Contemplating a brother long lost

Real Life


The last time I saw my oldest brother was when he left for college.

He was 16, and I was 7 going on 8. Now I'm 53.

It was around Labor Day, 1960, and my brother, Steve, was heading off to Cornell University, our father's alma mater. Steve was smart, possibly brilliant. Pushed to excel, he had skipped two grades in school, setting a standard that his five younger siblings would be expected to match, if not surpass. He won all kinds of academic honors, and scholarships that paid for college.

He was also immature and angry -- angry at our father for the family's reduced circumstances, at his brothers and sister for just, well, existing. He spoke harshly to our mother. He delighted in jumping out from behind doors to make me scream. He seemed awfully interested in guns.

I never knew what happened, but after Steve left for college he never came home. His first Christmas away, our mother sent him a fruitcake, and all she got in reply was a terse "Dear Mrs. Merritt: Thank you for the fruitcake."

Years passed, and Steve was not heard from. I know my parents discussed Steve with my paternal grandmother, who was intent on finding a resolution. But they had little to say about Steve to any of the rest of us, and my youngest brothers, who were very small when he left, came to regard him as not quite real.

Then, in the spring of 1969, Steve called my father and talked about visiting us in upstate New York on his way to a marksmanship competition in Ohio. My mother called Steve that night, but it was awkward for her.

The visit never happened.

By then, we learned, Steve was living in the Washington area. He had gotten a bachelor's degree and two master's, and served in the Army. He had some kind of civilian job with the military.

During a stop in Washington on spring break in 1972, I called Steve. He didn't want to see me.

The next year, my other older brother, Bill, not only saw Steve but stayed with him for a couple days. It didn't go that well, and they didn't see each other again.

In 1974, my parents moved to Maryland, close to Steve's presumed whereabouts, but neither made an effort to connect with him.

In 1986, a colleague who was also a Cornell graduate tracked down Steve's latest address, and I wrote him with updates about the family, telling him about my marriage and my newspaper work. I never heard back.

In 1994, my father died, estranged not only from Steve but also from two of my other siblings. Bill called what we thought was Steve's number to report the death, but the man who answered the phone wouldn't acknowledge the connection.

Today, Steve, if he is still alive, is 62. Is he married? A father? A grandfather? I have no idea. I did Google his name twice, but didn't turn up much. It's possible he changed his name.

Will I ever see Steve again? I don't think so. I'm not sure I want to -- and I doubt he would want it to happen.

I used to wish for a reconciliation for my mother's sake, but she's too frail and confused to handle it now.

Once, when she was still in good health, I asked my mother what harsh words had passed between Steve and my father to cause such a total break.

Her response came in the form of a question:

"What makes you think they said anything?"

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