in age, but–more importantly–he would have been simply and cleanly another brother.
I think Mother, a most calculating person, made a miscalculation; in hindsight she grew to know it. She was almost thirty-seven when Warren was born, and as she neared fifty she was of no mind, literally, to be patient with an adolescent. She had lost the marginal equipment she was given for that task. Though he was the most carefully planned for child, at some point Warren came to be treated like the classic “mistake,” the unwanted surprise. Mother had burdened her middle age, and after a while she grew resentful, especially as I had never been properly appreciative and was by this time out on my own. Mother lived for gestures of appreciation.
Warren’s problems in that frosty household, especially after I left, are his own story; mine is with the memory of Martin. Not the memory so much, but the possibilities. The “what ifs.” When I remember his wide, round face and his small, flat nose, I think of the Reverend Moon and his church. I wonder if Martin could have become a leader like that, an inspiration to people. Or, perhaps more likely, if he could have dealt with his handicaps bravely and become a winner in some Special Olympics competition. Who can say? Even when I was five and six, I knew that Martin was especially sweet. His smile held nothing back. He was never guarded like the rest of us. Too dumb, perhaps? Or just too young.
When someone dies at three, do you really ever know him? Am I making all this up, more than sixty years years after he left us?
His kind was still a scandal in the 1940s – “Mongolian Idiot” the operative term. More recently, there is an acceptance of the damaged child. One fellow with Down’s syndrome even had a regular part in a television series. (Could Martin have grown into a man like that?) Still, difference is always a barrier.
Mother was both accepting and outraged at the same time. She was always looking for God’s fair play, and she couldn’t find it here. Always, she wanted me to treat Martin as if he were normal, but she just said it too often and too loud. I felt for him and cared for him so naturally, and yet she pushed me toward an unhappy self-consciousness. She was high-minded in the worst of ways, making a show of how we dealt with this misfortune as if it weren’t a misfortune at all. I guess her behavior wasn’t so unusual in this regard, but she was so transparently a bad actress. Long before I knew about Brecht’s concept of the alienation effect, Mother had it down pat.
I don’t see Father in the picture at all. I have no idea how he dealt with this. And, speaking of pictures, I find very few pictures of either of them with Martin. In several, he is alone. There is one of him with Grandma Ida and another with Aunt Frieda. In dozens of others, he and I are together, usually bundled in snowsuits or otherwise overdressed. In one or two, we are scampering around at a Long Island beach. I’m either trying to lift him up or steer him toward the camera. Martin is almost like my doll, my puppet. It’s as if his only real life is with me or through me. And, since Father died fourteen years ago, this is the case. What little there was, I am writing down.
(Of course, Father was there. He took all the pictures. That’s another story.)
It was chromosomal abnormality, that odd fold of skin from the eyelid. Martin wasn’t really Asian, but was he at least Oriental? Something to do with the east, the rising sun? Is there anything in his life, in this memory, that touches hope? We were two little boys. Remember Martin, I whisper, to no one. When I am gone, so is he.
(revised Dec 2008)