Years ago I had a terrible fight with my sister. A few days later I was visiting my father’s first cousin Eli, a rough character as capable of tenderness as he was of socking somebody with one of his hard fists. The old man thoughtfully listened to my description of the fight. He paused to take it all in, then gave me his advice.
“Look, she’s your sister, I hear what you’re saying about the fight but don’t let the bad feelings linger. You have to swallow your pride, tell her you’re sorry you two fought, you don’t have to apologize for starting the fight or not starting it, you’re just sorry about the whole thing. Tell her you want to make up, put it behind you, tell her you love her and you feel terrible and you want it to be over. Don’t let your pride stand in the way of making up with her. Do it sooner rather than later when it might be too late.”
I told him it was good advice, and that I appreciated it, but that I was still too hurt and angry to make that move, and then, taking a page from my mother’s book, I told Eli it was a little ironic coming from him, a man who hadn’t spoken to his own sister in over thirty years. This got the same reaction my mother’s challenging comments always got from Eli. His face immediately turned magenta and he leaned forward menacingly, ready to attack.
“My sister is a completely different story! There is no comparison between my sister and your sister! My sister is a complete bitch!” he yelled in a cry of pain and anger, as acutely stung by the painful falling out they’d had decades earlier as if the unforgivable offense had just happened.
Fast forward three decades. I get a call from Eli’s daughter. She and her sister are visiting the cemetery where their parents and mine are buried. She asked if I’d like to meet them, it’s been too long since we’ve seen each other. I took the train up to Peekskill and we drove over to the cemetery. It is a Jewish tradition to take a small stone and place it on the gravestone of the dead person we are visiting. We gathered our stones and walked among the graves.
At their parents’ grave we put our stones on Eli’s side of the large headstone and then, as I put a stone on their mother Helen’s side, I said “she was a sweet lady.” That was my memory of her — long-suffering, hospitable, kind smile. I was a boy when Helen died young, but I remember her pretty well. Neither of her daughters said anything when I said their mother had been a sweet lady.
Afterwards, over lunch, they told a couple of stories involving their mother, as though to set the record straight, letting me know that their mother, in her way, had been as problematic as their emotional, sometimes violently opinionated father.
If your father is tyrannical, as the beloved Eli also was, and your mother always goes along with the tyranny… well, an ally of your enemy is also your enemy. I know this well from my own childhood. Helen always seemed sweet to me, she’d smile warmly and bring us good things to eat. She was quiet and kept herself busy being the perfect hostess during our visits, she laughed easily. She died of cancer when I was about 11 or 12. Why wouldn’t a boy remember her as a sweet person? Particularly if his own parents often attacked him, sometimes quite savagely.
We can think of these childhood observations without attaching value judgments to them, somehow, but it’s not easy, or even always a great idea, I think. Value judgments are our assessment of what’s the right way to act and what not to do. Even the doltish Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the subject of Hannah Arendt’s brilliant book on his trial in Israel, was able to accurately summarize Immanuel Kant’s view on this, the Categorical Imperative. When pressed by the judges at his trial he defined it: to act in such a way that you could will your actions to be universal principles. Would the world be better or worse if everyone acted like I am acting now?
I think of this as another statement of Hillel’s famous summary of morality: what is hateful to you, don’t do to somebody else. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a difficult golden rule to follow. Phrasing it the way Hillel did cuts through difficult theory to practical practice. It’s a simple matter to know what you hate, you hate it instantly, always, it’s like a chemical reaction.
You can do something hateful to you to somebody else, if you don’t expect that person to treat you any differently in return, but what kind of world would it be? If everyone treated everyone in this hateful manner we’d have a state of constant war, each against all. If we all stopped ourselves from doing things to others that we hate done to us, that would be a huge step toward solving problems before the oceans rise to drown all of us not turned into desperate climate refugee/cannibals determined to not to die by water.
But back to my original thought about whether we inherit certain idiosyncrasies regarding siblings (begging, of course, the equally valid question of whether we learn them as children). Eli didn’t talk to his sister for the last 30 or 40 years of their long lives. He lived to be almost 90, his sister to 103. I believe their final dispute was related to sharing their father’s modest inheritance, more than 40 years before Eli’s death. Eli’s daughters have a younger brother I haven’t seen or heard from in years. When I asked his sisters about him they said he was fine. I got the feeling that they haven’t talked to him for a long time.
Although I often ascribe this family harshness to the brutal pruning of our family tree back in 1942 and 1943, and the centuries-long culture of persecution my surviving family comes from, I suspect these estrangements between siblings happen in many cultures. I just read a book about sibling strife by psychologist Jeanne Safer, Cain’s Legacy. She states her credo at the start of the book: “Cain’s Legacy reflects my passionate conviction that it is essential not to gloss over the dark side of life.” She states my credo as well.
I have to peer into the darkness until I can see the fucking thing, I can’t stop myself, nor do I want to. I need to understand what is there. If it can be fixed, let’s fix it. If it provides a lesson, let’s take the lesson from it. If it is too monstrous to survive in the light, we’re better off leaving it there in the dark and both walking away from it. To pretend it’s not there does not seem to be a life-affirming option.
The common peace-seeking instinct is to move toward the anodyne, the inoffensive, compromise version of conflict that blames nobody. An explanation that lets everybody off the hook, you dig. This is the purportedly non-controversial version of sometimes unbearable things we often hear from those who urge us that both sides always have an equal right to their opinion and that we should not judge. We always judge, it’s part of our nature. It’s how we survived as a species, as individuals. It’s what we’ve learned to do from the experience of our lives, to the extent we ever really learn anything.
My father’s brother was younger, sickly as a boy and mom’s favorite. Where my father was literally whipped in the face by mom, from the time he could stand, his brother was coddled. Neither one emerged from their childhood without deep emotional scars, although my father’s problems are easier for me to understand now than my uncle’s. My uncle, to his credit, spent years in psychoanalysis. His son, my first cousin, would scoff to read the reference to his father’s long exercise in denial, dressed in a suit, lying on a shrink’s couch week after week, gaining so little insight. What did he learn? When the mood struck, he remained tyrannical in his rage until the end. My father, for his part, had a lifelong scorn for people so weak they needed to whine to a shrink about the demons all of us must battle in our lives.
My uncle, much smaller than my father, often cringed around his brother, like a younger brother who’d often been sucker punched by his older, bigger, stronger antagonist. One of the few stories my father ever told us about his brutal childhood of grinding poverty was the time he stuffed his little brother’s mouth full of raw chopped meat. He told us the story more than once, chuckling each time he did. The brothers had a strained relationship throughout their lives. One time my father stayed at his brother’s overnight and I asked him over the phone how my uncle was doing. I wrote his immortal reply on the page I was doodling on: “let’s just say he remains unchanged.”
Yet, check this out– when my father was dying, he kept asking for his brother. I picked my uncle up at the airport and the two brothers clung to each other morning to night for the last couple of days of my father’s life. It was incredibly poignant to my sister and me. After my father died his brother sat with his dead body (along with my brother-in-law) until members of the Chevre Kadisha (the Jewish burial society) claimed the body to watch over it and prepare it for the funeral.
My paternal grandmother, a savage little woman who died before I was born, used to yell at her sons when she saw them at each other’s throats. “Seenas Cheenum!” she would shout — baseless enmity! No reason on earth for these boys, growing up in extreme poverty, one beaten, the other coddled, to be at each other like that! I can imagine my grandmother grabbing my father roughly, pulling him away from her beloved younger son. This kind of thing is detailed in the Old Testament where sibling treachery abetted by mothers and deadly fights between brothers are reported multiple times.
This tendency for eternal ruthless war between siblings appears to wind up in the blood. A combination of nature and nurture, I suppose. It is seemingly replicated down the generations. Without insight into it, we remain prisoners of strong feelings we cannot understand or get past. We pick up a rock and slay, sometimes.
This unreasoning, murderous side of us lurks in our wounded hearts– there are circumstances that will bring out this rage. The challenge is never to pick up a rock and slay, or maybe, to learn, without a doubt, that the wisest thing to do is to remove yourself from a situation so emotionally fraught that, under pressure, it will inevitably yield to the impulse to pick up the rock.