Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Tomorrow is my brother Curtis' birthday. Were he alive, he would turn 63 years old. He died in 1997.
Looking at his Dinky Toys recently, I was impressed by the condition of most of them. In the argot of their collectors, they are somewhat 'played with' but not to the point of needing restoration. Their original paint is largely unchipped. Their primitive plastic windscreens are still attached. Their tires are original ('flat' in some cases). If they came with drivers, the drivers are still there. I even found the box for the Austin Healey. It is, overall, remarkable to see an assortment of fifty-year-old miniature cars and army vehicles in such pristine order.
If you were to find my own Corgi Toys, which were similar size to Dinkys but had operating doors and bonnets and other features more attuned to the Sixties Child like me, they'd be tireless, driverless hulks of scarred, scraped and dechromed miniature automobilia, ready for the tiny car crusher. Curtis' cars were played with, where mine were tested for their utmost durability at the hands of a small boy.
Was Curtis that fastidious about his stuff?
Each of his cars, on their shiny embossed black bellies, had a small rectangle of white adhesive tape on them, to identify their ownership. So that leads me to believe that he had to have played with other boys and their Dinkys, such that some might get absorbed into the other's collection accidentally. I think that the tape i.d. may have been my mother's doing; she did an awful lot of sewing of name labels into shirts and sweaters during my brother's and my childhoods, from what evidence remains.
I wish that I had known my brother when he was a small child, but obviously time doesn't allow for such things. By the time I was able to remember much about him in our upbringings, Curtis was already off to prep school for most of the year, then to college when we moved to North Carolina. That's what happens when you're eleven years apart in age. We referred to ourselves as "two only children", having had our parents largely to ourselves for most of the time. We also referred to "your father" or "my mother", and as I look through this post, I see that I still do that.
My mother has told me that she was much stricter with Curtis than with me, that he got spankings and reprimands from her as his behavior demanded it. She did a lot of the initial raising of him as he was born in 1945 when my father was still serving in the Pacific. She has told me about his friends; Ricky and Alden and little Craigie Craig, whose parents kept sheep in their yard to keep their lawn mowed but with much less successful results than they'd hoped. Their whole existence, Mom, Dad and Curt (as he was called then), ten-plus years before I was born, seems like another family. My memories begin with a whole different house in a whole different town, my father having begun a new career as a banker, post WWII and an absent older brother.
I try to picture my brother sometimes: not the arch, caustic New Yorker who lived blocks from me for a decade in the 1980's whom I never saw much of, but the six-year-old child, on the floor in the Connecticut living room, playing with his cars. They didn't have a television set in the house until after I was born. Curt played with his toys and read what must have amounted to a thousand books, most of which are still in the basement of my parents' place. He had musical instruments in the house, and he eventually acquired a small accordion, though it was the upright piano and the pump organ that got the most of his attention. He sang in choirs in his churches and in glee clubs in his schools. He painted pictures and did linoleum woodcuts.
Curtis did most of the things kids in the early 1950's did, the things we now see in old illustrations or outdated textbooks and catalogs, stuff that seems so primitive and low-tech that we find it arcane and funny. But that's just how it was then, that's what was there for Curtis and his buddies to do.
I miss my brother, even though you could never say we were very close. When I see my parents these days, I know that he is never very far from their thoughts, the injustice and unrelenting cruelty of one's child predeceasing them close to the surface at all times. I wish Curtis was around to talk with about Mother and Dad, but I'm on my own with them now. He was a particularly good and dutiful son to his parents, and that's something he's left for me to try to achieve as well. Sometimes I imagine what he might suggest when I'm at a loss for ideas myself.
But were he around, I could never ask him what he was like as a kid. Curtis would draw himself up, snort and sneer and say "waaallllll...." and then snicker and change the subject, like there was some big secret about it that I was not ever to be a party to as the younger brother.
And a secret it has become, like the smiling faces in an old unidentified photo in someone else's family's album.
Happy Birthday, Curtis. I love you.
your little brother Peter