The Sum of Our Differences Equals Mom

Creative Nonfiction by Andrew Sarewitz

The Sum of Our Differences Equals Mom

Just as a person may have unexpected contradictions to his temperament, two very different men can each mirror an individual they know well. My oldest sibling told me he sees himself as being a lot like our mother. It’s not that I didn’t believe him, I simply thought I was the one who wore the analogous traits. Since my brother and I practically live opposing lives, I hadn’t thought we both could carry on Mom’s personality. Mom died in 2014.

====

Steve (that’s my brother’s name) and I agree that Mom was both loving and prone to unconstrained screaming. More than ten years apart in age, when we compared our upbringings, we each felt fully embraced in her warmth as well as scared shitless of her anger. Apprehensive as we had been of pissing her off, we never felt unloved or unsafe in her presence. We were afraid of her temper, but not of her.

I asked Steve if he would mind taking the time to write how he felt he was like Mom. When his pages arrived, I read them several times. What was enlightening were the paragraphs that unearthed private pieces of my brother that I hadn’t known. I understood the phenomenal influences Mom had on his life and how deeply he loved her. But influence isn’t necessarily similarity.

Then I wrote all that I felt Mother and I had in common (I tended to call her “Mother,” Steve called her “Mom”). It wasn’t a long list. Ideals, certain people and philosophies we agreed upon — and our both having big mouths. On that specifically, I would laugh when my mother observed in someone she’d met: “she’s a very nice person, but she’s a compulsive talker.” I’d say under my breath, “How can you tell? You never shut up!”

Beyond that, I now think she and I were not much the same — though in early photos of us together, we looked a lot alike.

Breaking it down, brother to brother, Steve and I are categorically different:

Steve:

The oldest sibling, by more than ten years

Andrew: The youngest of four

Steve:

A teen of the ‘60’s

Andrew: A child of the 60’s

Steve:

Overachiever

Andrew: Over-talker

Steve:

Happily married

Andrew: Permanently single

Steve:

Straight

Andrew: Gay

Steve:

Financially conservative

Andrew: Financially irresponsible

Steve:

Father of three

Andrew: Parent to none

Steve:

Honest

Andrew: Honest...sometimes

A few comparable qualities:

Steve: Good listener

Andrew: Good listener

Steve: A good friend

Andrew: A good friend

Steve: Full head of hair

Andrew: Full head of hair

Andrew and Steve

S. Orange, NJ: Summer, 1967

====

The stereotypes that apply to how we were raised — or “bred:” a word my father often used which sent my eyes rolling — being the oldest, Steve answered the call as expected or demanded by our parents. He earned very good grades in school, scored well on exams, was accepted to an Ivy League university, followed by attending an Ivy League medical school. Since that should also have made him quite a good catch, on our mother’s map, he should have met a woman and married easily. It may be news to him if he’s reading this, but Mother actually voiced that if he didn’t meet the right woman before he turned thirty, he would have to settle. Those were the only options? If she first explained that to me when I was thirteen, Steve would have been twenty-three or twenty-four. At my age, I didn’t know to question this societal more coming from a parent. But he did meet the “right” woman (in all our opinions) at around the thirty-year mark, married and had three children. She isn’t Jewish, but my mother was so relieved that she might finally have grandchildren the cultural backdrop was downgraded considerably. I’m not sure if you can call this ironic, but on the day of Steve’s rehearsal dinner, our sister told me she had fallen in love with a woman. This would mean that among the siblings, two would be straight, two gay. Not exactly an etiquette handbook’s illustration of the perfect family.

====

As to academic achievements, it’s probably fortuitous I am the youngest. I’m not dyslexic (though I sometimes invert numbers and words), but I have reading, comprehension and concentration troubles: afflictions not investigated back in the ‘60s and ‘70’s. You were just diagnosed by teachers as lazy or easily distracted. Though it was never my dream, I am aware that it would have been close to impossible for me to make it through law or medical school. If a professor said to read seventy-five pages overnight, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that feat easily; let alone repeat it day after day for years.

I was also lucky because my siblings, particularly Dan, the brother right above me, told my parents to ease up on me. I was going to forge through life differently so they should try to accept and support that. Politely, that also means I was far from an intellectual. The embarrassing truth coming from such a family as mine is that my English and Math SAT scores didn’t equal 800 added together. I still don’t know how the hell I got into college.

If Steve fit the expectations of the oldest child, I fell into categories boxed for the youngest, which included being a “mama’s boy.” My mother told me that each of my three siblings, at some point, told her I was spoiled. By the time I entered my freshman year in high school, Dan had left for college. For all intents and purposes, I was an only child for the next four years. Mom and Dad were older and more relaxed as parents. Where some in my position felt abandoned, I loved it, which probably points to the solid foundation of selfishness in my behavior.

====

In common with Mother, Steve and I do share “great conversation.” Steve wrote that during his high school years, he and Mom would have long talks in the evenings, after we younger siblings were put to bed. Dad, a medical physician, regularly worked late hours. Steve filled a void for Mom during these nights of unenviable solitude and it turned into a bond between them that continued long after he left home. I never knew. Steve left for college when I was eight.

I had always presumed that Steve and Dad were similar and quite close. When Steve came back home to New Jersey for visits, he and our father would talk medicine and theories at the dinner table using a jargon as foreign sounding to me as Yiddish. Though it’s another story already written, Dad and I shared very little. As adults, he and I became good friends: a project my father initiated and leaned into. But I would learn, as Steve and I got to know each other, that Steve had a bridled anger towards our father I hadn’t seen. Certain steadfast decisions were systematically cultivated by Dad during Steve’s youth. Later, when opening his eyes to that evidence, resentment and even fury bled into his pores. Steve may have an enviable life: one he can appreciate. But that doesn’t diminish the realization that the choices weren’t altogether his own.

====

Though exhibited in different extremes, Steve and I both had anxious, sleepless nights while in high school. Maybe that’s not so unusual. Mine were glaring and uncovered: he kept his stealthy. Both of us endured significant misery. But unlike Steve, I was visibly social. In general, everyone at school knew who I was. It’s seems like an oxymoron, but I was mercilessly bullied for being affected, while simultaneously being popular. Steve’s nerves were raw from academic pressures. Though that added weight on my shoulders, my memory points to the stigma of being “different” as the electrified socket fueling my teenage trauma. I still have a hard time reconciling that I both loved and hated being sixteen. I didn’t want that era to end while at the same time, during school hours, I was scared to death. Both sides are true. This was my balancing act until I graduated.

====

I was surprised Steve didn’t bring up his love for his children, since that’s the most obvious similarity to Mom: parental devotion. For Mother, the only thing as (or more) important as a good marriage was being a parent. I’m sure she would say “children first, husband second,” but I’d argue the point, having seen her marriage. It’s not a fair comparison. It shouldn’t be a contest at all. It’s like asking “if you could only save one, whom would you pick?” Any parent will say their child. The design for Mother’s happiness and how she judged others was based upon these two premises. To this day, I fight the notion that I’m “less than” because I’m single and not a father. This is not an essay to defend my self-worth, but on this tack, Steve wins, hands down. The first time I remember seeing my brother completely comfortable in his own skin was after his first daughter was born. His adoration was clear and natural. Steve was made for this. He listened intently, even when his kids were quite young. He never talked down to them or used baby talk to communicate. And as adults, all three of his daughters are formidable individuals. Not that I’m biased... And from how they act and what they have said, they each worship him.

====

Maybe this had to be admired by an outsider, but there is another quality Steve shared with Mom. Unquestionable trust.

It doesn’t take great intuition to see both Steve and I miss Mom tremendously. Being loved and liked by her. Taking long walks with her. Sitting in her kitchen and talking to her. And she taught each of us by example how to be a good friend. Over the years, some cherished family and friends performed pretty aggressive actions toward her. Where in my over-sensitivity, I slam the door shut, Mom would keep relationships active. She didn’t forget, but she smiled and held out her hand in genuine peace. Something happens to me when I decide I’m being attacked. There are repercussions to things said and actions done. It’s an unrelenting edge to my personality unleashed when a line is crossed. I’m not proud of this. The one exception for me was Mother. She didn’t fight fair, but I always came back.

====

Early on in Steve’s marriage, before his first daughter was born, his sister-in-law suffered a horrific accident. It might have been better had she not survived — her mother told me that, more than once. She also told me Steve was a Godsend. He was support system, shoulder, scientist, arbiter, conscience and voice of reason. Their family already loved him, but this elevated Steve to a higher, permanent light. I don’t think his opting out was even a consideration. It’s not in his genes. My mother would have done the same.

Like anyone who’s lived fully, our mother was a complicated person with a host of contradictions. But for the most part, I felt she was always on my side. My brother Dan once asked me if I remember Mom being funny. When I said I had, he narrowed the subject further and asked if she told funny stories or jokes. I had to think about it. She and I often laughed to the point of tears when we were together. Dan is one of the funniest people I know. A jester and a joke teller, and the main reason why I hate puns to this day. He could make Mother laugh like no one else. Even when she was furious at him, he’d turn on his hilarious charm and, exasperated, she’d crack and say “ugh.........!” and give in to laughter.

What Steve and I may or may not have had in common with Mom is less important than the fact that I believe she is the reason why he and I have a solid relationship. Knowing me well, toward the end of her life, Mother said she was afraid that after she and Dad left this Earth, I would never see my siblings again. She wasn’t wrong. Leaving my relationship with my other relatives aside, Steve has made a conscious and physical effort to have and keep the family together, even if it’s on an individual basis. Once or twice a year, he comes East from Seattle to see his siblings and various other relatives. I have made no effort beyond carving out time for him when he’s in town. And I’m thankful. I may have decided that my long-time friends are my family, but I’m grateful to have Steve in my life. And part of that is his reminding me of Mom.

====

Twenty-five years ago, Steve and I visited our parents at the home where we grew up. We took a walk up the hill, past the beautiful architecture of century-old homes set back on manicured lawns, bordering the wooded area we were so fortunate to have as a playground. I asked Steve if he could go back in time and make different choices, would he? Without giving it a thought he said, “Absolutely.” I was surprised. I think of Steve as having it all.

“What would you want to do?” I asked.

He responded, “I’d be a writer.”

About the Author

Andrew Sarewitz

Website

Andrew Sarewitz has written several short stories (links to published work at www.andrewsarewitz.com) as well as scripts for various media. His play, Madame Andrèe, received an Honorable Mention from both the 2018 Writers Digest Competition, Play/Screenplay Division, and the 2018 New Works of Merit Contest (Loyola University, New Orleans), as well as garnering First Prize from Stage to Screen New Playwrights in San Jose, CA, winning the honor of opening the festival series in August 2019. The script for his play Five Men, Four Beds advanced to the Second Round at the 2019 Austin Film Festival Competition and Andrew’s spec script for his sitcom, The White House, was a Finalist in the 2019 Pitch Now Screenplay Competition.
Visit his website for a list of published and award winning short stories.