Friday, October 30, 2015

Barry Moser's We Were Brothers:
"Let Them Grow Together"

Here's serendipity: on the same morning that I finish reading a memoir of brotherhood, I read a gospel meditation that turns on memory and the phrase "let them grow together." .

Jesus' parable of the weeds sown among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) gets a new spin in today's meditation by Christine McSpadden in Forward Day by Day.  When the landowner directs his servants to let both crops "grow up together" until the weeds can be reaped and burned, I've always taken that for an image of retribution for unrepentant sinners.  But McSpadden applies the landowner's wisdom to something in all of us, our memories.  She writes
Very often, the core of our stories begins in childhood, and over time we sort through experiences, aligning them with that core or discarding them.  We compose a narrative line, cobbling together even the most disparate of fragments, weaving meaning and purpose into our stories.  Over time, we create a cohesive tapestry of identity for ourselves. ...Then, as we go forward in our lives and ministries, we can choose again those bits that give life, hope, vitality, and promise. (Aug-Oct 2015. p. 92)
McSpadden's view fits what I've learned in the Episcopal Church's "Education for Ministry" program, for which participants re-examine their life stories regularly, looking for threads, especially any sign of God's influence.

In the new memoir We Were Brothers by famed book illustrator Barry Moser, brothers growing together turn out very differently.  In adulthood, one is a cosmopolitan artist known to readers of The New York Times Review of Books while the other is a small-town banker and overt racist.

Writing perhaps in the same way that he makes his famed wood cuts, Moser sketches the whole story in early chapters before filling details in second and third passes over the same outline.  His was a genteel Chattanooga family fallen on harder times; he and brother Tommy were apart three years but only one grade at the local military academy Baylor; by mid-book, we understand how the older brother bullied the younger one; by the end of the book, we've read bloody details of their most memorable fights.  Through all, Moser traces a theme of the family's relations with African Americans: Klan members, yet cordial to individuals such as the mother's best friend Verneta.

As the meditation on the parable suggests, however, Moser's memories differ significantly from his brother's, as they discover in a remarkable set of long letters to each other that bring reconciliation after years of estrangement.   

Moser naturally illustrates his own memoir with delicate renderings of family photos. His own writing gives us more than the visual.  Here is a complicated incident where the stepdad, evidently fed up with young Barry's hiccups, pulls the family car over, kicks the boy out, and drives away.  Sure, he comes right back -- it was all to cure the hiccups -- but the damage is done:

Daddy kissed me -- smooched me, actually -- several times, put me down, and opened the back door.  I snuffled my way back up onto the backseat behind Mother.  Tommy wouldn't look at me.  He was crying.  Daddy picked up my shoe and put it on my foot before he closed the door and drove on. (286)
The fight scenes are tremendous!  There's a big fight in the basement when mother sends the stern uncle in to stop the teenaged boys:

...but perhaps our shared, pent-up anger at him for his years of sullenness and irascibility toward us kicked in.  No matter, we took him by his arms, dragged him out onto the front porch, and threw him bodily into the front yard... (1042) 

...and kept fighting.

I'm hardly estranged from my own brother, but I can attest that Moser's tale is universal.  For that matter, so can the Bible, in every story of brothers from Cain and Abel to James and John: Rivalry, shared interests, common memories, conscious differentiations, and affection.  Once after I'd beaten him up one afternoon in second grade, Mom told me that he'd spent all afternoon waiting for big brother to come home from school.  I never think of him without thinking of that! At a crucial time in our twenties, he shared his perspective on our lives, stunning me:  I'd had no idea.

[Photo:  This is my favorite among all our family photos. I remember coming home from the bus stop after a day at first grade, to find the photographer at our home.  ]

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