By: Ellen Umansky
Years ago, my younger brother and I attended the wedding of a childhood friend, held on a high floor of a stylish San Francisco hotel. We were standing by the floor-to-ceiling windows, joking with each other, when the sister of the groom approached.
“You guys are so close,” she said. “It must be nice. Tell me, what can I do to make my daughters as close as you are?” Her tone was light, but her eyes were searching.
“You want to know?” Eric said. “I’ll tell you: You and your husband should separate, then go through an ugly divorce. That’ll bring your kids together.”
I cracked up.
“Oh,” she said uncertainly.
“I didn’t say it would be easy,” he added.
I laughed again.
The lights of San Francisco spread below us, the dark waters of the bay eddying beyond. I remember the hesitation in our friend’s voice, the half-smile fixed on her face. Eric spoke to her, but his words were for me, as if he were saying: This is our history. We can claim it and make fun of it.
It was snarky and dark, but freeing too, and it made me love him all the more.
“What? No,” Eric said recently when I reminded him of this. “That’s obnoxious. I didn’t say that.”
“You did! I remember it exactly.”
“I wouldn’t have.” But finally he shrugged. “Well, it’s not untrue,” he said. And we moved on, as we usually do.
When our parents separated, I was 9, my older brother, David, was 12 and Eric was 6. Our parents, who had previously contained their strife behind closed doors, now no longer had the energy or the will. They loved us deeply, but there were battles to be won — emotional, reputational, financial. No one behaved well.
My father moved first to a nearby apartment and then to a house while we stayed put with our mother in our home in the hills of Los Angeles. Ours was a typical ’80s arrangement; we spent every other weekend with our father and had dinners out with him on Wednesday evenings.
As we tried to adjust to our new reality — shuttling back and forth between households, trying to tune out the fights about money and the sharpness with which they now spoke to each other — my brothers were my one constant and comfort.
With little awareness that we were doing it, we created a family within a family. My siblings were my allies. We had our roles. David became our negotiator, the one who dealt with our parents and the endlessly fraught calendar requests. He was the stalwart who communicated less-than-pleasant news.
Eric became the cutup. We taught him to greet a younger woman our father was dating by saying, “Hey, Sis.” Once, when he was 8 or 9, he begged for a Casio calculator watch that my father wouldn’t buy for him. I’m sure my father had good reason to say no. But what I remember most was Eric’s crying and my white-hot clarity that he needed protecting and I was the one to do it.
“Why can’t you be nicer about it?” I screamed — me, who hated arguing above all. “Why do you have to be so mean?”
My siblings and I bickered constantly. We fought physically. I have a scar on my right hand from an altercation at my grandparents’ house when David, furious, threw me against a cabinet. We were often left to our own devices with little parental supervision; David and I once cajoled Eric to cram himself into our clothes dryer. Another time we folded him up in the sleeper couch, just to see what would happen. (He was fine!)
My brothers took great pleasure in teasing me for my love of “Little House on the Prairie” and “General Hospital,” for my constant reading, for my crush on the Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax.
But we were comrades. When David got his driver’s license at 16, his newfound freedom extended to us. Now he was the one taking us from one house to the other, enabling us to avoid those awkward parental handoffs.
I still remember the spiraling fear I felt when we dropped David off for the first time at his college dorm less than a hundred miles away. Who would arrange Wednesday night dinners with Dad? What would we do with him gone?
As we entered adulthood and moved to different parts of the country, we didn’t need one another as much, but we realized something: We wanted to spend time together. We took a trip without our parents, rafting in southern Oregon. We mused about how nice it would be if we lived in the same city.
When I was going through a rough time in my mid-20s, it was my kid brother, newly graduated from college, who came and slept on the floor of my tiny apartment, not because I had asked him to but because he sensed that I didn’t want to be alone.
Now we’re squarely in middle age, with families of our own. Our parents moved on from the bitterness; they both remarried, happily, years ago. For us, though, the time of their divorce remains a potent point of reference, a shared experience that offers a wellspring of barbed humor.
We three now live thousands of miles from where we grew up but within a few miles of one another, just as we talked about when we were younger. We’ve rented summer houses together; for a time, Eric and I worked at the same magazine — our offices shared a wall. Team Umansky, my husband calls us.
That closeness gives me a solace I wish I hadn’t had such a need for recently. Five years ago, at age 69, our mother learned she had a rare, aggressive cancer, and in that brutal, overwhelming period, we three relied on one another, taking turns visiting, sharing what little information we had.
Last January, she passed away, and since then, the three of us said Kaddish, the Jewish prayer that one traditionally recites for 11 months after the death of a parent. Often we went to services together. Afterward we would gossip and get pricey coffee, and avoid our responsibilities, joking about how our mother would approve.
Of course she would. When you recite Kaddish as a mourner, you stand while everyone else in the congregation remains seated. In the months after she died, as I rose to say the short prayer, the holidays she loved passed, and my birthday and hers too, and still she was gone. I would glance out the synagogue window at the tree branches — bare when she died last winter, then full and resplendent for months, and now skeletal again.
This passage of time feels at once inconceivable and heartbreakingly normal. I miss my mother beyond measure, and during Kaddish I became lost in my thoughts, in my own private mourning. But I stood with my brothers. I heard their voices chanting too.
One time, I walked into services, and a woman who is a regular whispered to me, “Your brothers aren’t here yet.” And my heart swelled a little at the idea that even people who barely know me see me as part of this unit.
A few months ago, I was at a child’s party, and a mother there was lamenting how her young daughters didn’t get along. “It’s a parenting fail,” she said.
I thought of telling the same divorce joke my brother had made, but I didn’t. I wish I had said what I truly believed, that these things can’t be forced. The best you can do is step back and let alchemy take over.
A couple of years after the divorce, David and I were in our backyard, where he and a friend were fixing up a tiny, one-man sailboat they’d bought, painting it red. Our kitchen faced the backyard, with a big window over the sink, and when David went in to wash his hands, I had a decent view of him.
He turned on the sink disposal; I heard the grinding noise, and then — I’ll never forget it — he began screaming, holding up his red, dripping hands.
I shrieked. His hands, caught, mangled! The terror: It still manages to turn my skin cold.
Then he pulled open the screen door with disarming ease and bounded outside, laughing.
“It’s a joke; it’s just the paint,” he said, coming over. “See? I’m fine, I’m completely fine.”
“I hate you,” I said, crying, turning away from him, my heart knotted up in equal parts fear and fury. “I really, really hate you.”
I have two daughters of my own now, three years apart, as my brothers and I are. My daughters are nothing alike. They rarely play together. They are not each other’s best friends. But in moments of true despair, I have seen them reach for each other. And for that, I’m grateful. The rest we will just have to see.