It is 1981, I am eleven years old and holding a photograph. It is about four by four inches square, glossy, with 1969 written along the white rim. I found it in a box of photos I’d never seen before, in a storage area of the garage I’d never combed through before. I’m doing research for a school project, to write our own autobiographies. While I think the assignment is dumb, I’m wondering how I can make my childhood sound more interesting than it is.
In the photo, a string of Christmas cards lines the wall behind a young boy sitting on the back of a couch. He’s wearing a patterned two-piece pajama set, happily holding a Jungle Book board game. Next to him is an adolescent girl in her blue nightgown and matching robe, a barrette keeping her hair back, smiling demurely with her hands neatly folded on her lap. In front of her on the couch is a little girl of four or so, grinning widely and holding a Winnie the Pooh board game. And next to her is a teenaged boy with a sleepy smile in a green and blue plaid bathrobe. I recognize the last three children as my older sisters and brother. But I do not know the first child, which is why I am standing in front of my mother with the photograph.
“Who is this boy, mom?”
“What boy?” she replies.
My mother is not looking at me, she is standing at the stove, stirring an enormous pot of sauce. It’s Wednesday, spaghetti night at my house, and the smell of fried peppers and onions hangs like a fog in the kitchen. When she finally looks down at the picture I am holding, I see a look on her face that first confuses and then scares me. My mother turns back to the stove and begins adding meatballs to the sauce.
“That was Steven. He was your brother. He died.”
Then she adds, “Set the table, dinner is almost ready.”
After I silently put the plates and silverware on the table, I go back downstairs to the closet where I spend a lot of my free time. It is underneath the stairs of our split-entry house and goes back about eight feet from the door. Inside, there is a mixture of Dad’s old National Guard uniforms and Mom’s special occasion dresses hanging in plastic wrap, not likely to be worn again. Along the wall are a few more storage boxes. I look at these differently now, wondering what mysteries could be inside. I crawl beyond them, to a secret refuge where I spend my free time reading books and licking Tang off my finger, after dipping it in the jar I have stashed there.
I turn on my flashlight to look at the picture again, this time more closely, investigating.
That little boy is my brother. Was my brother. And my family had a life with him before they had a life with me.
Turns out my childhood is interesting. I just didn’t know it yet.