Sunday, 8 November 2009

For my brother

November 8 is my brother’s birthday, and this year, it falls on Remembrance Sunday. Because my brother is currently deployed to Afghanistan, it is particularly poignant that those dates should coincide.

All week long, it seems like Afghanistan has been in the news for tragic reasons – and there have been particularly personal betrayals. I don’t know how distant the war seems to others, but it is never far from my thoughts – although I have never before written about it here. Even the recent horrific events in Fort Hood, Texas are uncomfortably close to home for me; my parents live very near there, and my brother has been stationed there several times.

My brother is a Lt. Colonel, in charge of a large battalion of soldiers. I know his responsibility weighs heavily on him, but he refers, only obliquely, to the terrible mental and emotional stresses of his daily life. I don’t know if his reticence is due to necessities of confidentiality, or the desire to protect his family, or just weariness; perhaps it is a bit of all those things.

Our lives have so little in common now, but we share the same liking for books and games that goes back to earliest childhood. I cannot think of my brother without remembering the marathon games of Monopoly that we played as a child. We would get up early on Sunday mornings to play – always hoping that my parents would oversleep and that we wouldn’t have to go to church. (It rarely happened, but we lived in optimistic expectation.) These days, we play Facebook Scrabble – in the odd moments, once or twice a week, when he can visit an Internet cafĂ©. He always wins; he always did win.

He likes to read; everyone in our family does. When he was a little boy, he loved the Curious George books by H.A. Rey, and he had a good bit of that curious monkey in him. Like so many young boys, he would pore over the Guinness Book of World Records. I also particularly remember a series of nonfiction books called Tell Me Why that he would read and reread. As he got older, he started to prefer histories – particularly military history. These days, he tells me that he reads lots of thrillers and other “escapist trash.”

As children, we used to construct “ships” by enclosing the sides of the bunk beds with blankets. It was so wonderfully cozy to feel concealed in that space – to lie back on pillows, and read by the light of a lamp. It felt so safe. I doubt that any adult ever feels that safe again, but books can still provide those feelings of an enclosed, complete world far from present realities. As Emily Dickinson wrote: There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away . . .

After much pondering, I decided to send my brother a birthday package of books. What better escape than humor, I thought? When I googled “funniest ever books” the same titles kept recurring, and these are the three I ended up sending to Afghanistan: Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome; Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, and a P.G. Wodehouse Omnibus. They are all English classics, and although I’ve read them, I don’t think that my brother has done. Although women may read and even like these books, they describe a completely male world. They have some odd similarities, actually: particularly that of the hapless male protagonist who keeps stumbling into scrapes of his own making. There are lots of cups of tea, although it is true that some of them are spilled. Nothing really bad happens, though; foolishness reigns here, never violence or evil.

They make me think of the letter* that Winston Churchill wrote during World War II, when he was confined to bed with illness. He asked for Pride and Prejudice to be read to him, and later commented: What calm lives they had . . . No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars. Only manners controlling natural passions as far as they could . . .

I would remind Churchill of this: perhaps Jane Austen knew more about gardens than battlefields, but she also had two brothers in the Navy, and I doubt that the pitched battles between England and France were ever as far out of her mind as her novels might imply.

Happy Birthday, dearest little brother!



* A copy of this letter is in Jane Austen's bedroom at the Jane Austen House in Chawton, Hampshire.

44 comments:

Reya Mellicker said...

You are a great sister, Bee. What wonderful choices for your brother.

He sounds great. May he be safe and sound, as if on your "boat" until he returns to the U.S.

kristina said...

Thinking of both you and your brother. My father was in the Army, and we've been following the events at Fort Hood closely here. What a wonderful birthday present. Just absolutely perfect. K x

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Bee, what a loving tribute on your brother's birthday. Happy birthday to him; may he remain safe & sound. Lizzy :-}

willow said...

Happy Birthday to your "little" brother!! Thoughts and prayers for peace and safety. Lovely tribute, Bee.

Sarah Laurence said...

Happy Birthday to your brother! Mine has a birthday next week, and I was working on a post dedicated to my brother too. We do have so many parallels. I believe our fathers share a birthday.

You picked the perfect gift. My husband loved P.G. Wodehouse, Lucky Jim and 3 Men in a Boat. I love Wodehouse too, but 3 Men never did it for me, must be the male thing.

I adore that quote from Emily Dickinson, your remembrance of childhood forts and your astute observations about Jane Austen. PG Wodehouse’s books were also an escape from war.

The Fort Hood tragedy was just awful. It must hurt even more having that personal connection. Hopefully this will bring much needed attention to treating PTSD instead of hostility against Muslims.

May your brother’s mission be successful and he, and all our troops, come home soon.

Brilliant post!

JaneyV said...

Happy Birthday to your dear brother Bee. I wish him love health and joy for the coming year.

Remembrance Sunday is such an important day I think. We had an assembly all about it this Friday at school. The Year 5 class (9 and 10 year-olds) based their poetry on the Poppy and its symbolism. I was totally humbled by the incredible depth of understanding and humanity these little children showed. They showed that they are at once grateful for the sacrifices made by those in the military whist being simultaneously hopeful of living in a world without war.

I rarely watch or read the news these days so I hadn't heard about the events in Fort Hood. How incredibly sad from every point of view. It feels like this war on terror is pushing everyone to a breaking point. I hope that humanity prevails. We have so much that binds us in commonality that when we fracture ourselves into warring tribes we only end up hurting ourselves - many times, like this awful incident, it seems, pointlessly.

I think your brother will love those books. What a wonderful gift the gift of laughter is. I adore the absurdity of these books. Isn't it humour that binds the world together? Let's face it we are an absurd lot. May we never lose the ability to laugh - most of all at ourselves.

rxBambi said...

Be sure to tell your brother that I'm sending cyber hugs to him and thank him for his service.
I hope he enjoys his care package, I think it sounds wonderful. What a lovely post.

giulia said...

I read this as I am readying a package for my brother, a US Marine, also in Afghanistan. I know how you feel. Happy safe birthday to your brother.

xoxo

Shaista said...

Any post entitled For My Brother has my heart captured already; but such a post by Bee, is an even greater gift. Lucky brother to have you, I can't think of a more appreciated gift than books which make us laugh at the bleak hours. What about Richmal Crompton's Just William books? For the next package? And maybe some Terry Pratchett :)

ewix said...

Happy Birthday, Bee's brother.
A lovely tribute to your brother and memories of your childhood.
I think you chose the books extremely well.
Three Men in a Boat is a personal favoritespevially the scene where Uncle Podger puts up a picture.

You are quite right about JA and war
I'm certain she merely chose not to include it on her little pice of ivory....

ArtSparker said...

Wonderful to be able to send these little sheltering roofs to your brother.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Such a wonderful, loving birthday wish. I, too, wish your brother a happy and safe birthday. I think your choice of presents was perfect.

Anne said...

Oh my, I had no idea that your brother was deployed! Sending him good, safe thoughts; and I hope that you get to see him again before long. This is such a touching post... I wish you both many more years of making memories together.

marja-leena said...

What a wonderful post about your brother. And what perfect gifts for him! Yes, the times are difficult when a family member is in the Army, as many Canadians also have (not me). Happy birthday, peace and safety to him!

Kristen In London said...

What a hand-on-heart world of love and appreciation you draw here, Bee. It's what makes me come back again and again for your writing. How lucky your brother is to have you in his corner, as they say. Please accept my family's warmest wishes for his safe mission and return.

Being a cook at heart, I wonder if he'd like to read a little Nigel Slater? "Eating for England" is an amazing story of boyish childhood: not all beer and skittles, but amazingly drawn images. And "Toast" by the same author is wonderful, too...

All the best to you and yours, Bee.

Maggie May said...

What a wonderful birthday gift..a way to travel somewhere else when he can't.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Bee
I will keep your brother and your whole family in my thoughts and prayers. Maybe one day we will live in a world with peace.
Great post!

Best
Tracy :)

Marcheline said...

Blessings on you, and on your brother. The support and love you give, evidenced in the books you selected for him, will give him strength and make his stay "over there" that much more bearable.

Know that we, all your blog friends, are standing behind you and waving when you send him your gifts - and telling him so might make him smile, too! Let him know he's got friends he's never met, all wishing him the best.

Cheers,
M

McGillicutty said...

I too have a brother who served his country. He was very young and was in he Royal Navy during the Faulklands Conflict...way back when we Brits hated the Argentinians.. It was very stressful. God Bless you for caring for him so much and God Bless him for caring for us!!! hugs.

Kristen In London said...

I posted a bit today about Remembrance Sunday, and wanted to include a link to your blog, but thought first I'd ask how you felt about that, as your post today was so personal. I'll wait... but to me, it's the most moving and touching of all tributes, and such a pathway to the truth of the armed services, for those of us without family connections.

dogimo said...

God bless you both! And keep you safe from harm.

Your gift to your brother is a gift to many of us. I've never read any of those books! I must investigate; I could dearly use some humor these days.

Meredith said...

May your brother be safe and get away from there soon. Today we had some bad news about a friend of the family's stepson, just returned from Afghanistan two weeks ago. It has nothing to do with the tragedy at Fort Hood -- but war spins out tragedy in all directions, it seems.

I am glad you were able to give your brother something to delight his heart and give him a momentary escape.

And I very much appreciate the detail about Jane Austen. Learn something new every day; right?

willow said...

Bee, I forgot the sugar in that cookie recipe. It's now been corrected, so pop over and get the right version before you make them. Sorry about that!! :P

mouse (aka kimy) said...

birthday wishes to your brother - and wishes that he returns home soon and safe.

such a tragedy that happened in fort hood - simply inexplicable

rachel said...

A lovely post, Bee, and one that encapsulates all that war brings - not only to the stoical and courageous men and women who must engage in it, but to the families who join them in keeping the normality of everyday life as real as possible, despite the cost. A gift of books can only help to preserve some of that normality. From an Army family myself, I know that soldiers rarely spoke much of their experiences, valuing a precious 'ordinariness' that their families brought.

We must just hold onto hope....

herhimnbryn said...

Happy Birthday Bee's baby bro!

La Belette Rouge said...

What a lovely tribute to your brother and what a great bday gift. I am adding your trio of favorite funny books to my list of must reads. Thank you!

Alyson (New England Living) said...

What a lovely tribute to your beloved brother and I love what a thoughtful gift-giver you are. You obviously love him very much.

I love how you talked of Sunday monopoly matches as children and then of your scrabble matches played from different parts of the world as adults. Those sibling, childhood memories are so precious.

Christina said...

I send your brother love and birthday wishes.
I do hope those books, take him to places he dreams of.
xoxo

Merisi said...

Happy Belated Birthday to your brother
and a big virtual hug for both of you,
warmly,
Merisi

Fantastic Forrest said...

When my brother and I were growing up, we had lots of fun with sheet forts under tables, and now my daughter loves to create those, much to her older brother's annoyance. He likes things in their proper place. My son and she are both fascinated by the Guinness World Record books. There's something about being the most whatever that is very intriguing.

Your selections for the birthday boy are splendid. LOVE Wodehouse - such marvelous escapist stories. Did you know Three Men in a Boat was recorded as an audio book by our man Hugh? Very funny stuff - we all listened to it on a summer drive.

I love the morsel about Churchill; you always give us something unexpected and wonderful.

Here's hoping the President decides to draw down the troops in Afghanistan, rather than increasing their numbers. It would be so great if that poor country could steer its own destiny in a positive direction. Have you read A Thousand Splendid Suns? Heartbreaking.

kristina said...

such beautiful writing, Bee! that quote by Emily Dickinson is perfect.
if you need more funny books, you should consider reading, and giving to your brother, "Ig nobel Prizes". the ig nobel prize "honours individuals whose achievements in science cannot or should not be reproduced".

Penney said...

Happy Birthday to your little brother!!
I understand how you feel having someone abroad..
God Bless him and all of them...
xo,

Penney

Lucy said...

Thanks so much for telling us about your brother. I loved the story of the Sunday morning Monopoly and hoping your parents would oversleep!

I'm sure he'll love the books.

twebsterarmstrong said...

This was a very nice post. I read your blog periodically from rural Kansas, U.S.A.

Yesterday, we had a Veterans Day Parade, in which many Ft. Riley military groups participated: soldiers, marching bands, veterans, and families. (We do it up big, since so many school children here have one or both parents deployed.)

Your post was very nice. Thank you.

Sashindoubutsu said...

That is so sweet of you. I also had a friend who has been deployed in Afghanistan. He stayed there for long but is now assigned in a different country.

Happy birthday to your brother. He's lucky to have a sis like you.^^

Dick said...

Perfect book choices, Bee. I hope that your brother - and, indeed, all who serve with him - will be home soon.

Jan said...

What a brilliant posting, Bee. Your blog really is Top Notch.
And having a brother myself, I was much moved by your words...
and the sending of those books to Afghanistan.

Travis Erwin said...

May your brother stay safe.

Bee said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented here. I was very touched by your support, and so was my mother . . . who read your comments with great interest!

linda said...

oh bee, I am so sorry to read that your brother is fighting over there right NOW...how difficult it must be but reading of your childhood, I also thought that with that history and those memories alive in his heart, his solace is not far from him...may he stay safe and well along with all his comrades fighting wars everywhere...there are too many of them happening, it makes me wonder how we can call ourselves a "civilized society" when we stillsettle our differences with guns and bombs.

Isabel said...

What a beautiful and heartfelt letter of love to your brother. May your brother be safe wherever he is.

Words have the power to erase distance and link us at the heart. Yours definitely did.

Your love for your brother leaves me smiling.

xox

Isabel

Barrie said...

What a thoughtful gift. I didn't realize you had a brother in the military. xo

Anonymous said...

The mystery of West from Home - the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder's journey to Missouri....why did Almanzo call her Bessie? In These Happy Golden Years it is explained. Almanzo proposed to Laura and when she accepted, he asked her what her middle name was and she replied "Elizabeth." Almanzo had a sister named Laura (and a brother Perl, both never mentioned in the series) and said he never liked the name Laura and to save confusion with his sister and asked if he could call her Beth or Bess. Laura took to calling Almanzo "Manly" because she misunderstood him when he said his brother called him 'Manzo or Manny. Mystery solved.