An Influence

by Rebecca Eisenberg

Published In Genesis, A Stanford Writing Journal

May, 1987

"Becky, your brother's on the line!" the voice boomed down my hallway.

Something had to be awry.

Although my older sister, Julie, and I had always been pretty close growing up, my older brother and I never stopped arguing, telling on each other, insulting one another, calling each other nasty names, and complaining about each other. I think that the cause of our poor relationship may link back to when he was 5 and a half, and my sister was six and a half, and I was born, usurping Joey's position as the youngest child. Or else, perhaps he just had a chronic case of "middle child syndrome," in which the middle children feel left out, ignored, and of far less consequence than the oldest and youngest. Whatever the cause may have been, the nicest words we used to say to each other were probably "Get out of the bathroom--now!" That's why I had a very difficult time in responding, "Me?" (even though I am the only person named Becky in my household) when the phone rang the day before I left for college, and my father told me it was Joey calling--for me.

Mine was a family of true individualists, but my brother was always unlike anyone I have ever seen. I never could understand why throughout his junior year in high school he adamantly insisted on wearing only baggy blue pajamas whenever he went out with his friends at night. Although it never seemed to bother his buddies, I was gnawed away at by the fact that he refused to put on street clothes. I also tended to be bothered by his abnormal eating habits. I dreaded each time our family ate at restaurants. For no matter whether we chose to dine at Denny's or Maxine's, he always ordered a side dish of cottage cheese with every meal--and he always insisted to the waiter that it had to be large curd, or he would not touch it. Eating at home, however, was not much of an improvement. Along with his large curd Golden Gurnsey or Borden cottage cheese, he would consume about five oranges with every meal. He never seemed to understand why it annoyed me that he enjoyed practicing his basketball shots, throwing the orange peels directly over my head to (sometimes) land in the sink behind me.

Despite his eccentricities, my brother always seemed to be able to succeed in whatever he endeavored, especially when it came to making money. While I had never been able to earn anything greater than about five dollars a week (usually coming from babysitting), Joey's innate ability to raise funds for himself always left him with a bulging wallet. When he was in fourth grade, he created his own class newspaper, charged a quarter for a copy, and then continued to pressure his twenty-five clasmates until all of the students, plus the teacher, would break down and buy one--a week. A few years later, his screaming alarm clock woke us up at five every morning, so that he could complete his paper route of the morning Sentinel. In junior high, he began to scavenge junk yards and garage sales for beer cans, and made close to a thousand dollars selling them, while he was still in eighth grade. In high school he turned to collecting stamps, then coins, and, after investing in the stock market, was able to afford not one but three top-model bicyles--one for touring, one for racing, and one for ordinary transportation--plus a summer biking trip in Nova Scotia.

He next organized his own golf-ball business, in which he fished out balls from the mucky water traps, bleached them in our Maytag, and sold them on the greens--enough golf balls to help to finance a trip to Europe. When he wasn't combing the beaches of Lake Michigan with his metal detector in search of coins, jewelry, or any other buried treasures, he could probably be found arranging a poker match to be played until three a.m. at our house. I honestly doubt that he lost a total of ten rounds. Now his latest endeaver is in re-selling records which he buys in boxes of fifty at rummage sales. Needless to say, he was able to afford to furnish his University of Wisconsin college apartment with a thousand-dollar computer and a highly sophisticated, top of the line Bang and Olufson stereo system. These, along with his bicycles, however, really are his only expensive possessions; he always preferred to spend his money on "experiences," such as musical concerts and overseas travel. So, when he has observed me asking our parents for money, he has called me a materialistic, spoiled child. I doubt I would have been as demanding to my parents had I possessed that golden touch for money-making that he has always seemed to have. Still, he regarded all my sweaters and earrings, which my babysitting jobs couldn't supply me with, as frivolous expenditures, and my dependence on my weekly allowance as childish and irresponsible.

Not only did Joey and I disagree about my seeming inability to make or value money, but also we fought incessantly about in whose room our pet dog should sleep, who would be the first to sort through the mail or read the paper, what TV show we should watch, or how loud his stereo should be when I was sleeping or studying for final exams. When he decided to study, however, our house had to be as quiet as a mausoleum. If any of us were even quietly chatting in our bedrooms, he would scream through his doorway at us to "close the adjacent gates!" If we questioned him about which specific "adjacent gates" he was referring to, he would reply simply, "Stop harrassing me!" At least these were entire phrases---the bulk of his vocabulary consisted of Lo!" (for when answering telephones), "Yuh!" (usually meaning yes), and "Uhh!" (which we never really understood). It seemed like we could not even agree upon the primary spoken language in our household--"Joe-ese"--a code known only to him, made up mostly of semi-word pieces--or English.

Needless to say, the phone was always an object of great controversy between my brother and me. Every time he caught me picking up the receiver, he would calmly tell me that he had to make an urgent call, and I was to sacrifice my phone rights--immediately. My friends always prayed that he would not answer when they called, for instead of leaving the room he was in at the time to call me to the phone, he would simply tell them to call back, then hang up, letting the phone ring until I would finally answer the screaming machine.

Now he was waiting at the other end of this very same telephone to speak with me--I couldn't believe it. Was this same boy, who, as a freshman in high school, used to dread babysitting for me so much that he would bring me, not yet even ten, to his parties, instead of having to miss a fete, actually reaching out to me in an attempt of communication? Was this the same brother who used to wake me up in the middle of the night with scary animal noises outside of my bedroom door (along with an occasional burp or two), who messed up my bathroom, who hogged the kitchen table and microwave when I was starving for a snack, who used up my natural henna shampoo, who ate my last piece of sweet-sixteen birthday cake?

Yes, this was the same brother who showed up for my speech at eighth-grade graduation (even though he promised he was busy that night), who never let me flirt with his good-looking friends, who threatened to call Yale when they didn't accept me. This is the same brother who proved to me by example that it is all right to write a graduation speech in the form of a humorous poem, to to wear four watches at once even though fashion dictates only one, to stick with vegetarianism for nine years of my life, even while being teased by my peers, to ask a boy to the prom (and then change my mind), to attend a college two thousand miles from my home and my family. This same brother, who taught me to be an individual by being one himself, was now waiting for me on the other end of my Mickey Mouse receiver.

"Hi, Joey."

"Becky, I just wanted to wish you good luck in California. I love you."

We had suspected it from the beginning.

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Copyright 1996 Rebecca Eisenberg