A few months after I turned eight, my brother married a girl from “the wrong side of the tracks.” It wasn’t that she was a bad girl or anything like that but just that she came from up in the hills which, in the south, is not a good thing. Family squabbles aside, I just didn’t like her because she was taking my big brother away. I grew out of that eventually, of course, and have thousands of fond memories of spending summer days with her family. They were dairy farmers back then and owned almost all of an entire mountain so it became a natural place to wile away long, hot summer days. We would go four wheeling across acres of land, cool off in the natural swimming holes cut by eons of water spilling over granite. We got put to work as well – milking cows until it became automated, picking vegetables in the garden, hauling hay and the normal every day farm chores required of a working family farm. In retrospect, it was summers that only happen in literature.
Since they were related to my brother by marriage, they were actually no kin of mine. But as can only happen in the small town south, they embraced me as if I was one of their own. Her brothers (so much older than I) picked on me incessantly, tugging pigtails and dunking me under the cold mountain streams. We would fight over the last big of home churned ice cream or blame each other on which one of us spilled the milk that particular morning. Years went on and we all got older but that sense of childhood was never lost: the two brothers, more than any of the family, could never seem to just “grow up” and I loved that about them.
Memories tend to turn rose colored after awhile and sometimes I wish the bad times we had could be erased to only leave me with the good. Unfortunately, I remember those times just as clearly. I remember the police knocking on their doors in the middle of the night to haul them in. I remember arguments in the front yard that became so heated shotguns became the solution. I remember one brother who treated his hunting dogs better than he treated his own wife and kids, remember penning letters of parole release for the other. I remember the good and the bad which, I suppose, gives me a greater understanding than those who tend to block portions out.
A decade away from those long summer nights on the mountain, I joined one of the brothers on a late night drive to talk of his daughter. We ended up talking until dawn and then driving straight to the hovel in which she was living with her drugged addicted mom and proceeded to pack her up and move her out of that environment. That summer, I guess, was the summer when I turned from being someone’s little sister into something more. Of course, with the age difference, we avoided my family and his: my brother and his sister were never to know of the relationship we had. In the fall, he was sent off to prison again and we parted with the same, happy familiarity as if nothing had ever changed: he tugged my pigtails, I punched him playfully in the stomach.
Fast forward a few more years and my brother is divorced after a hard, bitter situation. Her family though? Still attached, still welcoming, still inviting us both to Sunday dinner if we ever wanted to come. I lose touch with them, growing older and trying to find my own place in the world. I still keep up with news about them but never manage to see the brothers. Then one dies. And now, the other. I’m hard placed to explain my belonging at a funeral especially considering it was the brother that I didn’t have the fondest memories of. It was my nephew who asked me to come, to be beside him and help him get through it. For him, I agreed no matter how I wondered what it would be like to stand among people who were once family but were no more; how hard it would be to explain why I was attending this funeral and hadn’t attended the one of the brother who I had spent so many dusk to dawns with; how awkward it might be to see the children I’d never met of these men who played so much a part of my childhood. But then I asked myself if it really mattered what any of these people think and I knew it didn’t. The brothers knew. They would remember. And so will I.