Does “half-brother” Mean Less of a Brother?

Ron 2

Lighting another cigarette after handing the first lit one to me, Grandma continued, “But as much as he loved her, her poor grammar got on his nerves real bad. He knowed that he could never bring her home to meet his prim and proper  mother, a stiff-skirt schoolteacher type, don’t you know. Roland himself understood the desperate family situation your mother growed up in, causing the end of her education at grade eight—although, that was five grades more than I ever done. Even so, he was accepting of your mother the way she was.”

When I needed a break from Grandma’s storytelling, I concentrated on blowing the perfect smoke ring, but they never looked  as good as Grandma’s, nor could I suck the smoke up through my nostrils like she could. Even so, the smoke ring ritual gave me a way to manage all of the mixed up feelings swirling around in my tummy.

Part of these feelings wasn’t just from hearing this story, but because Grandma suddenly started having one of her coughing spells, which usually caused a severe asthma attack. This happened frequently, especially when she was thinking about something that hurt her. With her bad heart condition, I was terrified she would cough herself to death right on the spot. I was also convinced that I’d die if I had to live in that family without her by my side. Holding my breath, I watched as she clenched her chest, struggling to suck air into her lungs. Like always, I froze on the spot until her labored breathing subsided into a soft wheeze. Five or ten minutes passed before she was able to continue.

“Remember, Dawnie, I told you ’bout the heavy crane accident that killed my husband? Your mother was just ten years old when she lost her daddy. I had no choice but to take her and her brother, Tom, out of school and move us into that old tenement building down on the lower west side of the Bronx. I got me some work being a building superintendent trading for a free basement apartment.”

“It was cold and dark in those rooms ’cause we never got no windows for the sun to shine warmth in. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, those basement apartments was so damp, but, thanks-be-to-God, we had us a roof over our heads. Your mother’s always been a hard worker, Dawnie, collecting the rent money from those grumpy old tenants, treating her like it was our fault that life was so hard and they got stuck living in them ugly old rooms.”

Gritting my teeth with mixed hatred toward my mother, I wondered if that was one of the things that made her so mean. Grandmother continued, “Roland admired  your mother’s grit; he wanted to marry her and promised one day he would bring her home to meet his parents. He knew she’d be all right with his father, but not his prudish mother.  ‘No,’ said Roland,  ‘an uneducated, feisty, Irish Catholic girl would never pass my mother’s inspection;  as soon as she opened her mouth they knowed she can’t talk good.’ They was French Canadian, Presbyterian, and had proper education. Roland talked about this worry with me when your mother was out shopping or collecting rent money. But you know  me, I never give advice. Besides, what  could I say, Dawnie, he was talking about my daughter. Oh, I knew plenty of those high-falutin’ women like his mother in my time. Think they be better than the rest of us just ’cause they speak good. My heart ached for both them children.”

Grandma’s nondescript, sort of grayish, eye color seemed to turn a different shade right before me as she continued to reminisce, staring into the distance and remembering the past as she continued to tell the story.

“Shame they never had a chance to work it out. His proposal and meeting up with his family was delayed by Uncle Sam. They were both just kids in 1939 when he got called to go overseas. You know, Honey, he said he wrote your mother some five hundred  thirty-two letters that never got answered by your mother—’cause she never got ’em, don’t you see. He said his guts burned with anger at her silence. Some cruel act of fate, or somethin’, the letters never got delivered to your mother. Can you imagine such a thing? It surely is a life mystery.”

Grandma stood and lit a candle on the altar, just to the right  of Mother  Mary’s feet. I loved when she lit candles: it made our bedroom seem safe and cozy, even if the room was already filled with so much cigarette smoke my eyes burned. Continuing, she said, “Back home in New York, your mother  waited for a whole year, barely able to take a breath,  waiting for a word, any word, from her Roland. She tried  to track him down through the military, but they were no help at all, them ones. She had to think that he changed his mind about loving her. She even wondered how she could have been so wrong about Roland loving her.”

“A year of silence gone by, when one day your mother told me that she knowed two things for sure. She had to move on and that she would never love no other man the way she loved your father.”

Grandma  looked at me and sort of shook her head as if just realizing that she was sitting there telling me this story. I was afraid that she would stop talking, but she continued, “So, when a kind and handsome Marine, by the name of Ski, kept pestering your mother for her hand in marriage, promising to take care of her and me forever, your mother agreed to his proposal. She did it in a beholden way, ’cause he was so good to her and to me, but she was always guilty knowing that her heart belonged to her Roland.”

“Ski and your mother married quickly because he was leaving soon. Right away, your mother  got pregnant with your brother, Ronnie, and Ski was shipped out to sea. Finally, your mother was no longer considered an old maid, and we had enough money from  Ski’s paychecks. Ronnie was born while Ski was to sea.”

Squishing out her cigarette in hard little jabs, my grandma seemed agitated as she pushed on with her story. “Three long years passed, and then one day we got word that Ski had died on a battleship somewhere in the Pacific Ocean; your mother heard he died from some mysterious foreign disease. He only got to see his son one time, when on leave, before he died on the ship. Oh, how proud he was of his boy. He was a fine young man, that Ski.”

“She didn’t grieve much, though, because within a few days of your mother hearing ’bout Ski’s death, Roland got home from the war. It was a really hard time for our country,  Dawnie; nothin’ would ever be the same no more.” Grandma sounded sad and far away again. It was as if this long-ago experience had broken her just as much as it had broken my mother. I felt if I reached out to touch her, she would disappear into a chasm of unreachable sorrow. It scared me when she talked as if she were alone in the room.

“Your mother was so happy to be with Roland again, Dawnie, and right away she got pregnant with you.” With a weary sadness, my grandmother went on with her story, but I noticed now that her shoulders were bent over as if the weight of the world was pushing on them. I wanted to put my arms around her,to comfort  her, but I was fearful that she would stop talking. God help me, I desperately needed to know this story. Grandmother went on, clearly struggling with the heaviness that the remembering caused her. I felt guilty for pushing her, but I had to know the truth. I had been told for my entire fourteen years that my biological father was Ski Laskovitch, even though I never believed that.

A feeling of foreboding began as I started thinking about my true paternity and how I might not be totally bound as brother and sister with Ronnie. Did this mean that my precious big brother was not my whole brother, just my half-brother? What did that mean anyway? Does “half-brother” mean less of a brother? I fought to keep down the tears; I did not want to interrupt the story again.

Yup! That’s a picture of my big brother at age 17

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